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Photo: John Whipple

The Play’s The Thing

An innovative class helps turn Albany High School students into playwrights

By Miriam Axel-Lute

“How did you make it so funny?” “Where did the idea come from?” It is the Q&A session at a night of readings of world-premiere plays, and playwright Anna Rand is being peppered with eager, respectful questions from an audience that just laughed itself silly at her Monty Python-esque satire, The Play That Never Was Told, in which Villain keeps yelling at everyone to call him “Vee-Vee,” Hero is scared of his own shadow, Wife isn’t sure she wants to be rescued, and finally Narrator takes things into his own hands.

If Rand seems a little shy about explaining the finer points of her writing technique and comic timing, well, it could be because she’s a high-school sophomore, and this is the first time an audience has ever seen her work.

Rand is part of Albany High School’s first playwriting class, taught by drama instructor Ward Dales. Her play was performed on February 15 as part of the Promising Playwrights Festival, part 1, directed by Alan Weeks.

While Rand’s was a strong note on which to end the two-day festival, its high quality was by no means an anomaly. It capped off an impressive night that included Doll Face, by Emily Thomas, a haunting and refreshingly unusual look at body-image struggles through a girl’s relationship with, and berating of, a fancy doll; Different, by Ania Perkins, a monologue that refrains from spoon-feeding the audience the precise nature of the difference the character is struggling with, allowing viewers to project themselves into the work; To Go, by Lauren Schaefer, a subtle relationship drama that puts a memorable metaphor in the mouth of a sassy barista; and Watch Her Egg, by Grahame Ramdene, a family portrait that was uncomfortably realistic for Ramdene’s mother, who happened to be sitting behind me. (“I’m gonna kill him!” she said to her companion after the show. But she was grinning.)

Which isn’t to say the plays were without flaws, or even without indications of their writers’ youth. But that’s unavoidable. I still would have paid a pretty penny to jump back a night and catch the first night of these promising playwrights too. Even better, I would have liked to fill the empty seats of that third-full auditorium with people who didn’t have connections to one of the playwrights or actors (I didn’t, but I think most there did).

Admit it: Many of us would go to such a performance primarily to be “supportive,” expecting to cringe through the usual excesses of adolescence and maybe be surprised by a gem or two. I certainly wrote plenty of cringeworthy material in high school. But I never had the benefit of Dales’ class critiquing me either.

It’s a Friday (June 6), and the promising playwrights meander into class. The room’s chalkboards are covered with a previous class’ standardized-test answer key, and the chaos of June (Who’s on what field trip? Who’s going to which prom?) is rampant. But when Dales calls the class to order and asks which of the three scenes students have prepared for the day they should start with, there’s no shy pause, no excuses, no crawling under the carpet. Instead: “Oh, do Devin’s! It’s awesome.” “I want to hear Lauren’s.”

Each scene is read out loud, and after each one, Dales says, “Written critique. Go,” and the pens start scratching. After a short few minutes, every student gives verbal feedback as well. And here again, it’s hard to remember you’re listening to high-school students.

It can be like pulling teeth to get a group of experienced adults to give feedback beyond a vague “I liked it” or “I didn’t get it,” but in this class, students one after another fire off precise, relevant comments: “The characters weren’t that distinct,” “I wanted it to get to the point faster,” “You did a good job of nailing gender roles,” “That was a great word choice.” The writers don’t respond defensively. The class argues civilly about how essential the accents are in a funny scene by Tiffanie Hinds about two mobsters planning a hit, and applaud Devin Wellspeak’s use of a prop when one of his characters, who has just resisted a lover’s manipulative attempts to stop her from striking out on her own, takes a deep breath of the lover’s scent left on a piece of clothing.

Dales says that, by his judgment, the students’ written critiques, which involve number scoring and become an assignment’s grade, are “right on the money nine and a half out of 10 times.” If he thinks they’re off, he’ll average them with his own assessment before assigning a grade, but he doesn’t discount them entirely.

Of course his students didn’t walk into class last September as master critiquers. Lauren Schaefer recalls they did all start off with the bland, tentative “It was good” responses, but, she says, Dales told them basically, “You can’t do that.” Learning some of the vocabulary of playwriting helped them make their critiques more specific, she says, but they all agree that it was at least as helpful to progressively get to know each other and each other’s individual styles, something that the informal atmosphere of the class and Dales’ energetic, playful manner no doubt encouraged.

It took a bit of a leap of faith to get there, though. Playwriting is exceedingly tricky business, says Dales—basically the art of “writing what isn’t there.” He didn’t want to do the typical pussyfooting where you “encourage” young writers by just telling them “Oh, that’s great.” Instead, he wanted to give them some of the “disciplines of the form” and help them use those disciplines to really work to improve their craft. “When [a writer] struggles, and their struggles are on paper, then you get art,” he says.

So his gut told him that a playwriting class should be seminar style. But in a high school? At an age when students are notoriously shy and fearful of judgment?

Yes, apparently. In creating the class, Dales, who has a long and distinguished career as an actor and director, and says he fell into teaching by accident 14 years ago, pulled together a loose structure, but kept room for improvisation and the philosophy that “if I’m having fun, they’re having fun.” And he knows he ended up with something special. “How many times do you hear high-school students singing each other’s praises?” he asks.

There were other challenges to introducing a playwriting class at the high-school level. Unlike other writing forms, a play script is incomplete until someone has interpreted it. “Theater is completely collaborative,” says Dales, and it’s not that useful to “write in a vacuum.” So he enlisted the Albany High School Theatre Ensemble, the after-school drama club, to perform readings of the class’s 10-minute plays. Even the apparently calm, poised playwrights say this first Promising Playwrights Festival reduced them to a bundle of nerves, first by having peers outside the familiar small confines of the class working from their scripts (“What if they’re having to act it, and they hate it?”) and then by having to sit still while, as Wellspeak describes it, a “silent audience” judged what they saw. But they made it through, and seem cheerful at the prospect of going through it again.

The second Promising Playwrights festival, happening tonight and tomorrow (Thursday and Friday, June 12 and 13), will feature seven one-acts. Tonight’s will be performed as staged readings, acted by members of Dales’ Career Explorations in Performing Arts class, an off-campus college-credit class that is part of a series of “career explorations” programs offered by the high school. Tomorrow’s performances will be readings, again by the theater ensemble. “One of the coolest things about this class is being able to connect curriculum to the after-school program,” says Dales. He hopes next year to make it into one four-day-long arts festival.

In the meantime, he has at least made playwrights out of students who hadn’t given much thought to the form. Since this was the creative writing elective available at Albany High this year, many students took it just because they had a general interest in writing, not necessarily playwriting. Others say they were intrigued by the idea of a new form. When I ask about the differences from other writing they’ve done, they get into a bit of a debate about whether it’s a harder form. They “went nuts” when they first had to write something a full 10 minutes long, recalls Schaefer. Senior Emily Thomas says it was a challenge, having to use so much more dialogue.

“I think scenes are easier [than other writing],” pipes up sophomore Sophia Kolankowski.

Thomas grins. “Yeah, I think that now.”

The Promising Playwrights Festival 2 will take place today and tomorrow (Thursday and Friday, June 12-13) at 7 PM at Albany High School, 700 Washington Ave., Albany. Admission is $5, $2 students/seniors.

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