New Talent: Young Playwrights' Festival
Weales, Gerald, Commonweal
New York's Young Playwrights' Festival is in its eleventh season and, to my discredit, I have gone to a program for the first time this year. I did try back in 1990, as a curious playgoer not as a reviewer, but there was not a seat to be had-- not even for ready money. The YPF has its loyal supporters. I wanted then to see Allison Birch's Believing, which I had read and seen performed in Philadelphia, and to see how a play that I liked held its own among the winners of the national competition for playwrights, eighteen and under. Very well, from all reports.
If I have been derelict on the national level, I have at least been keeping an eye on the Philadelphia Young Playwrights' Festival since 1988, when the program was first instituted. The Philadelphia Inquirer (May 27, 1988) ran a story about the young playwrights at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia. A snippet of dialogue from one of the plays so impressed me that I wrote to the teacher in charge, Marsha Pincus (who understandably keeps winning teaching awards), and asked if I could see the play. She sent me a copy of "Plays in Progress" (a name that the Theatre Communications Group uses for the work of more exalted dramatists) so that I could see the first year's work. Under the program, the teacher teases plays from interested students and the young writers work with a local playwright (Rufus Caleb at Gratz); there are staged readings at each school and the winners go on to a city-wide festival. Gratz is a large inner-city school in a tough neighborhood (one of the playwrights was killed by a bullet meant for someone else), and the playwrights there deal straightforwardly or comically or sentimentally with drugs, drink, sex, and abuse inside and outside the family. As the PYPF became better known and better financed, it spread to other schools-- suburban schools, private schools--and a certain sophistication about how plays are made has surfaced in the results. Although I wish all the young playwrights well, I remain a Gratz fan because the program there allows students with practically no experience of theater to expose their fears and longings, their street language and odd lyricism, and, then, as the play is worked and reworked with the advice of outside readers, teachers, playwrights, directors, to find a shape for what they want to say.
If I had come cold to the festival in New York and seen Terrance Jenkin's Taking Control, I would have recognized it as a Simon Gratz play. Both he and Allison Birch are Gratz alumni. He first submitted the play to the New York festival in 1990 and, after reworking it so thoroughly that it is almost a new piece, had it accepted for this season's program. It begins with an idealized family scene, variations of which punctuate the otherwise realistic play. It concerns three young girls who live with their foul-mouthed, abusive, alcoholic grandmother. Tarae, the middle child, is the strongest of the three, the one who tries to take control, to deal with her older sister who has become pregnant at sixteen. Structured in brief scenes, like a television drama (TV is a major influence on most Gratz play-wrights), it allows Tarae to confront her father, a drunk whose response to any disquieting demand on him is violence or the threat of violence; her mother, who has become a prostitute (a classy house, not a street corner) in search of the life that she missed as a teen-age mother; and her grandmother, who collapses into helplessness when the family pattern seems to be repeating itself. …