Young Playwrights’ Theater group helps kids dream up stories


Actress Maggie Erwin reads the lines of the character she will portray in fifth-grader Ben Perez’s play, “A Walk in the Woods,” which will be performed next week. (Juana Arias/For The Washington Post)
April 12, 2013

For his 10th birthday, Ben Perez’s grandmother offered to take him on a trip, and she let Ben pick the destination.

“I thought it would be really cool to go to the Galapagos Islands so we could swim, snorkel and see all the animals,” says Ben, a fifth-grader at Bancroft Elementary in Northwest Washington.

The remote Galapagos Islands sit on the equator in the Pacific Ocean and are home to rare wildlife, including tortoises.

Little did Ben know that an encounter with an enormous tortoise on last summer’s trip would be the inspiration for a play. His drama, “A Walk in the Woods,” tells the story of a conservationist who wants to save endangered tortoises but has a conflict with a hunter. The play will unfold onstage this month.

“To write a play, you start by writing a monologue,” Ben says. “That’s like a big speech your main character makes.”

Genesis Lopez, in white, shares her work at a session in February. Beside her are Paul Schad, left, Marco Anderson, Jhoselin Beltran and Lily Perez. ( Liza Harbison/Young Playwrights’ Theaters)

Ben wrote his script as part of the Young Playwrights’ Theater’s in-school playwriting program, which has been working with third- through 12th-graders in the Washington area since 1995. For months, he worked with a dramaturge (a person who served as a playwriting coach) on things such as character development, grammar, spelling, word choice and plot.

“I wanted my story to be exciting and interesting,” he says. “But it took a while for it to come together. Writing dialogue was the hardest.”

But that’s the thing about writing a play: Your characters must tell the story.

From more than 850 plays written by District, Maryland and Virginia students taking part in the program this year, Ben’s was among the 12 chosen to be performed onstage next week. Another one is “An Annoying Life,” written by 10-year-old Genesis Lopez. It’s a funny play about a girl who has a robot for a brother.

“Writing a play was a good goal because it made me express my feelings . . . about me and my brother,” says Genesis, a fifth-grader at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Northeast Washington. “I wanted it to be funny, but I also wanted to teach people a lesson that you should always be nice to your family.”

Her play got a lot of laughs last month at the read-through, when the professional actors who will perform in “An Annoying Life” sat around a table and practiced their lines. As the date for the shows draws near, the 12 playwrights will attend rehearsals and offer their opinions about how their plays should be performed. They’ll also each write a speech to introduce the play onstage.

“I’m probably going to be nervous,” Ben says about the big night that’s coming up. “I’m not sure everyone’s going to like my play. But I hope they do.”

Kitson Jazynka

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