The Play’s the Thing

By Millicent Lawton — November 22, 1995 7 min read

Bret LaGree is not in Kansas anymore. In 18-year-old LaGree’s home state, he could not have been the house guest here of playwright Alfred Uhry of “Driving Miss Daisy” fame.

And he could not be lounging now in the bowels of a Greenwich Village theater, so blas‚ that he doesn’t even notice that stage and movie star Kevin Kline just sauntered through the room.

And, in neither Kansas nor Georgia--where LaGree moved for high school--could he be awaiting this evening’s off-Broadway performance of a play he wrote when he was 16.

This young man and three of his peers have been thrust into the heady swirl of the Manhattan stage scene because they’ve hit a kind of Powerball jackpot for teenage dramatists. They are the four winners of the annual Young Playwrights Festival national writing competition.

LaGree and the other winners, Clarence Coo of Alexandria, Va., Shaun Neblett of Montclair, N.J., and Denise Ruiz of New York, beat out a record 1,600 other teenagers to get their plays produced professionally here. All four of the playwrights are now 18 and in college, but they crafted their plays while still in high school. LaGree, Neblett, and Ruiz graduated just last spring.

When LaGree and Coo, who have taken this semester off to be here, are asked if the New York debut of their plays is a collective “big break,” they offer a noncommittal shrug. Coo says with a laugh, “It does depend on who sees it and who calls us afterward.”

It wouldn’t be all that unlikely. During the October-long run of their plays at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the foursome hardly lacked for attention, including the media interviews they squeezed in between rehearsals. And their four one-act plays, presented together in one evening, received largely favorable reviews last month in The New York Times, Newsday, and The Village Voice.

For these young people, just meeting the Young Playwrights Inc. board of directors means schmoozing with theater luminaries. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Uhry is president of the board. Stephen Sondheim, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and lyricist, is both the executive vice president and the founder of YPI. Other board members include the playwrights David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) and Wendy Wasserstein (“The Heidi Chronicles.”)

Ensuring the Future

All the attention is not just a way for a handful of teenagers to puff up their egos and perhaps launch auspicious careers. It’s part of YPI’s comprehensive playwriting-education program. The organization, founded in 1981 by Sondheim and others from the Dramatists Guild, considers itself to be a 50-50 mix of professional theater and educational institution. It bills itself as the only national, professional playwright-development organization for writers 18 and younger.

When YPI was founded, “the idea was to introduce young people to the professional theater in its highest levels of achievement,” says Sheri M. Goldhirsch, the artistic director.

The notion for the festival was born in 1977--the very same year this year’s contest winners entered the world themselves. Sondheim came back from London where he had seen a program that showcased the work of teenage playwrights and wondered why no one was doing something similar in the United States. He reasoned that cultivating young people’s writing was the only way to ensure that there would be playwrights to perpetuate American theater.

It seems all four of this year’s festival playwrights may help preserve the future of the stage; all would like to keep writing plays, even if it’s on the side as they make their living another way.

The idea behind Young Playwrights is to put the writer--instead of the scenery or a big-name star--at the center of the creative process, say Goldhirsch and her fellow YPI producer, managing director Brett W. Reynolds.

So throughout the contest process, writers and their writing get a lot of nurturing. The process begins in the fall, when the young people submit their work. Ypi recruits some 70 theater professionals to read the student plays, and each young playwright receives a written evaluation of the work.

Each spring, 10 to 15 of the young playwrights are selected to participate in a 10-day workshop here in New York. They take master classes in playwriting and seminars on the production process and go on theater outings. The week concludes with staged public readings of participants’ plays.

Once the handful of playwrights is selected from that group for the festival, the young people start work with their directors and dramaturges, who are literary advisers on the script. LaGree and Coo, for instance, ended up rewriting about half of their plays thanks to the professional advice. But they didn’t have to--the writers have the last word on all decisions related to their productions.

Writing What She Knows

But running the contest is far from all YPI does with its $750,000 annual budget.

Over the years, about 25,000 students have taken part in YPI’s Writing on Your Feet playwriting workshops. Taught by professional playwrights, the workshops get students in grades 2 to 12 to develop ideas for plays by doing dramatic improvisations. More than nine out of 10 students finish at least one scene of a play.

Young Playwrights offers the workshops in formats ranging from a one-day “jam” to a 13-session program in which a playwright is “in residence” at a school. Last school year, the program took place at 35 different sites nationwide.

Each year, YPI also puts on three or four teacher-training workshops, known as Teaching on Your Feet. In the workshops, also offered nationwide, a professional playwright trains teachers in the most effective methods for teaching playwriting. Some teachers use the training as a complement to the student-playwriting workshop; others use it to start their own playwriting programs. So far, the organization has trained about 1,000 teachers.

One of the playwrights featured in this year’s festival owes her start to a student workshop. Denise Ruiz, then 17 and a high school junior, didn’t even know she was interested in being a playwright. But the assignment to come back the next day with one scene of a play elicited a surprising burst of writing. “I just couldn’t stop,” she recalls with amazement. The next day, she had 40 pages written.

Last year, that play, “The King,” won YPI’s New York City High School Playwriting Contest. It is also her contribution to this year’s festival.

It seems so unlikely that this stylish young woman who’s studying fashion merchandising in business college could write a tense, violent prison drama about a Latino gang. But Ruiz says she simply wrote what she knew. She still lives with her family in the tough East New York section of Brooklyn, where drugs and violence claim lives every day.

“The King” is based on the true story of Ruiz’s cousin, Ismael Rios Jr. He tried to extract himself from the gang he belonged to, and it cost him his life. Ruiz dedicated the play to his memory.

Combating Censorship

The other students’ plays focus on equally mature themes, which the producers say is pretty standard fare for the festival.

Coo’s two-character “Proof Through the Night” explores a bizarre, touching encounter between a washed-up, suicidal Motown diva and a homicidal football-stadium janitor.

“Guyworld,” by LaGree, was inspired by David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” and written when the author was home sick with mononucleosis. It centers on three guys in a bar who dream of a fantasy land without women where men can revel in their machismo and political incorrectness.

In Neblett’s “This Is About a Boy’s Fears,” a 13-year-old boy lets the audience in on his serious--and well-founded--misgivings about his mother’s new boyfriend.

But this year, such themes proved especially controversial. Goldhirsch reports that a middle school whose students had attended the festival in the past announced it wasn’t sending a student group this year.

The school, in suburban Washington, had asked to review scripts in advance as part of classroom lessons on the creative process. But the teachers balked at the foul language and some of the themes, including the suggestion of pedophilia in “This Is About a Boy’s Fears.”

The YPI producers think a change in administration made that school’s climate more conservative. And, as Goldhirsch says, the students don’t write what adults might think of as children’s plays.

A similar problem is cropping up increasingly often with the student-playwriting workshops in schools. Some teachers and administrators are uncomfortable when the guest-artist playwrights tell students they can write about anything they want. Some topics, the educators feel, aren’t appropriate for the classroom.

But YPI can’t abide such censorship, Reynolds explains. “In our very mission, we are an advocate for youth,” he says. “We can’t say that we’re not an advocate for people who write about gangs.”

“As an organization,” he adds, “we’re there to nurture self-expression and to create a place for these young people to be heard.”

And Ruiz, who says she’s seen that kind of classroom censorship happen, feels strongly that students have to be free to write from their minds and hearts. “People write,” she says, “because they want to say the things they can’t say in public or to their parents.”

She says by editing out topics for student writing, teachers sabotage the writing process. “You don’t want to tell someone what they can and can’t write before they even know if they have this talent.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 1995 edition of Education Week as The Play’s the Thing