(Host) A program of short plays this weekend offers a glimpse into the creative minds of fifth and sixth graders from Vermont and New Hampshire.
It’s the Second Annual Primary Playwrights Festival at Northern Stage in White River Junction. The plays are written by kids and performed by professional actors.
VPR’s Susan Keese went backstage for a preview.
(Keese) The characters in Marykate Melanson’s play “Danger in a Bottle” include a Jack Russell terrier, a calico cat, a blue horse and a chestnut mare. Oh, and a giant spray bottle in a pink polka dot hoop skirt.
(Horse) “You don’t mean … the thing?!”
(Dog) “I’m afraid that it’s true. It will keep attacking until we take action!”
(Director) “Line out..”
(Keese) At a table offstage the director, a New York equity actor, huddles with the playwright, an 11-year-old from New Hampshire. The director nods and addresses the cast.
(Director) “Who’s the last?… yeah so you are going to follow blue….”
(He walks back) “… now take it back to the line.”
(Dog) “We’re finally ready for action! Are you ready to kick some butt? Okay!”
(Cheers, barks footsteps)”
(Keese) Melanson is one of more than 500 students in nine schools who worked with Northern Stage’s project Playwright this year. Hers is one of ten plays chosen to be performed in this weekend’s festival.
Melanson says the plays were supposed to be about family.
(Melanson) “And I was first going to do a sister-sister rivalry and then I remembered I was writing a story just on my free time about our family animals and how our dog hates water.”
(Keese) Enter the spray bottle.
(Rogers) “There’s a whole family of animals that are terrorized by this thing.”
(Keese) Playwright in residence Roxanne Rogers:
(Rogers) “And finally they figure out how to work as a family. If they work together they can approach this big scary, you know, spray bottle and ask it, why are you terrorizing our lives?”
(Keese) Rogers and her colleague Luke Krueger spent the winter visiting the schools to teach the basics of play writing.
(Rogers) “And we went in and we said, Now you have to develop characters. But they have to have objectives, they have to need something or want something. And then they have to have obstacles, what’s in their way of getting what they want?’ And then where you develop dialogue is in the action of what the character does to overcome their obstacles.”
(Keese) Northern Stage selected schools for the program that had insufficient’ scores in reading and literacy under the No Child Left behind act. The non-profit theater group says this is a different way to build confidence in reading, writing and public speaking.
It’s also a way to celebrate young artists who may pass beneath the radar in class.
Alicia Brayboy’s play is about sisters who stop fighting as they begin to understand each other’s ways of coping with their mother’s death.
(Brayboy) “It makes me proud that people thought that my play was good enough to be acted out by professional actors.”
(Hayslett) “It’s kind of funny cause grownups that usually order you around you’re like… do that and they’re like… sure.”
(Keese) In 10-year-old Ben Hayslett’s play, story book characters go on strike because they’re tired of being mis-portrayed by the media. Hayslett’s Mother says she’s never seen him work so hard on anything.
The play is full of political jokes that Ben says could go right over the heads of some of the audience.
But Alisha Brayboy thinks the plays have something for everyone.
(Bayboy) “Most of them are laugh-out-loud funny. But there are a few that are serious and make people stop and think about what’s actually going on in the world.”
(Keese) Some of the subject matter can be disturbing. One play, Only Six years Old by Cierra Leonard, deals with child abuse and foster care. New York actor Thom Miller directs this play
(Miller) “And for them to have a concept of what it is to find family out of violence is incredible and something I wouldn’t have expected.”
(Keese) Miller says working with the young playwrights has been inspiring and breathtaking — and definitely worth the effort.
For VPR Backstage, I’m Susan Keese.