Empowering the Teenage Voice
How three professional theater companies are helping high school students develop their creativity through writing
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: The 2017 Next Actors strike superhero poses for their devised play “ This is Not a Hero Story.” Photo by Moder Media LLC.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival
For Deanie Vallone, applying for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival sent her down a career path in the arts she didn’t intend to go on. By winning the annual competition in 2005 and 2006, Vallone saw full-scale productions of her plays My Wonderland and Just One More produced by MCT.
“Finding that community of artists who were excited about my work and had such great ideas on how to access it was really exciting as a young writer,” Vallone explains. “To share something that was so personal and private with them and the audiences was a beautiful thing.”
MCT’s Young Playwrights Festival features an annual writing competition and cycle of playwriting residencies in local high schools. The residencies are meant to encourage competition entries, offering one-on-one mentoring during the writing process.
Following the 2009 showcase, MCT switched to a biennial showcase for producing fully-staged plays. Each year a committee selects the top 10 plays out of the 50 – 100 typically received. The top 10 plays for two years running then compete for one of the three slots to receive full productions (like Vallone). Since 2017, three honorable mention plays have received public staged readings as well.
“I don’t think we have enough forums in which a huge constituency of our regional population, our teenagers, have a voice,” explains Marcella Kearns, associate artistic director for MCT and producer of the Young Playwrights Festival. “My favorite thing is being able to hear what they have to say. If I can be, to any degree, a part of taking it one step farther to give them a platform and give the public an opportunity to hear what they have to say, that’s it.”
"This Just In" by Malaina Moore, part of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's 2017 Young Playwrights Festival Showcase. Photo by Paul Ruffolo Photography.
Following Vallone’s graduation from Thomas More High School, she went on to study creative writing and English literature at Cardinal Stritch University. During her college years, Vallone imagined working for a publishing company after graduation.
Of course, a scholarship to continue her education at the University of Cambridge in England changed all this. On a whim, Vallone got involved with Cambridge’s theater program as a producer. She fell back in love with being in the rehearsal room, reminding her of when she worked with other artists through the Young Playwrights Festival.
After returning to the states, she decided to pursue a career in dramaturgy and now works as the literary associate for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
“The Young Playwrights Festival was really the spark that drew me to theater,” Vallone says. “Dramaturgy combines my love of working on a production with my interest in research, reading, writing, history, literature and all the other things I had been previously studying with creative writing.”
Submissions for the 2019 Young Playwrights Festival are due June 1. Visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com to access complete instructions on how to submit your play.
The 2019 Young Playwrights Festival Showcase runs Jan. 10 - 13, featuring "Pinta El Fuego" by Markia Silverman Rodriguez, Pius XI Catholic High School; "1-800-123-BOYS" by Jazmin Reyes, Ronald Reagan College Preparatory High School; and "The Divine Komedy" by Max Engel, Pius XI Catholic High School.
Next Act Theatre’s Next Actors
When Grace DeWolff holds auditions for Next Act Theatre’s summer program for teens, she is not looking for the performer with the longest resume, or someone that can fit the mold of a specific character description. She is simply looking for bravery.
“If you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and it’s not really that great, I don’t care,” says DeWolff, Next Act’s education manager. “The fact that you are singing is awesome.”
The summer program, called Next Actors, is a six-week playwriting and performance session offered free of charge to Milwaukee area teens. Dozens of funders, including Herb Kohl Charities, Bader Philanthropies and UPAF Bright Minds, help ensure students and their families don’t have to pay for the program.
DeWolff explains that the six-week program starts off with improv games, writing exercises and workshops lead by professional teaching artists, and gradually develops into the students creating their own theatre piece. During the final week, the teens tour their production to area schools, senior centers and community organizations, culminating in a final benefit performance open to the public.
“What I like most is when a student realizes an audience really isn’t that scary, DeWolff says. “I get to watch them be so self-sufficient and put something they are really passionate about in front of an audience.”
Previous plays the Next Actors have devised include Timeless, where people deal with knowing exactly how much time they have left on this planet, and Monsters Like Us, Humans Like Them, a dystopian play about kids trying to break out of the future society has decided for them.
The 2015 Next Actors perform their devised play "Timeless." Photo by Alex Clark.
“Older audiences watch these pieces and go ‘holy crap, that’s what’s on their minds?,’” DeWolff explains. “Other students will go, ‘oh yea of course, I wish I had written this.’”
As the 2019 Next Actors summer session inches closer, DeWolff wants to focus more on recruitment tactics. DeWolff and other Next Act representatives bring workshops directly to Milwaukee Public School classrooms and community learning centers to get students excited about devising and performing.
“We are not just doing a play,” DeWolff says. “I’m not just going to hand you a script and cast it myself based on how talented you are. It’s about the students creating something that needs to be said to our community and empowering their voices.”
Renaissance Theaterwork’s Fran Bauer Young Critics Project
As American Theatre Magazine reported at the start of the season, the number of plays produced by women and people of color is slowly increasing.
The magazine’s “Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights of 2018-2019 Season,” includes 11 women and six playwrights of color, the most diverse the list has ever been, according to the publication.
But even with this increase in diversity of what we are seeing on stage, white males continue to dominate the world of theater criticism. Renaissance Theaterworks, Milwaukee’s only women-founded, women-run professional theater company dedicated to improving gender parity, wants to help change this.
“What happens due to the lack of diversity in critics is there are women playwrights who have never had their work reviewed by a woman,” says Suzan Fete, co-founder and artistic director of Renaissance Theaterworks. “Or you will have women of color who have never had their work reviewed by someone of color, especially a woman of color.”
During the 2017-2018 season, Renaissance Theaterworks launched the Fran Bauer Young Critics Project, a program designed to introduce Milwaukee’s high school-age women to theatre criticism and professional writing. The project’s namesake, the late Fran Bauer, spent over 30 years as an investigative reporter with the Milwaukee Journal and later the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Participants of the Fran Bauer Young Critics Project with cast members of Renaissance Theaterworks’s “Top Girls.” Photo courtesy of Renaissance Theaterworks.
“Fran was quite the visionary,” Fete says. “She exposed a lot of injustice in town and worked hard for women’s rights and people of color.”
Fete also describes Bauer, who served as a board member for Renaissance Theaterworks, as an amazing patron for the arts in Milwaukee.
For the past two seasons, Renaissance has partnered with PEARLS For Teen Girls, a leadership development program focused on empowering young women, for the Fran Bauer Young Critics Project. The girls attend the three shows in Renaissance Theaterworks’ season and then participate in writing classes lead by Dasha Kelly Hamilton, poet and founder of Still Waters Collective, to help them craft their reviews.
“It’s very unusual for a high school girl, or really anyone in high school, to be asked what they think about something,” Fete says. “Dasha is helping the girls recognize the difference between opinions and critical response. As long as you base it on facts and it’s supported by the text, that’s a valid critique. It’s a way for people to find their voice.”
To learn more about the Fran Bauer Young Critics Project, visit r-t-w.com.