When Ruth Hutton began planning Chicago’s first citywide playwriting contest for high school students, she was advised not to expect too much.

“I called the Dramatists Guild,” Hutton says–the guild sponsors a similar project in New York–“and they said I’d get 70 entries tops the first year.” And when March 1, two weeks before the deadline for submitting scripts, rolled around, it looked like Hutton wouldn’t even come near that figure.

“But I was optimistic from the beginning,” smiles Hutton, director of special projects for Pegasus Players and coordinator of Pegasus’s Chicago Young Playwrights Festival. And by mid-March, Pegasus had tallied 130 entries, from which four plays were selected for production in a four-week engagement beginning this week.

The theater reviewers will pass judgment on the quality of the winning plays and their performances. But questions of dramatic and literary quality aside, what may be most interesting about the project is what the scripts–the losers as well as the winners–reveal about the way teenagers are looking at the world now. It’s not a very happy picture.

“I think it’s about time that young people talked about what they’re going through,” says Hutton, a 28-year-old former high school teacher who was hired by Pegasus specifically to organize the contest and festival. (The endeavor, which was open to public, private, and parochial school students, was supported by Community Development Block Grant funding and by various corporate sources.) “I’m sick of hearing panels of ‘experts’ talking about the problems of youth. This is the attempt of the kids to talk about what their lives are really like.”

Not surprisingly, the plays mostly focus on the lives of teenagers–on conflicts with parents, budding romance, pressures at school and at home–with a variety of concerns reflecting the wide demographic spectrum of the entrants. But throughout most of the scripts runs a pervasive sense that young people are faced with problems–insoluble problems. High school creative- writing efforts of the 1960s and ’70s tended to be idealistically cause oriented, optimistic about solving problems such as racism, war, drug addiction, and imbalanced male-female relationships. By contrast, the point of view generally expressed in the scripts submitted to Pegasus is best summed up by a line in one of the winning plays, Reality, by Von Steuben High School senior Michelle McFarland: “What’s new, my man, or better yet, what’s wrong?”

“I find on the whole they were a very cynical group of plays,” says Ruth Hutton. “They offered a fairly dim view of things. There’s a lot of drugs in the scripts, a lot of gang violence, a lot of teen pregnancy. And these things aren’t the central dramatic factors in the script; they’re just sort of givens”–circumstances for which there is no solution except escape.

In Reality, an offstage fire wipes out a street gang threatening the safety of the play’s protagonists, leaving the heroes free to pursue their ambitions–to escape from their inner-city neighborhood. There is no suggestion that the ‘hood itself is capable of being saved, or worth saving, unlike in plays of an earlier time in which noble young men went to college and returned to make life better for the folks they’d left behind.

Just Coolin’ Out, by Curie High School senior Keturah Shaw, revolves around the relationship between a 14-year-old girl and the 19-year-old dropout doper she is attracted to. When the boy spurns the girl, it is for her own good, to save her from following his deadend path; the best she can do is take care of herself, rather than try to help the boy find a better life.

“It was very much a symptom of the plays I read that ‘we’re in a situation’–a complex personal situation, or a social situation, like gangs–‘and we’re simply stuck in it,'” observes Chicago playwright John Logan (Hauptmann), who served as one of the readers screening scripts for a panel of celebrity judges chaired by Norman Ross. “I was very surprised by it. The plays didn’t allow people to change things.”

If there is little hope expressed in these plays of curing social ills, the view of male-female relations is none too good either. “The males seem to be very harsh,” notes Hutton. “With teen pregnancy, for instance, it’s seen as being the girl’s problem, and she’s left to cope. There are few earnest encounters between couples like you would imagine going on in the office of Planned Parenthood. The statement seems to be, men are out to use women emotionally. There’s never a whiny tone–it’s just the way it is. Terry McCabe [artistic director of Stormfield Theater], who was one of our play readers, says that the girls are the characters he remembers most vividly–they showed more psychological complexity than the men, who seemed to be the action characters. The girls seemed kind of trapped and confused.”

Almost nowhere was there the suggestion that a feminist outlook might help empower women and improve communications with men. “These women are not liberated,” Hutton emphasizes. Rather, they are tied down–by sexual dependency, by pregnancy, by their parents, and by their own bickering. This is true regardless of whether the writers are women or men; for example, Changes, a third festival winner, by Lincoln Park High School senior Cecily Anne Schoen, examines the back-stabbing rivalries between a group of high school junior girls watching a Miss America pageant.

Probably the most frequently examined issue in all the plays is friendship–again, generally seen in less than sunny terms. Much is made of negative peer pressure (boys pressuring girls into sex, boys pressuring each other into drugs and gangs, girls pressuring each other into betrayal), and there is a strong awareness that teenage friendships are transient and likely to fade or fall apart as individuals change. Indeed, friendship is generally presented in conflict with individualism–a far cry from the communal orientation of the 60s and early 70s. (An unusual exception is the festival’s fourth winning entry, The Laundromat, by Truman Middle College student Angela Jenkins, in which the loyalty of friends bolsters a one-armed Vietnam vet afraid of losing his job.)

John Logan notes a distinction between the male and female playwrights. “In general, I found the male writers more willing to experiment with form,” Logan says. “They weren’t as traditional–they attempted to be a little more expressionistic or abstract in structure. The scripts I read by young ladies were more traditional, more centered around relationships.” Noting that the four winning playwrights are all girls, he says, “When I heard it was four women, I was disappointed. I wish they’d have given some encouragement to the more experimental work–even if it’s awkward, it should be given a chance.”

For all the disturbing negativity that shows up in the scripts submitted to the festival, there is also a great deal of energy and vitality–much of it expressed in music (the show’s production employs several hit records plus an original score by local arranger James Taylor, musical director for Pegasus’s upbeat To Be Young, Gifted and Black earlier this season), and most of it in defiance of or release from the restrictions of everyday life (school, work, parental authority).

Sometimes the energy stems from the main structural flaw in all the writing: what Ruth Hutton identifies as a “very short attention span. The writers don’t sustain things very well, and characters are not developed very extensively.” Much of this, she thinks, shows the enormous influence of television on the kids; Hutton notes that when Pegasus presented workshops in several participating high schools to stir up interest in the festival, the workshop leaders learned that about 80 percent of the students had never seen a live play. This is especially ironic considering one piece of advice Hutton received from an experienced friend: “She told me not to send out letters about the festival in envelopes with the Pegasus Players return address, because the teachers would think it was just something with more free theater tickets and they’d just chuck it out.”

Indeed, the large number of entries to the contest was despite a general lack of response by teachers to Hutton’s overtures asking them to sponsor student playwrights. “It’s the system,” Hutton says. “In one case I remember, I called the school principal and asked who to send the announcement to. He didn’t know who teaches drama at his school.”

As part of the process of promoting the festival and helping develop young writers’ skills, Pegasus offered all the schools in the city a workshop in play writing. “We mainly approached English teachers,” says Hutton, “since drama classes at that level aren’t mostly about writing.” (What they are about is either acting, she says, or “trying to get out of some other class you don’t want to take.”)

The response from public schools to the offer of workshops was lackluster–“the teachers have to fill out too many forms,” Hutton says. She finally had to work through a network of personal contacts to reach teachers willing to expend the extra effort. Finally, Hutton says, workshops were held in eight public high schools–Curie Bowen, Hyde Park Career Academy, Lake View, Hubbard, Farragut, Olive Harvey Middle College, and Crane–plus the University of Chicago Lab School (which, as it turned out, was the only private school to be represented by submissions).

Workshops were led by two Chicago playwright-directors–Charles Moore, frequently associated with the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, and Songodina Ifatunji, director of the Alarinjo Theatre, which specializes in classical Yoruba court theater, an African style. City Lit Theater artistic director Arnold Aprill also participated in some of the advance work, as did Pegasus’s artistic director, Arlene Crewdson, and Hutton herself. Yet, in the end, the four winning scripts came from students who hadn’t been in workshops.

If this year’s festival is a success, Hutton expects more enthusiasm for the project next year. “These plays need to be seen. The kids are writing these things for a reason. They’re saying things that sometimes they can’t even tell their friends or family. That’s always the case with writers. That’s why you write a play.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.