In 2009, I got an email from Megan Cramer, Associate Artistic Director of the 52nd Street Project, asking if I'd like to volunteer for them. They're an organization which brings together kids (ages 9 to 18) from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood with theater professionals to create original theater.
Upon reading that email, a moment of dread came over me. You see, I had a preconceived notion of children's theater being, well...for children.
In general, children vex me. And even more specifically, smart children TERRIFY me. I can't explain the reasons why, but I'm sure it's connected to some irrational insecurity I have about a kid seeing through my guise as a productive citizen of the world. Why would I want to put myself in that situation on a regular basis?
So, before making a decision to volunteer, I went and checked out their Playmaking show, which was being performed at the Public Theater in the Anspacher (still my favorite theater space in NY). On the bill were ten short pieces written by kids and acted by top notch adult actors. So how did it go?
I was blown away. Bowled over. My head spun around three times in both directions. Zowee! These pieces were written by kids? They were so honest, so touching, and so FUNNY. Also during the performance there is the unique presence of the playwright's desk, which is a small desk made entirely out of foam core, emblazoned with the title "playwright" that sits on stage throughout the entire show. Each young playwright is then sent up to sit behind the desk during his/her respective play as if they were being asked to "stand up for what you've written!" Or in this case, sit down for it. Could you imagine if this was the norm for adult playwrights? I found this concept altogether cute yet oddly sadistic. Which happens to describe my sense of humor. I immediately contacted Megan and said "sign me up!"
My first experience volunteering with the project was in their Playmaking class, a nine week program that teaches kids to write a play. Here, they are taught the basics of playwriting. You know, things like defining a setting, starting your play with "at rise," writing out character descriptions, etc. I'd sit there working with my kid, gently but authoritatively reminding them of those basics, which I had to remind myself by covertly glancing up at the white board where these basics were listed and all the while thinking to myself "methinks my own play is missing a few of these important elements."
Lesson learned: It's always good and sometimes necessary to go back to basics.
Since completing that initial Playmaking program, I've been asked to write for two of their shows and direct/dramaturg a third.
For my most recent experience, we went away for a weekend retreat upstate. I'd like to share with you some excerpts from my journal entries of that experience:
Saturday was a long, full day. Worked with Chayse on his play. He initially was going to write about a football player, but then switched to a great story about a zookeeper named Mr. Grumpy and John a new employee who can magically talk to the zoo animals. It's slowly revealing itself to be a story about loneliness and the power each of us have in not being lonely by being kind. I'd asked Chayse "since you've written that Mr. Grumpy does this, how does it affect John in this section?" Now had this been me discussing my own play, it would probably take an excruciating 15-20 minutes with a lot of mumbling and fretting. However, Chayse made a choice in under 15 seconds and he stuck to it. Then he went outside and played.
Lesson learned: Sometimes, just make a choice and stick to it.
There was another kid at the retreat who wrote about a mad scientist and a break dancer. This excited the ex-break dancer in me. But this wasn't just a typical break dancer he had written. This was a break dancer who was afraid of breaking things.
Lesson learned: Characters with unique and specific traits will do a lot of the work for you.
After our morning writing session, we had lunch and then went rollerskating! Wow. Started to get horrible flashbacks of junior high. It seems to me that roller skating was clearly on the schedule less for the kids benefit, and more for the staff. Even though the kids were having fun, it was clear the staff had reached a whole other level of rhapsody, where cloud nine goes past eleven.
Lesson Learned: In life, you can never go home again. But you can always go rollerskating.
Here are a few more things I learned from my combined writing/directing/volunteering experiences at the project:
1. Just because it's written for kids doesn't mean you have to dumb it down for them.
2. If you want your kid performers to be really enthused, write them kick ass roles. For example, don't put them in a chicken suit.
3. Don't correct their grammar, because sometimes you can find the most amazing moments in accidental misspellings or phrasing.
4. Any set or prop element you dream up, no matter how crazy, can usually be done with foam core.
As an emerging playwright, I share the same struggles that I'm sure everyone else has. Wrestling with your play, rewriting your play, untangling your play, answering fundamental questions such as "what does your character want?" and learning how to accept/filter feedback. I never studied playwriting formally, never went to grad school. These are all things I had to learn and am still learning today. But what's great about the 52nd Street Project is that they bring together amazing talent, from the directors, designers, composers to their cracker jack staff, to serve the essence of their mission and the personal mission that I myself have but forget all too easily from time to time, which is to play. To simply play, because the singular act of playing is doing. Doing is action, and action is at the core of theatrical drama. And I can't wait for the next time they ask me to come play with them again.
Don Nguyen is a member of the 2008 Emerging Writers Group, The Civilians 2010 R&D Group and the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. His new play "The Man From Saigon" recently received a reading at Naked Angels as part of their 1st Mondays reading series. For more information on Don, please visit his website: thenuge.com.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.