Chautauqua Institution’s commitment to lifelong learning was on full display on Friday, June 14, in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall as hundreds of elementary school students from all over Chautauqua County gasped and cheered in unison as they watched actors from the Chautauqua Theater Company perform a myriad of colorful and exciting plays — plays written by their classmates.
This event was the culmination of months of teaching, creating, writing and designing that all took place as part of the Young Playwright’s Project. The project, now entering its fifth year, is coordinated through a partnership between the Institution and CTC, and each year it encourages more than 500 elementary school students to create and write their very own plays.
“One of our primary goals is the planting of the seeds of artistic appreciation early on,” said Lisa Gierszal, project manager for YPP and executive assistant in the Performing and Visual Arts Office. “When you show these children that their voices are valued, you really start to see some amazing things.”
The plays performed on June 14 tackled a wide range of topics and tones. Giganta Cat and the Super Hero, by Connor Horner from Panama Central School, kicked off the show with a lighthearted clash between a wicked supervillain and his giant dog, and a superheroine and her unlikely feline ally. The Food That’s Alive by Annie Becker, also from Panama Central, saw two young students save their school from a vile school lunch come to life.
But for every fun, comedic offering, there was a play that grappled with more mature concepts. The Boy Who Wanted to See His Brother by Giovannie Jackson from M.J. Fletcher Elementary School shined a light on the hardship of losing a family member, and The Bullies That Turn Into My Friends by Kathrine Lundmark from M.J. Fletcher, showed audience members that not everyone who starts off mean has to stay that way forever.
Katie McGerr, the director of all 11 selected plays and a member of the committee who chose the winners, said she was impressed, as ever, with the emotions these children were able to distill.
“It’s always amazing to see the size of the feelings they write about,” McGerr said, “(and) some of the really imaginative solutions and observations they include. These things are so smart, so unique to them. We get to see the uncensored imagination of that age.”
The project itself is broken into three phases. The first takes place in the fall, when Institution staff and CTC members visited the students’ classrooms to teach them the basics of playwriting.
After that, in the winter, the students get to hear their plays read aloud by community volunteers and find out which have been selected as winners.
Now, the project is in its third phase, where members of CTC dive into the final 11 plays and bring them to life. With bright, simplistic costumes intentionally reminiscent of a child playing dress-up, and a minimalist, chalk-drawn backdrop of buildings, flowers and dinosaurs, CTC conservatory actors delighted the amassed elementary school students with an energetic performance.
Avery Cannon, from Chautauqua Lake Elementary School, one of this year’s winners and writer of a play about a sentient lightbulb trying to find its way in the world, said she loved seeing her work come to life.
“The most fun part was seeing (my play) on-stage because it was something I made up,” she said. “It was fun to see that I could do that.”
That confidence and excitement for the students is something McGerr thinks is endlessly important.
“If we can have kids come through this program and come away with the confidence that what they can imagine is valid, that what happens inside their heads and hearts is valid, that would be something incredible,” she said.
The project will be returning to Chautauqua’s grounds on July 2, at 5 and 7 p.m. as part of the Family Entertainment Series.