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The Curtain Rises on Works by 10 Young American Playwrights

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When the curtain of New York's Circle Repertory Theater rises on April 27, it will signal not only the beginning of a play but the theatrical debut of 10 very young American playwrights. For the following two and a half weeks, their work will be performed at the theater--one of America's leading repertory stages--under the direction of prominent directors, in the heart of the "theater capital of the world."

The plays, whose authors range in age from 9 to 18, are the winners of the first Young Playwrights Festival, sponsored by the Foundation of the Dramatists Guild, an organization for professional playwrights.

Chosen by a panel of theater professionals from the Guild and the Circle Repertory Theater, the 10 plays were selected from 732 scripts submitted by aspiring playwrights in 35 states, according to festival officials.

First of Its Kind

The festival, the officials say, is the first of its kind in this country. It was established, they note, specifically to "identify and encourage talented playwrights aged 18 or younger" and to produce their plays professionally.

The topics chosen by the young playwrights include gym class, as in Adam Berger's play about Kirk, who is not good at gym, and such other subjects as love, racism, and mental illness. "Nowhere," written by 13-year-old Juliet Garson and directed by Garson Kanin, is, for instance, about two friends who "hatch a startling plot to make the city parks safe for girls to play in."

The potential in the idea of a young playwrights' festival has been well-documented in England, where the Young Writers Festival has been in existence at the Royal Court Theatre in London since 1973.

It was a visit to that festival by Stephen Sondheim, the American playwright and composer, that brought the notion across the Atlantic.

Mr. Sondheim came away from a 1980 trip to the London event with the thought of starting a similar festival in the U.S. He invited Gerald Chapman, who directed the London festival from 1976 to 1980, to come to America to investigate this possibility and to plan the event if it turned out to be feasible.

Mr. Chapman and a committee of Dramatists Guild playwrights decided that it was a good idea. As a result, the first annual Young Playwrights Festival, with Mr. Chapman as director, was announced in February 1981.

The Circle Repertory Theater was chosen as the site of the performances because of its longtime commitment to supporting new and developing talent, according to a spokesman for the theater.

Seven of the winning plays will be given full performances; the three others, because of either their complexity or the large number of characters in them, will receive "staged readings," according to a spokesman for the theater.

Actors in the plays will include members of the Circle Repertory Company as well as outside professionals. The actors from outside the company include children, who were chosen through an open audition, the theater spokesman said.

Noted Directors

The plays are being directed by five noted directors, including Mr. Chapman, Mr. Kanin, Marshall W. Mason, Elinor Renfield, and Carole Rothman. Original music for the productions has been written by Louis Rosen and David Valentin.

While the festival is the focal point of the project, those involved are also at work on other activities that they hope will expand interest in drama and playwriting in U.S. schools, where these subjects receive considerably less attention than they do in British schools, according to Mr. Chapman.

Because American teachers usually lack training in drama, Mr. Chapman said, many are justifiably reluctant to try to teach drama or playwriting or even to become involved in producing a class play. Such events draw public attention, he said, some of which may not be positive. ''It's one of the reasons teachers feel so jumpy. It's the teacher who sticks his neck out and takes the risk."

And producing plays that were written by students is an even more perilous undertaking, he said. "That's a risk, both in terms of language and subject matter."

Mr. Chapman, whose professional training and experience are in stage directing, not education, became involved with children and drama in 1976, when he began working with the young people's program at the Royal Court Theatre.

Initially, he said, he had very little interest in working with teachers, who he believed were "boring." He was given a list of the 10 best drama teachers in London, however, and watching them work with children changed his mind. "They were doing far more than I could have done," he said.

"That was how I became more interested in education," he said. Now, he added, he keeps one foot in each camp, theater and education.

Playwriting, he believes, can be a valuable experience for students in a number of ways (see excerpt from Mr. Chapman's speech on opposite page).

As one means of encouraging more teachers and children to try drama and playwriting in the classroom, Mr. Chapman and others involved in the project have conducted about 50 school workshops, mostly in public schools in the greater New York area.

The workshops occupy an entire day and involve as many as 15 children, Mr. Chap-man said. Together with a director--Mr. Chapman or someone else--and a playwright, the children discuss playwriting and improvise some scenes.

About halfway through the day, the children are asked to write the first scene of a play. The second half of the day is spent discussing, analyzing, and criticizing the results.

Teachers are invited to observe and participate in the workshops, Mr. Chapman said, and several weeks after the first workshop, the director and playwright return for a second workshop--this one for teachers from that school and others in the area.

The workshops, Mr. Chapman said, have been "very well received" by both teachers and students.

Scripts are now being accepted for the 1983 Young Playwrights Festival, which is expected to take place in the spring of 1983. The deadline for submissions is July 1, 1982; playwrights must be age 18 or younger on that date. For further information on the workshops or how to submit an entry, write to The Dramatists Guild, 234 West 44th Street, 11th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10036. Telephone: (212) 398-9366.

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