YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS CONTEST: Celebrating Ten Years of the “Write” Stuff!

by Kristen Link, Director of Education

Since the year 2000, City Theatre’s Young Playwrights Program has received roughly 2,000 original one-act submissions, produced nearly one hundred winning playwrights’ works, and taught the craft of playwriting to countless numbers of students in classrooms all over Western Pennsylvania.  Oftentimes, their participation in the Young Playwrights Contest and Festival is the only exposure they have ever had to professional theatre.  In the ten years of our program’s existence, City Theatre has been proud to play an integral part in the theatre education of many of our area’s young students. 

Throughout the years, we’ve seen many young talents pass through the doors of City Theatre, many of whom continued their pursuit of theatre well beyond their time spent with Young Playwrights.  We enjoy keeping in touch with our former winners, watching them as they continue to grow into adults, and, in many cases, into theatre professionals of their own.

As we approach the March 31st deadline for the 2010 Young Playwrights Contest, we thought it would be fun to revisit one of the winners from the 2000 Contest, whose winning play was produced in the Young Playwrights Festival.  We asked her to share her memories of the YPF experience, as well as fill us in on what has happened in her life since then.

The following is a Q & A session with first year Young Playwrights winner Stephanie McGillen.  Stephanie was a student at Thomas Jefferson Middle School when her play “Anna’s Adventure in Greek Mythology” was selected for production in the First Annual Young Playwrights Festival.

THEN

Stephanie McGillen (in pink) with her actors (l to r) Janelle Baker, Autumn Ayers, Gregory Johnstone, Beth Hersey, J.T. Arbogast, and Holli Hamilton.

Kristen Link: You were a middle school winner of the first ever City Theatre Young Playwrights Contest in 2000.  Can you tell us what inspired you to enter the Contest?  Had you ever written a play before?

Stephanie McGillen: I actually wrote my play as a sixth grade English class assignment.  We spent a few weeks learning about the differences between playwriting and other forms of fictional writing, and then everyone in the grade had to create original plays and submit them to the contest.  It was my first venture into playwriting!

KL: Your play was titled “Anna’s Adventure in Greek Mythology.”  If you can think back far enough, do you recall what inspired the idea for your work?

SM: I remember having no idea what to write about and decided to go with the old idea of “writing what you know.”  At the time I was very into Greek mythology and decided to use that as inspiration.  I always thought the petty and jealous natures of the Greek gods in their stories were really funny and wanted to use that aspect in my play.

KL: Do you recall where you were when you got THE phone call?

SM: I do remember getting the call!  I remember being very, very excited but also nervous for getting called out and acknowledged during class.  (I was really shy when I was eleven!)  I also remember my parents being very surprised because I hadn’t even told them that I had written a play!  I was also really excited for and proud of my classmate, Jessica Kuntz, who had also won.

KL: Many people probably think that City Theatre takes the winning plays and produces them “as is,” but this is far from the truth.  Each playwright is paired with a dramaturg who guides the playwrights through a revision process prior to the play’s first rehearsal.  Can you talk about what the revision process was like?  What did you find particularly challenging about it?

SM: I found the revision process really fun.  I was unsatisfied with some aspects of my play, but I didn’t really know how to fix them.  Working with Carlyn [Aquiline] was great because she was so kind but also knew exactly what needed some tweaking.  I had a particularly difficult time with the ending; I don’t remember the original ending of the play or why it needed to be changed, but we wanted to create a more climactic finale.  I encountered some trouble trying to come up with something fun and clever that was a suitable conclusion.  I think what I ultimately came up with was good – pretty cheesy but fun!

KL: Aside from the revision process, the winning playwrights are involved in many other areas of the production, such as auditions, design meetings, rehearsals, and audience talkbacks.  Do you have particular memorable or influential experiences from these?

SM: I always had a huge appreciation for theatre and acting so the highlights for me were the initial interactions with the actors.  The auditions were really fun, especially when a few of my favorites ended up in my play!  I remember being so in awe of the actors, some of whom were not much older than I am now.  The first table reading was both exciting and embarrassing – embarrassing because I had to listen to my words being read aloud to the whole room, but exciting because the actors were already putting their own spins on the characters and adding humor in ways I hadn’t thought of.  Watching the rehearsals and seeing the cast having so much fun was my absolute favorite.  The choreography of the big battle scene in my play was particularly fun for me; the stage directions I had written were pretty vague and suddenly on stage there were gymnastics, a Titan cheer, and all these new jokes I hadn’t even begun to imagine.  It was a pretty magical experience for a star-struck 11-year-old.

NOW 

KL: So let’s talk about what happened after the Festival.  Did you keep up with playwriting or any other form of creative writing?

SM: After the great time I had during the Festival, I always had the intention of writing and submitting another play.  Unfortunately, it was my first foray into the world of playwriting, and, apart from other school assignments, I never really continued with my creative writing.  What I came away from the Festival with was not a desire to continue writing, but a new passion for the behind-the-scenes work of theatre.  

KL: When and where did you go to college?  Did you continue involvement in theatre?

SM: I attended Allegheny College from 2006 – 2009 and continued my deep appreciation of the arts.  I took theatre classes — not due to any talent in acting, but for the love of the theatre world.  I took a great class that included a trip to New York City over spring break.  We saw eight plays and two musicals and got to talk to dramaturgs, costume designers, and a producer.  Over the summer of 2008, I worked at the Pittsburgh CLO as a company manager intern.  Those two experiences provided more fantastic exposure to all the hard work that goes into putting on a theatrical production.

 KL: What are you doing currently?

 SM: I’m currently in my first year of grad school at Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College’s Master of Arts Management program with a focus on performing arts management.  Ultimately, I hope to have a part in performing arts education and community outreach, a decision I made partly based on the fantastic time I had at City Theatre. 

 KL: Finally, as a YPC veteran, what wisdom would you impart to students who may be thinking of entering the Contest this year?

 SM: It may be a clichéd bit of advice, but I would definitely tell students to have fun with their plays!  A lot of my classmates thought that to write an effective play, they had come up with a very serious, emotional, dramatic plot.  I went the goofy route and I think as a result, the playwriting process was actually fun for me, not just another assignment.  Also, I would say that my one regret as a YPC veteran is that I was too shy and quiet as an 11-year-old!  I really admired everyone I was meeting and working with but because I was so shy, I was very nervous about talking to the actors and the City Theatre staff.  I would definitely say to any future winners of the Contest to really take advantage of all the talented people involved with the Festival.  Ask anything you want to ask!  Everyone is very nice and helpful!  

It certainly is a joyous thing to see the impact that Young Playwrights has had on Stephanie, and many other students like her.  We believe that every student has a unique voice and a story to tell, so why not share it through playwriting?

Encourage your child or student (grades 7-12) to enter the 2010 Young Playwrights Contest, and they too might have the chance to see their work come to life on stage.  Each student who submits a play will receive written feedback from our Literary Committee and winning playwrights will work with professional theatre artists at City Theatre.

The Contest deadline is March 31, 2010. For more details or to learn about submission guidelines, click HERE to visit the YP Contest page of our website or call me at 412-431-4400 x 225.

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