SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — There’s Jordan and Cleetus. But, then Milkyway cannot be forgotten along with Juniper and Jennifer. Eclipso and ZigaZiga-ah are also in the mix, too.
Zoe Cook, 13, pondered these names written on a whiteboard. She turned to her computer keyboard, fingers hitting different letters. It’s not a video game that has her and eight other youngsters pulling this collection of characters together, but a play they are designing themselves with the help of The Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield.
“I want to have an awkward moment,” she said, drawing on some lessons taught in this Young Writers Camp CTC offers. “It’s that look in the eyes two people have as I saw when my parents used to have a drink at the Dragon Palace when I was seven,” she said.
“Cleetus is doing it and they are being very romantic,” she added, as she continued her collaboration for crafting a scene.
Andrew Katzman, 30, one of the instructors, brings a background in acting at CTC and other theaters and is the originator of the CTC young writers program. He approached Zoe as he answered a question from her and two others creating action in the play entitled, “Over The Moooon” (with a double “oo”).
“If you do the spaces in between — the reasons we do it — is one page per minute. And every time a character speaks, they have a new line,” he instructed, before jumping up to the large whiteboard where each scene was being worked out by the young playwrights.
These area children, also working with theater actress and writer Maggie Papa, 23. She is a singer, improviser, musician and teacher.
“What’s always surprises me is how well students of all ages can work together when they are truly excited to create something. While they all have different writing styles, senses of humor, and limitations, their uninhibited creativity all mixed together makes for the best kinds of stories,” she said.
Giving Personal Attention
Students get personal attention from the two teachers helping them to develop skills and understand a play’s production from conception to performance. The writers will also act, oversee costumes and assist with technical direction in this play scheduled to be performed Aug. 10 and 17 as part of CTC’s children’s summer theater program.
Giving back to the community, including hands-on instruction for children, is part of CTC’s mission, said Christopher Simpson, creative director and founder of the CTC. Making that commitment real, these two instructors collaborated with – as they subtly taught – their young students.
Katzman knelt on a wooden stage and fielded question after question from young writers, encouraging them to ask more and debating an approach with them. Papas, meanwhile, made the rounds to other groups, looking over their shoulders, giving them gentle encouragement, and worked with those locked into individual creativity.
One writer, Annika Myette, 10, focused intently on her work, smiling as she wrote. “It’s a really fun camp. I really like writing and I have loved theater all my life,” she said, explaining that as an infant her mother, a theater teacher, called her a “baby director” because Annika accompanied her mother often to work.
Not only is the camp also fun for Katherine Thornber, 9, but she said it makes her put extra effort into her work.
“When I try to write a play, I get stuck in places. They push me to keep going. When I got stuck before, I would just give up,” she said.
That’s a discovery Analise Travis, 13, said she made, too, in addition to seeing the complexity of designing a play and staging the production.
“I’ve learned a lot about setup and it takes a lot more work than I thought,” said Annalise. “You have to think more deeply about characters, make lists, eliminate details, choose the main setting and main characters.”
“We didn’t even have the whole plot until we started to write,” she added, with a nod toward professional writers who encounter the same issue until their work unfolds.
Sydney Cagnetta, 13, said the writing also includes planning for the technical necessities that bring the performance alive on stage. “I really like doing tech. The lighting, the costumes, how they look, getting the character ready to come on stage. It’s all pretty fun.”
Creating Real Life Themes
Instructors Papa and Katzman are also trying to bring to their young understudies a lesson larger than just how to create and stage a performance. They are also showing them how to craft some traditional and real-life themes, with a modern twist, into their fantasy production.
This play accents pre-teen and teen exploration of identity and self-awareness. Some of those attending the camp offered that reason as part of their discussion about art — the play — imitating their own lives, said Papa.
“The story we ended up creating…was about a girl, Juniper, an alien who doesn’t know that she is an alien, but who felt she was out of place. She felt deep down in her core she was not ‘normal’. Her own mother openly rejects who she is,” Papa explained.
“It’s not until the aliens come that Juniper realizes that she is an alien and normal because there are plenty of others just like her. In the end, the mom’s love for Juniper overcomes her disdain for “normal-ness” and she accepts Juniper for who she is,” she said.
Katzman added, “It’s about accepting people for who they are. Our goal is to show if you don’t fit in, don’t give up.”
When the writing was completed, it became clear the students has a message for a variety of audiences, such as parents, friends and others, watching it, said Papa. “Personally, I think kids have a way more open mind about life and not being restricted by thoughts or ideas that adults usually are.”
Katzman explained, “Kids are consistently underestimated. I just really like that I get to participate in helping them make a statement, to say something that they really want to say without the confines of rules.”
Papa said, “I hope students will feel validated when they see the characters and dialogues they’ve created come to life onstage. Although they are young, they have very profound and intelligent things to say, and important lessons to teach. Hopefully giving them a place to say these things to a large group of people will make them feel heard.”
“We both really care — as much as all these kids — that it will be the best show it can be,” said Katzman.