Young playwrights in Central Jersey learn the skills of story telling

The Theater Project asked me, as a member of their playwrights workshop, to be a judge in their 2015 Young Playwrights Competition. As a “rising” playwright myself, I was at once eager, intimidated and baffled.

Act I. I was assigned to read fourteen short plays, all struggling with elements of setting, plot and conflict, character development, and THE END. They were about typical teenage concerns: divorce, abandonment, suicide, vampirism, etc. These playwrights, and their instructors, had worked very hard. How to judge the results? I crowd-sourced the question to an adult playwrights group. Most responses to my post unhelpfully substituted nurturing for judging. Unhelpful only because I thought I’d never meet these playwrights. A few responses provided formal rubrics that reminded me how hard it is to competently construct a story, no less for me than for high schoolers.

In the end I distilled all this advice into two dimensions (so Dead Poets Society!)– meaningful stakes and emotional honesty. So at least I could defend the plays I put forward as “winners,” even if I was being totally subjective!

Act II. I went to the contest awards event at the Cranford, NJ Community Center and met one of these young playwrights for a “tutoring session.” I would nurture after all! I had read the play in the judging phase, and I made notes in preparation. First, since the play was about suicide, I must ask did this author have any traumatic association of which I should be respectful? (No, thankfully.) Second, with what did the author want help? (Anything.)

So this delightful, mature high school freshman and I talked for a half hour about the challenges. How did the interaction between her characters in this two-hander advance the story? Was there an inevitable resolution to the conflict she set up? (A lot of these plays ended on cliff-hangers.) Fun for both of us!

That discussion got me rethinking a play I was getting on stage in another month. I couldn’t get my characters to a satisfactory resolution either. Because the wrong character made the first move, and it didn’t make sense. I changed that, and like the result a lot better. Lesson: Go back to the “rules” and you’re likely to revisit the “truth” in your story.

What makes a play good? Stakes and honesty. I’m pretty sure now that young stories is a more helpful category than young playwrights.