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How TDF's Young Playwrights program transformed to meet students' needs
When schools and theatres across New York City and the nation closed because of COVID-19, Noelle Ghoussaini's first concern was her kids—all 12 of them. A multidisciplinary stage artist who writes, directs and performs, she is also the lead teaching artist and co-founder with TDF of Young Playwrights, a free education program for NYC teenagers that includes weekly meetings, monthly theatre outings and showcases of the students' work. With in-person gatherings verboten, Ghoussaini knew she had to reimagine her approach, and she did so out of a generosity of spirit since TDF's budget for the program had to be slashed once our organization's largest source of revenue, theatre ticket sales, ceased.
"We stopped for a week or two, and then we found out we couldn't fund it anymore and I was like, okay, whatever, I still think we should all meet," Ghoussaini recalls. "It's something I love so much. For a lot of the students it's a very sacred space for us to meet and write and bring community and connection, and I wanted to maintain that during this time."
Initially, it was challenging. "For the first three or four weeks, I wasn't sure how to lead the class on Zoom to foster that creativity," Ghoussaini says. The students were also having trouble adjusting to their upended lives.
"I went through a period of time when I wasn't feeling creative at all," admits Miosori Polanco, a junior in the drama department at Queens' Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, who's part of the Young Playwrights program. "I don't know if it had anything to do directly with the virus, but I think being taken out of my routine kind of just jarred me."
Her fellow Young Playwright, Shiloh Janowick-Cockrell, who'll be entering college as a freshman this fall, agrees. "I think that a big, big thing with writing is ritual and finding comfort in repetition," she says. "Even though I'm homeschooled, I still have things that I do around the city. Just the fact that all of that came to a screeching halt… there was like maybe a monthlong period where I just couldn't write anything because I was not sure how to go about it."
A breakthrough came when the students were offered an opportunity to pen pieces for a special Young Playwrights showcase of the Viral Monologues. Produced by The 24 Hour Plays, the Viral Monologues launched on March 17 on Instagram, just five days after Broadway shut down. Almost every Tuesday, the series debuts a new batch of brief but biting solos about our new abnormal, all written, rehearsed and recorded by professional playwrights and actors in 24 hours.
Taking advantage of the Viral Monologues' pay-what-you-can license for schools, Ghoussaini was able to bring this concept to her students. The tight turnaround coupled with the chance to address the trauma of this moment sparked the teens' imagination. At 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 14, they started writing on Zoom, working individually and then breaking into small groups to give each other feedback. The next day, professional actors rehearsed and recorded the two-to-three-minute pieces and, by 6 p.m. on Friday, the Young Playwrights' monologues were being shared with the world wide web.
Although the project took place more than a week before the murder of George Floyd sparked global protests against police brutality and systemic racism, some of the students were already in a political frame of mind. For example, Brianna Chavez, also a drama major at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, wrote a monologue called "1-800-799-SAFE (7233)" about a pregnant woman trying to leave her abusive, drug-addicted fiancé. "I read an article about how domestic violence is on the rise now because of the coronavirus," she explains. "People are stuck at home and they're suffering because they're with the person that they're being abused by."
Other students used their pieces to process their pandemic anxiety. In Polanco's monologue, "Blue Presents, Yellow Futures," a nurse pleads with a teenager in a coronavirus drug trial not to give up. "That specific week I was thinking a lot about myself in this moment, and how this is going to change everything," she says. "I wanted my monologue to really feel like someone on the brink. So I wrote what I needed to hear on steroids, someone who was on the verge and they just needed that one person to pull them back."
Janowick-Cockrell went a more lyrical route with a poetic meditation on transformation. "That was the prompt Noelle gave us: transformation," she says. "We also needed to have a moment of touch. I had a very vivid image come to mind immediately, but the hook for me was that moment of touch, because I'm a very physical person and I'm incredibly touch-starved right now."
The rest of the monologues grapple with equally complex themes such as time and aging, and struggles with faith and mortality. All went from the students' minds to online in just 24 hours.
When the monologues started to debut one by one on TDF's Instagram, the playwrights tuned in from their respective homes—a very different experience than sitting in a theatre surrounded by family and friends watching an ephemeral performance.
"We knew once they went up, they'd be in cyberspace forever," says Chavez. " If they were bad, the whole world would know that forever. There was a lot more pressure!"
"When I'm performing, it's my interpretation that people critique," Polanco adds. "But with this, it was my writing, it was like I put my heart onto Instagram. It was much more nerve-racking.
But the fact that their work could reach a much wider audience was also exciting. "Once my monologue was up, I was like, okay, now I've got to spread it all around!" Janowick-Cockrell says. "I was just posting constantly on my Instagram story. The feedback was really, really positive. It was nice to get positivity from my writing in a time like this. It felt really healing."
Over the past month, as the national conversation has shifted from the pandemic to systemic racism and their overlap, Ghoussaini and her diverse group of Young Playwrights have continued to respond to this challenging period through their work. Usually, at the end of the school year, the students present a one-night, invite-only showcase at 42nd Street's Theatre Row. But this year, since the show must go online, everyone can witness the fruits of their creativity on Thursday, June 25 at 4:30 p.m. ET on TDF's YouTube channel.
Given that some of the playwrights are also activists—Chavez organized a fundraiser to deliver meals to Bellevue Hospital and Janowick-Cockrell is involved with the environmental group Extinction Rebellion NYC—it's no surprise that many students are opting to address what's happening in our world head-on. The digital format has also given them license to experiment in form and presentation. According to Ghoussaini, there will be poems, scenes and short films "ranging from rituals in times of COVID; to videos about Black Lives Matter; to interactive Zoom plays; to thematic content about self-worth, womanhood and the empowerment of youth of color."
Although it's too early to say what Young Playwrights (or schools or our world) will look like in the fall, these past three months are proof that the program can thrive online just as it does in person. In fact, there are upsides. "While it is less impactful in some ways than a real-world performance, it is so much more accessible for artists and for audiences," notes Janowick-Cockrell. "Like, if I wanted to read my monologue that I wrote for the Viral Monologues, I could literally just put it up right now and start a Zoom meeting and tell all my friends to join. It's immediate and simple. I fully intend on creating some kind of DIY show in my living room this summer."
Please join us for the Young Playwrights Group Showcase on Thursday, June 25 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET on TDF's YouTube channel.
Top image: TDF's Young Playwrights collaborating on Zoom.