The Curious Eyes of a Writer
By Kimberly Shepherd, Marketing Apprentice.
It's an honor to be named an Aetna New Voices Fellow, but it's also a busy job. For 2014-15 Aetna New Voices Fellow Kimber Lee, that means readings, workshops, community development and education projects, and writing a new play commissioned by Hartford Stage.
While this engaging fellowship may at first seem to be focused solely on providing the greatest support and benefit to the chosen playwright, there is far more of a pay-it-forward aspect to it than most realize. One of the cornerstone responsibilities of all Aetna New Voices Fellows is to work with Hartford Stage's Education Department on programs, such as Write On and Project: Transform.
"It is just the most beautiful gift, to be invited into the life of a theatre and to be able to participate in meaningful ways," Lee explains. "I worked as a teaching artist in Seattle for many years, and then taught undergrad playwriting, and I have come to believe that offering students a chance to learn about many aspects of theatre is crucial. The tremendous virtue of theatrical process is the range of artistic disciplines it encompasses, and the more young minds are exposed to all of those possibilities, the more points of entry they will have through which to discover and participate in the art form."
Write On is Hartford Stage's Annual Young Playwrights' Competition open to all Connecticut residents in grades 9-12. The program is unique in its offering of professional quality play development to a select few, young aspiring writers. Although she's a professional playwright now, Lee admits she was not really aspiring to be one at a young age like some of her Write On students. "Throughout my whole life, I have scribbled stories and all kinds of things, but always in private—in corners of houses and apartments where I have lived, in my bedroom, outside under a tree, in coffee shops," she explains. "When I got into theatre, it was through acting, and I was a professional actor in Seattle for a long time, but always scribbling in secret. And then one day, a friend encouraged me to invite some people to my living room to read my scribbling out loud, so I did. It was like a light went on. It was simultaneously the most thrilling and terrifying thing."
The Write On program was originally born out of the Brand: NEW Festival of New Work as a way to provide high school students interested in playwriting a similar experience to the professional writers in the festival. Participants spent a week shadowing a play in the festival through the workshop process and staged reading. They then went on to develop their own work using the same model they had observed in the festival. However, Aurelia Clunie, Education Associate for Student Audiences, explains: "As new play development has changed at Hartford Stage, Write On has worked to change with it. We are responding more organically to the needs of the student writers and mentors." The small group of 5 or 6 students chosen still has the opportunity to develop their ten-minute plays in workshops, but their experience in the program now encompasses much more.
Today students are provided with the opportunity to learn about professional play development directly from the Aetna New Voices Fellow. This mentorship has evolved beyond simply meeting for weekly workshops. When Reverberation playwright and 2012-13 Aetna New Voices Fellow Matthew Lopez learned one of his Write On students was spending his spring break visiting colleges on the west coast, Lopez offered him tickets to a production of his new hit, The Whipping Man. When the student returned he had the unique chance to talk first-hand about the play's production with Lopez. Last season, 2013-14 Aetna New Voices Fellow Janine Nabers took students outside the workshop to see the newly released film version of August: Osage County in order to have them compare the film script to the play's original text.
It was Nabers suggestion that the program take the students to see a play in New York City which lead directly to this season's participants being able to attend a performance of Kimber Lee's play brownsville song (b-side for tray) at Lincoln Center Theater in October. Lee took the opportunity of having the students in New York City to actually conduct the first workshop of the program this season at the Lark Play Development Center. "The Lark is my artistic home in NYC," says Lee. "I knew it would be a really comfortable setting for us to meet. I also wanted them to see an institution that is wholly dedicated to the support of playwrights, which is such a special thing." The students’ visit to the center allowed her both to show them the opportunities that are available to professional writers and to speak with the students about the realities of pursuing a career as a professional playwright in America.
In January this season's Write On students reunited with Lee at Hartford Stage to begin working on their ten-minute play scripts over the course of three weekly workshops. "The process for these workshops has been very much tailored to the students we have in the program, and I've tried to provide a very basic set of tools for investigating and creating dramatic action," says Lee.
"I think that every human being has an innate sense of story, an instinct for what makes a compelling story, and I really enjoy the chance to explore that with a group of young playwrights who don't come in with tons of preconceived ideas." In regards to how different tackling play development is for Write On students versus professionals, Lee says not that much. "The basic questions we have been dealing with in our workshops are the same questions that professional playwrights face: how do we make the thing go?"
By the end of the month students transitioned to working with local actors and directors in table readings and rehearsals in order to mount their newly penned works into a night of staged readings that takes place in February. Although the readings mark the end of the Write On program each year, students are encouraged to continue working on both their plays from the program and new projects. Former Write On students have continued on to participate as writers in Hartford Stage's Project: Transform and have written back saying how being in Write On has made them consider for the first time studying writing or theatre in college.
Clunie says these results are exactly what the program was created to do. "This window into the professional life of a playwright allows students to consider following their own passions professionally, and encourages their writing whether or not that is what they want to pursue."
And what would Lee like to see her students take away from this experience? "I hope they walk out of the program with a sense of how to look at dramatic writing analytically. I think we are all good at knowing what we like and don't like, but my hope is that this program will have introduced tools for being able to identify and articulate the why of a preference.
I also hope in a general way that looking at the world through the curious eyes of a writer for this period of time is something that will stick in some small way, no matter what area of study or work these students pursue."