North from Mobile: A One-Act Playwriting Competition in Alabama Could Give Birth to the Next Generation of Southern Writers

By Wilder, Elyzabeth Gregory | American Theatre, March 2009 | Go to article overview

North from Mobile: A One-Act Playwriting Competition in Alabama Could Give Birth to the Next Generation of Southern Writers


Wilder, Elyzabeth Gregory, American Theatre


STANDING ON MY FRONT PORCH WAS 11TH grader Genevieve Murdick. With an oversized bag draped across her shoulders, she clutched a dilapidated notebook to her chest. "I have this idea," she said.

A few weeks earlier I had met Genevieve while teaching a play writing workshop at my former high school in Mobile, Ala. Genevieve was the star pupil in her creative writing class. I recognized her from my neighborhood and was immediately impressed when she shared a poem she had written about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the workshop ended, I told Genevieve to stop by my house if she was interested in writing a play.

I made my return to my alma mater as part of the Playwright in the Classroom project, sponsored by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The program evolved from the Montgomery-based theatre company's Young Southern Writers' Project, which was created to give a voice to a new generation of southern authors and encourage southern high school students to hone their writing skills. The program's one-act play competition accepts submissions from Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, and culminates in a public reading of the winning plays. Students are treated to lunch, gift certificates and tickets to a production at ASF. The goal of Playwright in the Classroom is to introduce playwriting to rural and inner-city high schools by giving both teachers and students the basic tools needed to write a play, with the hope that they will then submit to the competition.

If the simple joy of writing a play isn't enough to motivate students to submit their work, the glory of winning the competition and having another impressive credential to add to a college application often is. What often begins as a means of self-expression or escape can evolve into an opportunity. As one of four kids in a middle-class home, Genevieve already had her sights set on studying creative writing at a college out of state. With financial resources dwindling and the battle for scholarships growing, Genevieve knew this was a great opportunity to stand out, even if it meant stepping outside her comfort zone. So over an ice-cold Coca-Cola, Genevieve sat in my living room and pitched her story.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I felt a special affection for Genevieve as I listened to her spew forth her ideas. (I remembered being in somewhat the same position in 1994, when I met Wendy Wasserstein after a Young Playwrights Festival performance at New York's Public Theater--she patiently listened to me, then told me to go home and write a play.) Genevieve wanted to write about a dying horse. With volumes of notebooks filling her room, she was an avid writer of fiction and poetry. However, she had never had to confront the challenges of writing for the stage.

For her, the assignment was foreign and daunting. Looking back on the experience later, she noted, "Writing my first play was frightening, because without the obvious exposition and description that I use in fiction, my words felt naked--I was forced to challenge myself with subtext."

And then there was the issue of the horse. Sam Shepard recently proved it's possible to put a dead horse on stage, but Genevieve was going to have to come up with her own solution.

Playwriting provides students with a unique opportunity to learn about actions and consequences, empathy and conflict resolution, through storytelling. As we know, funding for the arts is always the first thing sacrificed when school systems come up short on money. Couple that with the pressures of the No Child Left Behind legislation and an arduous test schedule, and few teachers have the time to incorporate activities that are not specifically outlined in their curriculum. Teachers are left to teach only what students will be tested on, and students are left to find inspiration in an often uninspired course of study. However, thanks to many wise and dedicated teachers, arts education happens nevertheless: In school gymnasiums and cafeterias throughout the South, the tables are pushed back and the basketball goals raised, all for the sake of creating makeshift stages where school groups can perform. …

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