MCT’s Young Playwrights Festival an intro to new talent

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's latest installment of the biennial festival gives three teenage writers a platform for their plays.

By - Mar 20th, 2013 12:15 am

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, like most theater companies, is the sort of entity where you focus on its most prominent feature: the main season of plays.But behind the scenes, there’s more than one additional project brewing, and this weekend one of those comes to fruition: the biennial Young Playwrights Festival.

Artistic director C. Michael Wright says the festival was designed to further one of the theater’s major goals that doesn’t always peek out from behind the curtain: helping new artists develop. “Part of our mission at the Milwaukee Chamber Theater is to nurture theater artists of this area. The idea [of the festival] is to encourage all young people to learn about the art of playwriting and then to attempt to explore their voices through playwriting.”

MCT solicits play submissions once a year from high school students in the Milwaukee area, partly in connection with free writing workshops they offer at interested schools to help students explore writing drama. Those submissions are judged by a panel of readers, who pick their top three choices (and three honorable mentions) to be produced at a showcase event every other year.

This cycle’s three winners are Ariel Ludlum, with A Sister’s Bond, H’Vyn Jones, with Just Another Day in Dentures, and Matthew Lewis, with Stitches. In addition to having their plays produced by professional casts, MCT invites the students back for the first read-throughs and keeps them updated on the production’s progress, to help them learn more about the theatrical process as a whole – an opportunity Wright considers truly unique. “It’s a wonderful way for them to explore issues in their life and it’s a really great thing for them to get to see people speak their words onstage. That’s the ultimate for them.”

Finalist Lewis, now a freshman at UW-Madison, originally wrote Stitches – a coming-of-age play about a rebellious young girl who spends the summer at her grandmother’s quilt shop – as a final project in his junior year at Reagan High School, but says he has been writing plays since he was in 6th grade. “Stories would always be in my head, so I started to write them down,” Lewis said. “And then regular creative writing stories weren’t really doing all that I wanted them to do. So I started writing plays so I could give the characters stage direction and create a place where characters could interact with each other.”

The three plays all focus on young protagonists (Just Another Day in Dentures also features a young-old pairing, between an eccentric grandfather and the granddaughter who is forced to visit; A Sister’s Bond focuses on a teenage girl trying to get her and her sister out of an abusive family situation). While the playwrights are generally the only high school students involved, the productions typically involve young designers, directors and technicians as well, many college-aged, and auditions are open to actors of all ages. Catie O’Donnell, a recent grad directing Just Another Day in Dentures, says the festival often serves as a stepping stone for those artists looking to get a foot in the door themselves. “This festival is more about up-and-comers in the area … younger artists, directors who don’t necessarily have as much experience. This gives actors who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with Chamber Theatre to act with us,” she said.

O’Donnell said she too got her start with theater in high school, underscoring the festival’s importance for these students. “I had an interest in being a director ever since high school, when I assistant directed a production of 1776 my sophomore year,” O’Donnell said. “That was my first taste in directing. It became more apparent that was what I wanted to do after I’d done a little more directing in college, but it started in high school all the way back then.”

The Milwaukee Chamber Theater’s Young Playwrights Festival runs March 21-24. Each of the three winning one-act plays will be performed each night. Tickets are $18.50 and can be purchased online or at (414)291-7800.

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