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The Write Stuff

By: Andy Buck
Date: Jun 25, 2009


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By Andy Buck

Since 1996, the Theatre Development Fund has sponsored an intensive, yearlong playwriting program called the Residency Arts Project (RAP), which matches professional playwrights with teachers and students from New York City high schools. The students learn how to write original scenes and plays, some of which are selected for public staged readings by professional actors at the end of the year. They also attend and study a Broadway or off-Broadway play together. Initially funded by a grant from the New York Times and its former managing editor [and acclaimed Eugene O'Neill biographer] Arthur Gelb, RAP was inaugurated at DeWitt Clinton High School, Gelb's Bronx alma mater. This past season, the program had residences in that school and five others citywide.

"It's very, very successful," says Marianna Houston, TDF's director of education. "It enhances the kids' writing and literacy skills. It's even improved their performance on the Regents Exams. And the kids have a great time. They get to value their own personal stories. They get to work with their own natural talent, with an ear for language, voice, and character. And they get to sort out what they think about trust and family and relationships."

One of the six RAP schools this season was Prospect Heights International High School, a Brooklyn-based school for recent immigrants, which, Houston notes, makes for interesting writing. "They bring stories from around the globe," she notes. Out of 80 participating students from that school, six had their plays read at a June 9 event emceed by director Stephen DiMenna, who has been with RAP since its beginning. Earlier in the season, all of the participants attended a performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, August: Osage County.

We spoke with two of the six playwrights, Jawahir Elnessafi and Jessica Tam, whose plays My Destiny and Cold Love opened and closed the June 9 program. 

TDF: Jessica, let's start with you. How did you start writing Cold Love?

Jessica:  I had the inspiration by reading a book, Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry. It's about this disabled girl and how she becomes strong and fights all these difficulties in her life. Sometimes little things can inspire you to come up with a big story or a play. You just need to pay attention to the details of life. And also try to understand and respect your peers. Because, you know, at school people come from different places. Sometimes, if you don't understand other people's behavior, you think, "Oh, they're rude. They talk loud. They're uneducated." Now I feel like we need to understand them, to see what the story is behind them that makes them behave in this way.

TDF: I love the scene where a disabled boy tries to impress a blind girl by convincing her that he's a magic elf. How did that come about?

Jessica: I want to say some movies. But I don't know which ones exactly. I remember there was this story of a princess falling in love with this guy who's not that-who is ugly.

TDF: Were you surprised by any of the audience reactions?

Jessica: (laughing) I don't know why it was so funny. Why were people laughing?

Jawahir: The Peter Pan idea?

TDF: Oh, right, your references to Peter Pan.

Jessica: Oh, the Peter Pan idea I came up with yesterday afternoon, because I was fixing it. I was trying to expand the dialogue a little bit and suddenly I was just thinking of an elf and Tinker Bell and Peter Pan. And I just added those there. 

TDF: The actors read these plays cold after some brief direction from you. What advice did you give them about the characters they played?

Jessica: I wanted to show them how they should behave, when they talk what kind of tone. Like the girl, she's kind of naïve. And she's very peaceful and caring. And I told [the actor playing the disabled boy] to focus on the way he walks. He can't just walk like normal people.

TDF: Were you surprised by anything they did?

Jessica: They took a lot of stage directions out. But I think it was fine. Basically, they keep the main point, like what you are trying to show…

Jawahir: [nodding] The message that you're trying to deliver to the audience.

TDF: How about you, Jawahir? What was some of your advice to the actors?

Jawahir: Well, I spoke to Sam [Gates], who played the father from Yemen. The father's really hard on his kids. He's not adapted to this world yet, which his kids are being raised in. So I told him, "Visually show that you're hard and you're stubborn. Inside, you're not. You care for them. You love them so much." Which shows at the end of the play when he is talking to himself: "What have I done to my son?" It's like he has two faces from the outside and inside. And he did a really good job at it. I thought they both really got into their characters and made me feel like it was a real-life situation happening right now. They did a good job at catching up with the character's descriptions-their ages; how they acted, being from Yemen. 

TDF: What did you learn about yourself this year?

Jawahir: I learned that I'm an artist and that I can write whatever I want. This is like giving me my freedom. As long as I have a pen and a paper in my hands, I can do whatever. I can create a whole world.

TDF: So you'll do more writing?

Jawahir: Yes.

TDF: And how about you, Jessica?

Jessica: I want to keep writing this one, the one I just presented. I don't want it to end this way. Writing a play really, really well, it takes a long time, and is not as easy as you think. When we saw August: Osage County, I thought, "Oh, it's easy, you know."

Jawahir: [laughing] It's just people talking.

Jessica: But we improved a lot. The skills that were provided were so helpful. Something thing I learned was that getting your character is what builds the play. Their background, what race they are, how old they are, what they want, is really what moves the play to keep going.

TDF: How did RAP teach you that?

Jessica: The teachers give out sheets on writing everything about the character-how old they are, their height, their weight.

Jawahir: The emotional and physical facts about the characters.

TDF: Do the characters ever surprise you while you're writing them?

Jawahir: Oh, yes! I was shocked how a character, an invisible person, can really change the whole play. The play that I [wrote] in October, I'd like to change it completely because of that. My characters were so-I had no idea. I didn't understand what they wanted. I didn't understand where they came from. Their secrets, what they dream of. Just getting a character will get you the play.

Learn more about TDF's Residency Arts Project
Andy Buck