Young Playwrights Festival

Pegasus Players

By Justin Hayford

Reviewing the Young Playwrights Festival, the annual showcase of local high school students’ one-acts, is a bit like reviewing the senior prom. You could criticize the band for being off-key and too loud (or, at my prom, for not knowing the class song), the food for being tasteless and predictable, and the jocks for dancing in a circle and ignoring their dates while calling anyone in a powder-blue tux a faggot. But no matter how disastrous an affair the prom turns out to be, no matter how much spaghetti sauce ends up splattered across white lace bodices, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage. Whatever Miss Manners or Martha Stewart would think of the occasion, the important thing is that the kids get together and pull the damn thing off.

And so it is with the Young Playwrights Festival, an exciting academic exercise for students. When I taught a six-week playwriting workshop at Von Steuben High School a few years ago, helping the senior English class develop their submissions for the competition, it was all I could do to keep the kids in their seats when they saw their words acted out in class. I watched young writers truly come to life–especially those who’d suffered years of discouragement from friends and even teachers. Besides, any 17-year-old who writes something longer than five pages and nominally coherent gets a medal in my book. Now in its tenth year, the festival attracted some 400 submissions, an inspiring creative outpouring of which Pegasus can be proud.

Judging from this year’s four winning plays, kids’ minds are gloomier than ever. These four one-acts deal with death, aggression, intimidation, and global destruction. Yet all four of the young writers stumble toward profundity with the endearing earnestness of rambunctious puppies knocking over furniture on their way to your lap. As playwright Imran Shabbaz says during a preshow voice-over, he wants his play to convey “the truth about mankind and stuff like that.”

Jeanne Sullivan’s Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder concerns a young woman who finds it necessary to reinvent her memories of an “obnoxious jerk” from grade school who’s recently died. She tries to assuage her guilt by whitewashing the guy’s self-important bullying but finally gives up and, stone-faced, tells the ghost of her ex-nemesis, “I’m sorry I’m not crying.” In Patricia Colleen Nugent’s semiautobiographical Wisdom Teeth, young Madeleine tries to work through the emotional wounds after three fellow students assault her. In one particularly chilling moment, one of her attackers wraps his arms around her and whispers, “No matter where you are, no matter who you date, I’ll be there.” In Shabbaz’s The Interrogation, a teenager falsely accused of robbery holds his own with a physically and verbally abusive cop. In an inventive metatheatrical turn, the cop launches into an invective against the arrogance of playwrights, who want to recast life in an impenetrable symbolic language. “Suppose we were characters in a play,” he groans. “What would this cigarette symbolize?” Finally, Katherinne Bardales in Aguadito creates a Peruvian family torn to shreds by the mother’s romantic obsessions and delusional optimism. A meteor barreling toward the earth with enough destructive power to end life parallels the imminent collapse of this family.

There’s no shortage of imagination in these young writers. And while they haven’t yet learned how to shape a scene, instead relying on their characters to explain the conflicts that should be dramatized, they’re confronting bigger issues than half the working playwrights in town.

It’s admirable to give students a chance to see their works staged. But as a piece of professional theater, this year’s festival is an ill-prepared embarrassment, lumbering along for two and a half hours without one interesting bit of staging or acting. If the professional directors and actors here had displayed half the creativity of the amateur playwrights, the evening might have been salvaged. But like chaperons glowering from the sidelines, the adults drain every ounce of fun from the festival. All four directors pace their plays as though sluggishness were next to godliness. Rather than helping to improve these flawed scripts–many scenes are needlessly repetitive, and there are massive gaps in logic–the directors seem content to tell their actors where to stand and when to exit. Hardly a moment of drama develops.

Next year they should let the kids direct. Pandemonium may be the result, but at least there will be signs of life onstage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Beth Sova.