Under the guidance of a professional, about 75 students at Liberty High School have been learning how to develop characters, hone conflict and thicken plots.
Center Stage's weeklong Playwrights-in-Schools program came from Baltimore to Eldersburg last week. During the residency, subsidized by a federal arts grant, playwright-in-residence Mark Novak led students in the exploration of the basic elements of character, conversation and conflict.
Mr. Novak and several other program instructors encourage participants to write a play for Center Stage's annual Young Playwrights Festival, during which professional actors perform the winning plays for the public.
Last year, the theater received 130 entries for the competition.
A playwright and composer who gears his work to youths, Mr. Novak brought contagious energy and enthusiasm to the classroom, set on the school's stage.
He worked with three, one-hour classes each day. English teachers had recommended some students; others were Kathy Schnorr's Drama II students, who have been studying play production.
Ms. Schnorr said the classes would read and critique scripts at the end of the workshop and videotape the best scenes.
Mr. Novak conducts six residencies a year for Center Stage.
"My goal is to give the students enough of a grip on craft and art, so they will be able to write their own scenes with identifiable characters and recognizable conflicts," he said.
"I want them to feel a sense of ownership of their material."
With few preliminaries, he plunged into the dynamics of writing.
"A character's goal drives the play," Mr. Novak said. "First, we need to define a goal."
"How about a murder?" one student suggested.
"Nah, murders are old," Mr. Novak said.
He wanted a conflict more germane to teen-agers, he said, as he combed the class for ideas.
"What do you want and why?" he asked, hoping the answers would inspire the young writers.
The students' replies -- a car, acceptance to college, a date for the prom -- could all be fodder for dramatic conflict, he said.
With Liberty's prom looming Saturday, Mr. Novak settled on the date dilemma. Now, how and why could that situation generate a story line, he asked.
"It's your senior year and all your friends are going, but you can't get a date," said one student.
"Good. How do you get a date?" he asked.
The students' answers quickly gave them ideas for the plot.
The playwright asked how much time the class would allow the story to span.
"I think we need about three weeks to get the story organized," he said. "If we get down to the last three days and our character still has no date, we will have a sense of urgency."
Then, he drew character descriptions and possible obstacles to the goal from the students.
"Her mother causes problems," said Julie Sakers, 17. "It could be a conflict we all experience."
Parental pressure would enhance the story, Mr. Novak agreed.
"That would offer a different point of view and create conflict and friction," he said. "What would the mother say and do?"
He set a task for his class: Write a monologue lecture from the mother in this situation.
"Give the daughter a word or two, but use this scene mostly for the mother," he said. "You want the lecture to tell your audience much about the mother."
Dialogue will reveal many aspects of the character, he said. The words will offer keys to attitudes, social status and information necessary for plot development.
"We don't know anything until the character speaks," said the instructor. "Your job is to show what makes your character tick."
All week, he assigned scene writing. For the mother's monologue, they worked in groups for about 10 minutes and created six different maternal ideas to share with classmates.
"Let's make our mom a little hostile," said Janet Bollinger, a junior.
"She can start with 'When I was your age,' " said senior Stephanie Dustin.
"Everybody hates that line," said Julie Sakers.
The mother images ran from confrontational to tender. Sophomore Melissa Jett's group portrayed a helpful mother trying to "fix her daughter up with the boy next door."
The class decided freshman Katy Schuman's mom sounded the most realistic.
"What? Are those boys crazy?" her character said. "You are pretty, nice and have a wonderful personality."
"Yeah, right on, mom," said sophomore Heather Graves.
Juggling ideas with friends helps the students express themselves, said Mr. Novak.
"Self-expression is important, and writing helps students find a form to do that," he said.
With several promising plot machinations, the Liberty students could have a hit on their hands, Mr. Novak said.