Family Entertainment Series opens with Young Playwrights Project, showcasing imagination of local elementary schoolers

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When introducing the Young Playwrights Project to an eager audience enjoying their morning field trip on Monday, June 18, in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, Chautauqua Theater Company Artistic Director Andrew Borba offered a disclaimer:

“We require you to use your imaginations.”

Minutes later, two actors built a rocket ship out of chairs and a yellow umbrella, bringing over 300 elementary schoolers along for the ride.

Ten plays, written by local third and fourth-graders, will be performed again for free at 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday June 26 in Smith Wilkes Hall, marking the start of this summer’s Family Entertainment Series.

The winners of the annual contest were selected to be performed by CTC conservatory actors out of the 423 submissions from students at Chautauqua Lake Central School, Milton J. Fletcher Elementary School, Panama Central School, Ripley Central School and Westfield Elementary School. All 10 winning scripts can be read online.

The plays, each under five minutes in length, vary by genre. For example, Eulalia March’s Snow Animals tells an origin story for how giraffes got their spots, while third-grader Oliver Bird wrote an adventure play. His story, Video Game Tornado, follows a boy and his mom’s journey to get back home after being sucked into his favorite video game.

Katherine McGerr, who directed the 10 plays and helped select the winners, said the plays all share a sense of imagination and a need that the playwright wanted to communicate.

“What I like about them is that each of them is remarkable for a different reason,” McGerr said. “I think some of the plays are remarkable for their character and some for their theme.”

The scripts are comical in nature, but some do not shy away from more serious topics. Giovannie Jackson’s The Boy Who Wanted A Hoop features an unemployed mother who wants to support her son and Jillian Miller’s War Friends follows a Japanese girl and an American boy coming to terms with the painful aftermath of World War II.

Now in its fourth year, the Young Playwrights Project kicked off in the fall when members of CTC and Florida Studio Theatre visited classrooms and taught third- and fourth-graders the elements of playwriting. Students wrote either individually or in small groups, depending on their creative preferences and the number of classrooms convened.

Westfield Elementary School third-graders Ella Chagnon, Parker Gambino and Isabella Sorrento initially struggled to meld their ideas when writing The Lagoon Problem, but ultimately came up with a play about animals that use their words to resolve conflicts.

“Sometimes it was hard to think of parts,” Ella said.

“But then sometimes we used all the words together,” Isabella said.

In the winter, the students came to Chautauqua to hear their plays read aloud, after which the 10 winners were announced. Last week, the students returned to the grounds for a private performance in Lenna Hall, where the winning playwrights and runner-ups were awarded with a medal for their creativity. Support for this year-round Young Playwrights Project Initiative is provided by the Court Family Endowment, Mark and Patt Suwyn, Iris and the late Mort November, and Rosemary and the late Richard Corcoran.

The plays feature a zany cast of characters, including a talking shark and a sentient pair of smelly gym shoes. When it came to deciding which scripts called for costumes, props or puppets, McGerr said she took her cue from the text.

“I tried to really ask myself what the writer was picturing,” McGerr said. “Are they picturing a literal table that has eyes and a mouth or are they picturing more like the idea of a table, but personified?”

The playwrights’ intents were also considered by pianist Blake Segal, who underscored each play with music that matches its tone.

Westfield fourth-grader Emma DeGolier wrote The Littlest Foal Ever and was pleased by McGerr’s interpretation of her play, as well as the audience reception to the horse dance party scene.

“It feels good that we can see that people are using their imaginations,” Emma said. “Some things were a little different, but some things were the exact same.”

Because many of the conservatory actors have a background in television and film acting, McGerr said the Young Playwrights Project rounds out their training by breaking away from realism.

“This is not reality,” Mc- Gerr said. “You create the rules of this world, so in this world if a pencil wants to have a conversation with an eraser, we can do that.”

During a brief talkback after last week’s performance, CTC conservatory actor Jerrie Johnson and her castmates said all 10 plays were equally their favorites and that they enjoyed exercising their imaginations.

“The joy and beauty that comes with having to make a cave without making a cave, to make a rocket without making a rocket, it really allows us to stretch our brains,” Johnson said.

The plays may be written by elementary school students, but McGerr said everyone from toddlers to grandparents can come and enjoy the performances.


Tags : Chautauqua Theater Company: Young PlaywrightsFamily Entertainment Series

The author Kevin C. Vestal

Kevin Vestal is from Westerville, Ohio, and is a rising senior at Miami University in Ohio, studying journalism and professional writing with a minor in theater. Last summer, he interned for The Florence Newspaper in Italy, and he is excited to cover Chautauqua Theater Company and the Family Entertainment Series for the Daily. An avid thespian, Kevin recently performed on stage in Tartuffe and also has an irrational fear of wrists.