A recent visit from local elementary school students started with an audience request.
“Raise your hand if you are already a playwright,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president and director of programming.
Dozens of tiny hands went up in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, where students from area schools gathered on June 19 for a performance of 14 short plays written by their peers. The performances were part of the latest Young Playwrights Project, an eight-month community outreach initiative from Chautauqua Institution and Chautauqua Theater Company, in partnership with the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota.
Now in its third year, the program wraps up with two encore performances at 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday in Smith Wilkes Hall. CTC’s “Young Playwrights!” performance — directed by Katie McGerr and featuring CTC actors — will also serve as a kickoff for this season’s Family Entertainment Series.
This year’s Young Playwrights Project began in the fall, when teaching artists from FST conducted playwriting workshops for third- and fourth-grade students at Chautauqua Lake Central School in Mayville, M.J. Fletcher Elementary School in Jamestown, Panama Central School in Panama and Ripley Central School in Ripley.
The students then wrote and submitted original works — 403 in total — and in the winter visited the grounds to hear volunteers from the Chautauqua Play Readers read their plays aloud. During the June 19 performances, Moore encouraged students to think of the Institution as “their Institution” and reminded them of free family programming.
It’s all part of the mission of the playwriting program, which Chautauquan and Florida Studio Theatre board member Georgia Court helped launch in hopes of strengthening the relationship between the Institution and local community. Starting next year, that relationship will grow even further thanks to recent donations from Chautauquans Mark and Pat Suwyn that will allow Westfield Academy and Central School in Westfield to join.
This year’s plays ranged in content and tone, from an entertaining adventure tale to a lesson on pulling hair. There is no set number of plays the judging committee must pick to become finalists, but McGerr, the CTC director, said she’s often looking for a script with clarity. The students tend to be elaborate storytellers, sometimes including twists at the end.
“It’s always really impressive when they observe something that you think only adults notice, like that it’s stressful for their parents when someone is sick,” McGerr said, referencing the play Hope from 10-year-old Paige Zarpentine, a rising fifth-grader at Ripley Central School.
Inspired by outreach from her church, Zarpentine said she wanted to write a thoughtful play about a young person suffering from a disease. She hopes her work will remind viewers there are places that don’t have proper access to medicine. The disease goes unnamed in the play, but Zarpentine included other details — like multiple scenes, characters, and entrances and exits.
“You had to make sure that every single detail was in there, or when it was performed it would just be like someone was standing there,” Zarpentine said.
CTC actors received the selected scripts about a month before the first performance and only had 48 hours to rehearse before the first show, McGerr said. It was a tight turnaround, but an adaptable set, lots of props and pianist accompaniment helped turn the plays into full productions. The winning plays are also now online for all to read.
At first, the idea of sharing something he’d written with others was “kind of embarrassing,” said 10-year-old Reyn Waters, a rising fifth-grader at Ripley Central School. But when it was time for his Movie Madness to premiere, he felt excited. The zany play, which runs just under two pages long, is about a group of chickens that interrupt the filming of a zombie movie.
Waters, who likes acting and got the theater bug after appearing in a school production of The Lion King, said the idea for his play came from a video game. It only took him about a day to write Movie Madness.
Describing his play as a comedy, Waters had a simple request for audiences who will be seeing his completed work: “All I want them to do is laugh.”