Courage for the Deed with Philly Young Playwrights
—By Kathy Smith
Chris Bresky, teaching artist from Philly Young Playwrights, assures Shipley’s fifth grade class: “Those butterflies you’re feeling? They’re because you are doing something challenging. And great things come from challenges.” He is referring to the nervous air that has been percolating in the classroom ever since the students learned that guest professional actors will perform their monologues. The kids stir restlessly in their seats. One girl quietly groans, “Oh I hope they don’t read mine.”
At the end of each school year, Philly Young Playwrights hosts the Annual Playwriting Festival. Seven Shipley winners were selected from 850 play submissions.
Conor Daly – The Fossil
Roger Irwin – The Metronome of Time
Shantanu Tripathy – The Hundred Years War
Jessie Barroway – Change of Plans
Matthew Caplan – The Fear of Burgers
Andrew Brose – Egyptian Hamster
Ruby Rich – All Because of Scarlett
An actor steps up on the impromptu stage, clears his throat and brings the first anonymous playwright’s work to life:
“I hope I don’t hurt anybody today at school. Whenever I touch things, I cut them. I should put rubber or something that is soft to cover my blades so that I won’t hurt anybody. No, that won’t work. I’ll probably just cut right through it. I can’t take the chance of hurting people. I want to help things, not destroy things. I guess I should just stay away from people. All I want is to be by people but not hurt them. I’m gonna keep my blades shut all the time.”
There is the silence, and then room explodes with spontaneous applause. Chris bursts in, “Playwriting is a courageous act, so I thank you for the applause! Brave and courageous playwright, please let us know who you are.” A boy at the back of room slumps in his chair. The children in the classroom look around from face to face. The slumping boy reluctantly raises a leaden hand. It is Max Tirjan.
Warm Feedback: I noticed… I enjoyed…
“Tell us, brave and courageous playwright, how did it feel to have your play read out loud?” Chris booms when he speaks; he’s got the voice of a born stage actor.
Reluctantly Max mumbles, “I don’t think it’s any good. I hate it.”
“WHAT?!” Comes the incredulity that everyone in the room feels. And then Chris moves onto the next stage, the stage the students have all been prepped for: the feedback stage during which they celebrate the monologue with “warm feedback” using very specific responses such as “I noticed’ and “I enjoyed.”
“It’s not enough to say ‘I liked the monologue,’” Chris instructs the students. “Sure, we all want to know if you like our work. But as playwrights, we want to know why.” Hands shoot up. Children share what they noticed, what they enjoyed. Max sits a little taller.
Cool Feedback is Cool
Students then move onto “cool feedback,” which is designed to help the young playwrights consider avenues for revision and expansion. This is probably the most delicate and important part of Chris’s job. He and his team have experience in convincing students that it is not only worthwhile, but also fun to rewrite something that has already been written and turned in. They know how to demonstrate to the inexperienced writer that feedback is helpful, not hurtful. They are able to guide Shipley’s students through the minefield of self-doubt and inhibition to a point where our young students are not only willing to expose themselves through the writing and re-writing process, but actually look forward to it.
Learning and Taking a Chance
Fifth grade teacher Nicole Clancy speaks to the way in which the Philly Young Playwrights reinforces the work she does in her classroom, “There’s a tremendous amount of reinforcement of writing as a craft. With all the pieces we write, like persuasive, personal narrative, and fiction, this process lays the groundwork. Also, I notice huge differences in the motivation to write in the kids who’ve experienced Philly Young Playwrights versus those in years past who have not. This helps get them so motivated—they don’t seem to be afraid to jump in and do it.”
The Play’s NOT the Thing
Philly Young Playwrights devotes 25 hours to each fifth-grade classroom. By the end of the year, every student will write a three-scene play. Three plays from each classroom will be chosen for the Reader’s Theater, a modified production in which the plays will be performed out loud by the fifth graders. As in traditional theater, the students rehearse, practice eye contact, voice inflection, and projection, but unlike traditional theater, the focus is on the process, not a final production. “The kids build a certain confidence about being in front of other kids. It’s about increasing kids’ confidence in front of others. They feel good about themselves and that’s what it’s all about,” says Nicole.
Meanwhile, Back at the Tirjan Household…
Max’s mother, Heidi, reports about the evening’s dinner table conversation after the full Philly Young Playwrights experience: “Max was telling his Dad about his monologue and it was great to see him so proud of the work he had done! While the accolades seem like a small thing, they were huge at building Max’s confidence in his writing abilities. I believe this experience will help him take bigger risks in creative writing in the future.”
Did You Know?
The word “wright” is derived from “wrought” as in “to put together carefully.” One who “writes” plays is called a “playwright.”
And the Girl…?
As for the girl who hoped her monologue wouldn’t be read, she beamed while it was performed.
Chris’s parting words, as the students filed out of the classroom were these: “Just in case you forgot, playwriting is a brave act, and you are all brave playwrights!”
For more information on Philly Young Playwrights, please visit: www.phillyyoungplaywrights.org.