In the tradition of Shakespeare in the Park, Playwrights Project presented Live Theatre at Home in the backyard of Carmel Valley resident Lynne Bath recently.
Bath, a board member of Playwrights Project, hosted an evening of informal theatre in which three well-known local actors performed material created by both children and adults involved in the organization’s various programs.
For more than 30 years, Playwrights Project has brought playwriting to thousands of students throughout San Diego. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1985 by Deborah Salzer, with the late Edward Albee serving as Artistic Advisor. Under the leadership of Cecelia Kouma, executive director since 2007, the group’s programs have expanded to serve adults, primarily from disenfranchised communities, including seniors, the foster care community, immigrants, active military, veterans and those involved in the justice system.
“Playwrights Project is profoundly meaningful to me because its programs ignite a love of theatre in those who might never have known its magic,” said Kouma. “I am continually moved by the depth and creativity of the scripts developed by writers from all walks of life. They create characters that they care about, and they draw me into their journeys. The plays illuminate our shared humanity and help us look at the world differently.”
Students in grades 3-12 participate in Playwrights Project through their schools, learning to write individual one-act plays in their Language Arts class. At the end of the program, professional actors visit the classroom to perform readings of the students’ completed scripts.
Kouma explained that when Playwrights Project’s trained teaching artists visit classrooms they often have students write about inanimate objects so they don’t feel uncomfortable revealing too much personal information about themselves.
In fact, many of the scripts read during the Live Theatre at Home event revolved around pencils, math homework and batteries – yet they were surprisingly moving.
“The most important thing about Playwrights Project is that it gives all participants a voice,” said Kouma. “Some of their stories are shattering, but their plays celebrate resilience.”
One of the most powerful scripts of the night, “A Sorta Fairytale,” revolved around a little girl neglected by her drug-addicted mother and rescued by an unlikely hero. Written by a foster youth based on her own experience, it brought audience members to tears and caused actress Hannah Logan to ask, “Can I play a pencil now?” to lighten the mood.
“Truth is painful,” said Logan. “But not telling the stories of humanity creates a kind of wound that eats away at us and never heals. Writing can be a salvation, and assisting people in excavating stories that might otherwise remain untold or ‘stuck’ inside them brings such joy to me. It’s what compelled me to become involved with Playwrights Project.”
Actor Fred Harlow agreed. “I was cast as the father in a play called ‘The Best Mistake,’ about a teenage girl who finds out her dad can’t read. We performed it in front of a large group of people, many of whom had never seen a play before. During the talk back, a man stood up and said he was like the character I played and wanted to get help so he, too, could be the best father he could be. There were a number of people there who were involved with adult education so he was able to get the help he needed. I still get choked up telling this story.”
Writing plays and seeing their own words come to life has been therapeutic in ways their creators never expected. A man serving an 87-year prison sentence wrote about finding his dad passed out when he was a little boy. His stepmom and others, convinced his dad was drunk, told him to ignore him. By the time they called for help, his father was dead, and the police said he could have been saved if they had been notified earlier. The man had been carrying around guilt over this for decades. Only by seeing what actually happened through the other characters could he finally realize that the adults were the guilty ones and they had failed him. This was cathartic for him.
Each year, Playwrights Project holds a statewide California Young Playwrights Contest, and all young writers up to age 19 are encouraged to submit their work. Winning scripts are produced by Playwrights Project and presented as Plays by Young Writers at The Old Globe in January.
Board member Kathy Krevat read a letter from her daughter, Devyn, who, as a fifth grader, had won a staged reading of her play, “The Case of the Missing Pencil Tips,” and, as a high school senior, won a full production of her play, “Fairy Tale.”
“Thanks to Playwrights Project, I was able to see people’s reactions to my words and it ignited a passion in me,” wrote Devyn. “I will always be grateful for this experience and inspiration.”
Actor Brandon Kelley, who starred in the original production of “Fairy Tale,” was also inspired by Playwrights Project. “I feel such a strong connection with these young writers,” he said. “Having the chance to become a character that started from the mind of a child has brought out a creativity in me that I never knew existed.”
To learn more about Playwrights Project, visit www.playwrightsproject.org or call (858) 384-2970