Amidst a sea of light-up shoes and brightly colored hoodies, actors from Chautauqua Theater Company’s conservatory took on the roles of superheroes, dragons, sentient landmarks and more on Friday, June 14, in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. Their audience was a gathering of elementary school students from schools around the Chautauqua County area.
The plays they performed were written by their young audience.
Previewed in front of the local students, the shows will be performed onstage at 5 and 7 p.m. tonight, July 2, in Smith Wilkes Hall, as a part of Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series.
These shows were created through the Young Playwrights Project, a program coordinated through a partnership between Chautauqua Institution and CTC designed to give local third- and fourth-grade students a chance to find their artistic voices. Support for the YPP is provided by the Court Family Endowment; Iris and the late Mort November; and Rosemary and the late Richard Corcoran.
Project manager for the YPP and Executive Assistant in the Performing and Visual Arts Office Lisa Gierszal said the project works to enable the kids to write whatever is in their hearts.
“Whatever we do, we do our best to encourage the unrefined student voice,” Gierszal said. “We’re encouraging them to tell their stories the way they want to tell them. Some of them have heroes and unicorns, and some are incredibly true to life.”
During the early stages of the project, more than 500 elementary school students from the Chautauqua County area craft and create their own plays. After the plays are fully formed, a committee of CTC and Institution staff read each one and select around 10 winners.
This year, 11 plays will be performed.
“We just couldn’t leave a single one of those 11 behind,” Gierszal said.
Through the FES, the plays created by the students are given the chance to exist on a real stage, in front of a real audience. Suzanne Fassett Wright, director of arts education, thinks that experience is important for the young artists.
“Kids don’t always inherently believe that they are valued,” Wright said. “At first, they give you a skeptical face. After working in this project for a little while, they don’t anymore. This project helps them develop faith in their own voice.”
Audiences can expect a variety of subjects to be on display during the performances. The poignant story of a boy grappling with the death of his older brother takes the same stage as a lighthearted showdown between a superheroine, her colossal feline ally and a grandstanding evildoer.
According to Gierszal, despite the disparity in the subjects in the some of the plays, they all have heart.
“All of these plays, when you see them, when you give (the students) that voice, you see them make the shows their own,” Gierszal said. “I get goosebumps even talking about the ways that some of these students have talked about their stories.”
Katie McGerr, a CTC alumna, directed all 11 of the selected plays and loved watching the kids see their stories come to life.
“Watching them watch their plays is so special,” McGerr said. “We have a lot of kids who aren’t as confident in their writing skills, and we get to work with them and let them have a little more trust in themselves.”
From the shows about epic battles with mutated lunch meat, to the plays that tackle themes of bullying and self-confidence, it’s clear the students have a lot to say and are excited to say it.
Alvianna Matson, a third-grader from M.J. Fletcher Elementary School who had her play selected as one of the 11 winners, summed it up.
“I didn’t really know if I could do (this),” Alvianna said. “But I did it.”