From Paper To Stage
CHAUTAUQUA – Many people refer to Chautauqua Institution as a ”Brigadoon:” a community which comes to life for only a very short while, and then vanishes, until its next awakening.
In fact, I recently spent two entire February days, taking part in one of the many educational programs which Chautauqua operates to enrich the communities which surround it.
In this case, my days on the grounds were part of the second phase of the Young Playwrights Program, which brought children from grades three and four to Bellinger Hall, the building which serves as a dormitory for fine arts students during the busy summer season.
Students came from Chautauqua Lake Central Schools, Panama Elementary School and Fletcher Elementary School District in the Jamestown Public Schools.
This week, I’d like to tell you about the Young Playwrights Project, including the segment of the program which has completed, the one I attended, last week, and the final one which will take place in June of 2016.
The program has been created by Florida Studio Theatre, which is a campus of several theaters in Sarasota, Fla. It has been funded by the generosity of Georgia Court, a member of the Chautauqua community and a board member of FST. It is being operated by Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of Chautauqua for programming, and by Rachel Kistler-Igo of the Programming Office at Chautauqua.
Many of my readers will be astonished at how much learning and culture exist outside the public eye at Chautauqua.
The entire Chautauqua version of the Young Playwrights Program would not be possible without the extensive and energetic participation of the Chautauqua Play Readers.
I have written several times about the active, talented and very intelligent community of participants in the Chautauqua program, who live on the grounds year-round, not only during the active nine weeks of the Chautauqua program.
One of their many excellent programs is Chautauqua Play Readers, which gets together from time to time to read and to hear plays. These always include the published plays which will be performed during the coming season by the Chautauqua Theater Company, plus other plays in which the members are simply interested.
The members may choose to be assigned roles in the plays which they read, or to be the audience for the readings. Some of their meetings are simply dramatic readings, but with increasing frequency. They do staged readings, in which the actors don’t memorize their lines, but do perform the essential activities of a script, while holding their scripts in their hands. Most of their members are year-round residents of Chautauqua, although there are some members who live outside the fence.
Year-round resident Bob McClure is the founder of the organization, and has accepted a leadership role in choosing which plays will be read, arranging for a location in which to do the readings, summoning members to readings, helping with the assignments of roles, and all the other necessary functions of operating the organization.
In addition to McClure, the members of the organization who participated in one or more elements of the Young Playwrights Program include Kate Alexander, Maureen Rovegno, Don Greenhouse, Suzanne Aldrick, Bruce Archibald, Bill Flanders, Shirley Lamancuso, Joan Battaglin, Jane Stirniman, Carole Reeder, Don Greenhouse, Bob Battaglin, David Tabish and Kathy Greenhouse.
Also, involved are: Mary Lee Talbot, Shirley Dort, Ralph Walton, Marsha Butler, Beth Archibald, Alice O’Grady, Elizabeth Lasser, Bill Flanders, Hugh Butler, Lou Wineman, Laura Damon, George Roath and Ken Aldrich.
Typing lists of names is always a risk. Those are the names I gleaned from a number of planning documents. Nobody has been included who wasn’t a participant, nor left out, on purpose.
Before beginning to tell you about the project, I knew it would help you to understand better about what was going on if I explained.
The Young Playwrights Program began with a two-day residency by teaching artists from Florida Studio Theatre, headed by the company’s Associate Director Kate Alexander. Actors appeared at each of the three participating schools, where they presented three very short plays for the students who would be participating.
The plays demonstrated how plays work, what dialog is and formed the basis for the second segment of the program. Under the supervision of their teachers, the students then began writing short plays of their own interests.
Many turned out to be the children’s envisioning of a scene from a television program or a feature film. Some were events from the writers’ lives, or stories which they had been told by a parent or a friend.
Alexander was present at Chautauqua for the second phase of the program, and she told me that one of the artistic advisors of the Young Playwrights Program is American playwright Edward Albee, author of ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe,” and dozens of other celebrated contemporary plays?
”When we started doing students’ plays from Florida, Albee became quite angry, and accused us of taking over the children’s work and editing it into something we wanted it to be,” she told me. ”We had to get the actual pages in the children’s handwriting before he accepted that these are the actual plays which they have written.”
In fact, the readers work from photocopies of the original pages which the young children have handed in to their teachers, complete with spelling errors, mis-use of words, and the like. ”Most of the student playwrights are 8 or 9 years old,” Alexander said, ”But, they watch things happen, and describe them, often with far more clarity than you might expect.”
Included in the student groups who participated were both regular classrooms, and students with various challenges to learning. Every play was done with equal focus and concentration.
When the teachers forwarded the finished plays – each of which was one or two pages in length – to Chautauqua, the plays were photocopied. Each classroom’s plays were grouped together, and assigned to one of the groups of readers.
On Feb. 8 of this year, the second phase of the project began. It lasted four days.
A chairman was assigned to each group of four or five readers. The chairman read through his assigned classroom’s collection of 15 to 20 plays in advance of the rehearsal day and tried to get a sense of each play.
The project consisted of one day in which each group read through all of its plays. Readers volunteered for specific roles, and decisions were reached for things such as how will the characters show that a bomb has been set off, or a wizard has turned one character invisible. Something as simple as having the reader turn around once can portray such a magical change without elaborate costumes or sound effects.
The young audiences seemed to have no problem with the fact that a man might need to play the role of a woman, or a young child might need to be played by a person of retirement age.
On Feb. 9, the students arrived on the Chautauqua grounds to watch their plays performed. The leader of each group would tell the name of the first play and ask the playwright to identify himself or herself. Sometimes, the readers might ask questions about their roles, and on some occasions, they found some surprises. Perhaps their character was an imaginary friend instead of a real one, for example, or in one case, a reader’s character was supposed to be a rat instead of a person.
At the beginning of each play, the leader would introduce the characters, and the reader who would be playing that character would identify himself. If the student had written more characters than there were readers, a given reader might have to raise a hand three or four times, as names were announced. Not surprisingly, the children were so used to imaginative play that they easily accepted that reader Joe played the narrator’s younger brother, then suddenly turned into the wizard before going back to being the brother.
When the acting of each story was complete, the other students in the class were encouraged to applaud the writer whose work was just performed, and then to tell something which they liked about the play. Sometimes the young writers were asked to improvise another scene for their characters. ”If Sally convinced her parents to move back to Denver, what might have happened to her next?” they might be asked.
I was astonished by the way they imagined a completely new set of events with no advance notice at all.
One play in the group I was watching involved two characters: a smartphone and an electronic tablet. The equipment had a negligent owner, who didn’t re-charge them, so they were dying, until they got the inspiration to seize hold of the cat’s fur and the cat transported them near the charger where they could restore their health.
One play involved a girl and her mother who encountered a monster under the girl’s bed. They were afraid for a while, but they learned that the monster was a vegetarian, who was only interested in becoming friends, so they all ended the day happier.
One student described a visit to Washington, D.C., by his characters and their parents, and how they went about getting aboard an airplane and seeing a new city for the first time.
The third day of the event involved the readers coming together to prepare a new classroom collection of plays. Some readers signed up to do both days of performing, while others chose to participate on days one and two or three and four.
Every student who submitted a play to be performed received an official certificate from Florida Studio Theatre.
Plays from both days were selected as winners, and will be published on the Chautauqua Institution website. Also, winning plays will be performed on June 20, when the young actors of the Chautauqua Conservatory have arrived. All the students will return to Chautauqua before the season opens and see the winning plays performed by professional actors, in front of both days’ participants. The winning production will be directed by Katie McGerr, of the faculty of Syracuse University and of the Chautauqua Theater Company.
The final production will be repeated in Smith Wilkes Hall for the general public during the 2016 Chautauqua Season as part of Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series. All performances in the Family Entertainment Series are free of charge, except for parking fees if needed, and open to the public.