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Taking Up The Pen

The Young Playwrights Project through Chautauqua Institution is back for its 5th annual implementation. The program impacts Fletcher Elementary School, Love Elementary School, Westfield Academy Central School, Panama Central School and Chautauqua Lake Central School. P-J photos by Jordan W. Patterson

Character, setting, problem and dialogue were the concepts fourth-grade students were focusing on at Fletcher Elementary School on Thursday.

In association with the Young Playwrights Project through the Visual and Performing Arts department at Chautauqua Institution, actors and volunteers pushed in during school hours to teach third- and fourth-grade students how to write a play and tell a story. The program impacts Fletcher, Love Elementary School, Chautauqua Lake Central School, Panama Central School and Westfield Academy Central School.

“We began the Young Playwrights Project five years ago with Fletcher and Chautauqua Lake elementary schools. To now be serving five schools and over 400 students is a dream come true,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of Visual and Performing Arts at Chautauqua.

The project is divided into three phases over the school year. The first phase has been underway since Oct. 15.

Third and fourth graders are taught how to write a play in the first phase. In the second phase, third grade students are brought to Chautauqua to see the plays they’ve written rehearsed by volunteers and edited if necessary.

“This is an experience youngsters almost never have with their own writing when they’re in the third grade,” said Bob McClure, community volunteer.

Ten of out of an estimated 200 plays written by third graders are selected to be performed by the Chautauqua Theater Company in June. At the performance, second-grade students from the school districts, in addition to the third- and fourth-grade students, are transported to Chautauqua to see the 10 plays performed by professional actors.

The second-grade students are invited in order to pique their interest and give them a taste for the writing work they’ll be involved with during the following school year. Lisa Gierszal, project manager of the Young Playwrights Project, described the three-phase program as cyclical regarding how the project impacts the students throughout second-,third- and fourth-grade years.

At Fletcher, the first phase of that cycle was on display as students were finishing their own plays they began writing on Wednesday. The majority of those students attended the June performance where plays written by last year’s third graders were on display.

“It’s magical and it’s intergenerational,” Gierszal said of the collaboration among the students, actors, teachers and volunteers.

The remaining students in other classrooms and schools were visited on separate days during the two-week process this year. The first-phase will finish today at Fletcher.

On Thursday, volunteers were rotating around the classroom assisting students who were deep in their own stories. Gierszal said the students can already tell a story, but the writing workshop teaches them the technical aspect of writing plays that include the characters of the story, the setting where the story unfolds, the problem the characters are challenged with and how to properly write dialogue.

On top of teaching students how to write a play, which includes grammar and vocabulary lessons, the students are able to express their own emotions through the project.

“The whole playwriting thing helps them explore emotions that are hard to work through like poverty or parents divorcing,” Gierszal said. “A lot of kids write about a lot of deep and complex issues.”

In contrast, Gierszal said the students often add a lighthearted and silly aspect to their writing where a play might feature dinosaurs with a comical premise.

Gierszal and McClure said the excitement and reward for students to potentially have their play selected and performed adds to the process. McClure told a story of a young student where that sentiment was especially true. One year, a third-grade student had her play selected during the February phase of the project for a June performance. The reward came after the student’s mother was arrested that morning with the father already being incarcerated, McClure said.

“You don’t know what’s in their little hearts,” Gierszal said. “It helps them to explore so much.”

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