Salisbury Press

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

‘Young Playwrights’ return

Thursday, May 10, 2018 by KATHY LAUER- WILLIAMS Special to The Press in Focus

Take a peek into the imagination of children at Touchstone Theatre’s “Young Playwrights’ Festival” playing one night only at Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem.

The festival, unlike any other theater program in the Lehigh Valley, presents one-act plays written by students from fourth grade through high school on May 12 for the festival’s 13th year.

The stories that are brought to life on stage are created by students during an eight-week literacy program, and range from the whimsical to surprisingly serious. They include a lonely mermaid and a boy in a robot jungle, as well as a visit to a way station in the after life and a look at the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a veteran.

The festival is the outgrowth and culmination of the Young Playwrights’ Lab, the program developed by Touchstone and the Bethlehem Area School District to use theater to improve student’s writing and creative self-expression.

“This is a great opportunity for them to express what they are thinking about,” says Mary Wright, a Touchstone ensemble member and education director of Touchstone Theatre. “It’s fascinating to find what they come up with.”

More than 100 scripts from eight schools were submitted for the festival and five were chosen for full production and directed by Touchstone ensemble members. Another three runners-up were picked to have a scene performed by Touchstone members.

Wright is one of the directors and is helming “Damaged,” a play about a returning veteran with PTSD written by Justin Brooks-Miller of Allentown, a ninth grader at Lincoln Leadership Academy.

“I think it’s really powerful that a ninth-grade boy is concerned about what war does to people,” Wright says. “I tried to honor what he’s trying to say with my direction.”

The Playrights Lab takes Touchstone into the schools to work with students on theater improvisation, “heater games” that lead to writing prompts, writing exercises and collaborative critique.

“We teach them the Touchstone approach,” says Wright. “We work with a wide range of kids and it seems to work for everybody. We take then from where they are and help them move forward.”

Wright says the directors receive the scripts and then must create a fully-realized world from the student’s vision.

“What we at Touchstone find delightful about the scripts is they leave room for us to show our artistic vision as well,” she says. “We get to join in their imagination. Everybody wins.”

The directors also are set and costume designer. Actors in the cast are auditioned from schools and the community.

Wright says the winning plays include “ABHDR” by Liberty student Payton Shaffer of Bethlehem, who wrote about a way-station to the afterlife.

“It’s really interesting,” Wright says. “The way station is sort of like the DMV where you have to take a ticket and wait your turn to tell your life to the agent.”

She says the youngest playwright represented in the festival is Nate Bowers, a fourth grader at Farmersville Elementary School in Bethlehem.

She says his play “John and the Lion Man,” about a boy who finds himself in an underground laboratory that ends up being a robotic jungle, shows a “wonderful imagination.”

The five plays are “Damaged,” “ABHDR,” “John and the Lion Man” and “The Chicago Deal” by David Rosado of Casa Guadalupe Center, Allentown and “Cinderella” by Carol-Lynn Charlemagne, Harrison-Morton Middle School, Allentown.

Runners-up are “The Queen and the Unicorn” by Angelique Jorge, Lincoln Elementary; “Mermaid Wants a New Family” by Daron Roberson, Freemansburg Elementary, and “Blob and Rob: The Lost Backpack” by Cristian Mendez, Donegan Elementary, all of Bethlehem.

Following the performance is a ticketed gala reception and auction that will benefit Touchstone and its arts-in-education programs. Gala attendees can mingle with the Touchstone ensemble and enjoy dessert, an open bar, and live music. A live and silent auction includes a private dinner for six at Jenny’s Kuali; Lehigh Valley Phantoms box seats, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival tickets, Historic Bethlehem river tours and more.

Louis Cinquino, Festival Committee Chair, says funds raised by the gala in previous years have allowed the program to expand in Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and other school districts.

“Young Playwrights’ Festival” 7 p.m. May 12, Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem. Ticket information: 610-867-1689, www.touchstone.org.