Friday, February 3, 2012

Thoughts from a Playwright writing for Kids

One of the many lessons I’ve learned as a Teacher is that Ido just as much homework as my students (if not more); I want them to passtheir tests every bit as much as they do, and I’m constantly worried about myperformance in class… only from the front of it instead of crammed behind asingle-seater desk. I’ve also learned there’sno way to prove these truths to my students, and that’s probably for thebetter.
What I didn’t knowuntil this week is that all those nervous jitters I got as an aspiring middleschool thespian during the first table readings of a new play are all still therewhen you’re the adult who wrote the play (only even more nervousy and morejittery.). Attending the firstread-through of the play I wrote specifically for the talented kids at Fairview,I was a big blob of anxiety.
What if they don’t like it?
What if they don’t like me?
Why didn’t anyone laugh at that line?
Who wrote this trash?
That kid is super talented, I hope I wrote a good enoughpart for her.
As we all sat in a circle and took turns reading line byline, with everyone getting equal opportunity to speak (Socialists!), I became hyperaware of what in the script was working and what wasn’t. It reminded me of atime that Devon (Northlight's Director of Education) commissioned me to write a play for her theater company, Dogand Pony. Due to circumstances outsideof the control of the Theatre Gods, they needed a playwright, and needed onefast. I was hired last minute, andturned in a first act in just under seven days, a second act in three. At thatfirst read through, with seasoned professionals, I was nervous, sure (thescript hadn’t even been spell checked), but I knew if the whole thing fellapart on the table, everyone there would understand and have the tools to helpme put it back together. They were,after all, “lifers” who understood the often crazy nature of the business. Everyone at the table that night was fluentin a theater vernacular that would allow me to verbally sand over any of theiranxieties about the hurried outline I’d dropped in front of them and said“Okay, perform this!” I could explain itaway. I could say, “Don’t worry, thatpart’ll beef up in act two.” Or “Thatmonologue is really short-handed now. It’s more of an outline for what I wantit to be after I’ve spent more time with it,” and all would nod knowingly andtrustingly.
But kids, on the other hand, are not fools. And especially not these kids. And they’ve not yet developed the theatervernacular that allows me to explain away any of the textual issues they mayhave with the script. If somethingdoesn’t work on the page, I’m going to hear about it. Immediately. With my old bones sat on the floor in a spirit circle, every kid’s eyestrained on this thing they’d been anticipating since the beginning of theschool year, I wondered how I might explain away any issues with the story, orcharacter arc, or lack of poetic plasticity. I mean, the best I could say would maybe be “This is gonna be fun. Trustme.”
But, at the end of the read through, they did trust me. And they did have fun. Many were excited, already talking with theirfriends about who wanted which parts and which were their favorite lines. I could have been there or not. The play’s the thing! And every young actor in that circle found atleast one character that she or he wanted to bring to life.
The students are going to have fun because they aredetermined to have fun. Almost as muchfun as this grumpy old playwright will have watching them bring it tolife. But, of course, there’s no tellingthem that.

by: Philip Dawkins - Playwright of Rodeo, a commissioned play for the Northlight On Campus program at Fairview South Middle School

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