High School Students Take On Theatrical Challenge

05/19/10 5:30PM By Charlotte Albright
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(Host) Most playwrights need at least an hour on stage to create a fictional world that an audience can buy into.

At North Country Union High School in Newport this spring, students took on an even bigger challenge-to write a ten-minute play good enough to be presented by professional actors at the historic Haskell Opera House in Derby Line.

VPR's Charlotte Albright recently sat in on a classroom workshop.                       

(Albright) Working in pairs or groups, about 20 students in a class called "Contemporary Voices" have been collaborating on scripts that are now vying for a place on the Haskell Stage. 

Susan-Lynn Johns is one of the Haskell's resident acting company - QNEK - who has been coaching the young playwrights to do something she says is far from easy:

(Johns) "Because you have to establish the actors, characters, the ethos, pathos, the beginning, the conclusion, all in 10 minutes."

(Albright) High school teachers Kiah Caldwell and Gary Johnson got the project started by asking the young thespians to choose three words-an object, a place, and a feeling - on which to base their plots. Gene Ouellet and Travis Flynn got to work:

(Flynn) "And what we stuck with was ‘sinister, bedroom, and a mirror,' and we worked with that to come up with this boy, who, he really struggles with himself, he's looked down on in high school, he really didn't have a lot of friends."

(Damian Mooney) "Why do I even bother?"  (fades under)

(Albright) The boy is portrayed in the playwrighting workshop by QNEK actor Damian Mooney.

(Mooney) "... Robbie didn't do any of the work. I did! He just sat there and texted! If anything, I deserve that grade and he deserves to fail. Wish I didn't have to do my homework."

"Hey-it doesn't have to be like this!"

(Albright) That menacing whisper comes from a mirror-the boy's alter ego.

But not all the plays are quite so serious. Mindy Sawyer and Joseph Polima wrote theirs about joggers who turn out to be-well, we won't ruin the surprise-not as upstanding as they seem.

(Mooney and Kilday) "You remember that time we won the lottery?" "Yeah, that was a great day." "You know we only won $25." "But we got to go to Pizza Hut, remember?" "Yeah, but I still think we shoulda gone to Olive Garden."

(Albright) The duo solve their financial crisis-illegally.  This is not an autobiographical story.

But Owen Tatum does base HIS play on real life-sort of.  He runs every day past the house of a neighboring farmer. He's never met this hard-working man, and he finds that ironic:

(Noisy classroom)

(Tatum) "I've been running past my neighbor's house and I've just felt so strange because here's this guy who's just toiling away in the soil and basically feeding himself and I'm out on the road basically burning calories just totally. ... I have excess energy."

(Albright) But he's using some of that energy to create a play about what might happen to an old farmer who was estranged from his son-a son who, in prodigal fashion,  learns to see his family through fresh eyes. That kind of empathy is a valuable part of the playwrighting process, says NCUHS teacher, Kiah Caldwell:

(Caldwell) "These are very personal stories for these kids and it gives them a way to express what they know and what they feel in, I think, a very meaningful way."

(Albright) And the budding playwrights also hear their own work in a new way, when the actors perform it for them.  Joseph Poulima:

(Poulima) "They made it more dramatic than I imagined  in my head because I'm not an actor myself. So when they actually started to perform it I could imagine it more-it was kind of like a movie kind of thing."

(Albright) Seven of the young playwrights will get to see their work unfold that way-ten minutes at a time.

For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright.

(Host) The Page to Stage productions will be performed May 20th at the Haskell Opera House in Derby Line. The curtain rises at 7:30.

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