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From Pitch To Production, Fundamentals Of Playwriting Taught

Playwrite students gather ideas and draw pictures that represent their characters. Clockwise from bottom are Eli Eastman, Bridgette Branch, Adriana Royo, Ollie Manross, Asher Button, Macy Winicki, Kayla Oaks, Mady Nobles, Gretchen Wiler, and Evelyn Mechling. P-J photos by Michael Zabrodsky

WARREN, Pa. — Have you ever had an idea for a play, a musical, a movie, or TV show? The words and dialogue are there, but you don’t how to format them.

Students in the Warren County School District get that chance to learn the fundamentals of playwriting — courses mostly offered in college or at a university. Students in the SLT Theatre Workshop, at Struthers Library Theatre, learn what works and what does not in a workshop format where everyone contributes.

The experience is not just talking about a printed script.

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“So this is the first time I’m doing the playwriting specific workshop, and it’s evolved over a few years,” said theatre Marking and Education Director Eric Morelli.

In 2021, Morelli, who also serves as the workshop instructor, taught playwriting as part of summer workshop that also covered the behind-the-scenes technical aspects of a production. Every piece of a production is important to that specific production.

Struthers Library Theatre, 302 W. Third Ave., in Warren, Pa. P-J photo by Michael Zabrodsky

“We spent our mornings either learning about audio, about lighting or about the stage,” Morelli added.

In the writers’ room, students in the workshop develop and enrich multiple playwriting areas throughout eight sessions, including plot, structure, character, dialogue, song, spectacle, and producibility. A unique learning experience, students in seventh through 12th grades work together to express their creativity while learning about a musical as an art form. The class will work to complete a script for the fall SLT Academy semester show.

According to strutherslibrarytheatre.org, Morelli joined the SLT team in the summer of 2019, and comes to the theatre from a musical, design, and print background. From a young age, he has been drawn to the magic of the theater.

“Well, I got interested in theater really young. My parents took me to see shows here (SLT),” he said.

He recalled how he liked the summer Playhouse at SLT.

The white board is where Eric Morelli writes down ideas that students pitched to him.

“They would have professional actors come in, and then they (the actors) work with local talent to put on productions throughout the summer. And I remember coming to see a few productions really early on — before you start to distinguish reality from fiction — and I just was totally absorbed in the world,” he said.

He remembers seeing productions of “Fiddler On The Roof”‘ and “South Pacific” and because he was a child, he believed in verthing that happened on stage

Morelli said the theme and concept were developed and students started giving their ideas. This year’s theme is candyland — loosely based off the children’s board game, but with different twists. It’s the holiday production.

“We came up with the world. We came up with the mall. We came up with the characters that inhabited the mall. And within that week, it became very apparent that their (the students’) creativity was so uninhibited that they’d be capable of doing much more with it,” Morelli said.

It was Morelli’s initial intent to write the script, but because of the enthusiasm, he will only help with it. The workshop is an educational setting and there are signups and not auditions every students will have a part in the production.

The younger students are learning to mature and work with older students, while the older students are learning to mentor and take care of the younger students, Morelli noted.

“So the theater becomes a home for a lot of them. It really is far more important than anything that I could teach them is that they find a place within this world of theater,” Morelli said.

Twelve students are registered for the workshop held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays in September , at SLT, 302 W. Third Ave..

Students arrive and begin to sit at the big idea table. Attendance is taken. After attendance is taken, Morelli leads them to the theater where he asks them to spread out. The theater is spacious enough where the students find seats at the front, back and sides. They try not to sit near anyone else. Morelli walks about the theater giving instructions. He likes what he sees and asks the students to be silent and center on one word. He dims the lights, so there are no distractions. They begin focusing on their own word that each student chose. If their minds wander, Morelli asks them to come back to their focus word.

“I want you to center yourself on one word,” Morelli tells the students.

This guided meditation lasts about 10 minutes. He brings up the lights and the students head back to the table to have productive session.

Ideas go from pitch to production as students gather to hone their playwriting skills.

During a recent session, the students drew pictures that represented their characters. The catch — each student’s character had to be based on a piece of candy. Morelli stood before the white board and began to name elements and types of candy. On the board the words gumdrops, cotton candy, marshmallow, peppermint, and lollipos were already written. These may become candy kingdoms.

“We need sour candy,” one student said.

“Sour, I heard sour” Morelli said as he smiled, and then promptly wrote it on the board.

More words followed.

The students’ banter volume increased.

Adriana Royo, an eighth grader at Beatty Warren Middle School, and Macy Winicki, a junior at Warren Area High School, traded ideas. Royo began drawing what gum would look like as a character.

Winicki enjoys the atmosphere and what the class has to offer.

“He makes sure that every kid feels comfortable and welcome, (and that) their ideas are heard,” Winicki said about Morelli.

She added that Morelli makes sure that the class is a democracy, and no student talks over another, “and that everything stays fair.”

For more information about the program call 814-723-7231 or visit strutherslibrarytheatre.org.

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