Thirty sophomores clustered in a semicircle watch as a 15-year-old tells her mother she wants to leave home.
Scratching their heads and tapping their pens, the students scribble reasons why the youngster must go while giving equal consideration to the hard-working mother who wants her to stay.
Although the teen and parent are only characters in an improvised scene, classmates dig deep into their imaginations searching to bring reality and resolution to the fictional struggle.
The students are one of the Howard High School classes that participated last week in Center Stage's "Playwrights-in-Schools Program," learning to turn thoughts and experiences into dialogue and drama.
For the past 10 years, the Baltimore theater has brought professional writers to several Maryland schools for one-week residencies to teach the fundamentals of play-writing to students in grades four through 12.
Though 30 schools signed up this year, Howard High is the only county school participating. It is also one of only two schools bringing in a playwright for two weeks.
Last week's program was aimed at sophomores and seniors; the second, to begin Dec. 13, will be for freshmen and drama classes.
Implemented at Howard by English teachers Joan Kazora and Mary Chaykovsky in 1989, the program has proved a successful tool for stirring interest in writing.
"The playwright gets the students imaginations going for improvisation and class discussions," said Lisa Wilde, associate dramaturg of Center Stage. "It frees them up and introduces them to various elements of drama. The students are writing constantly."
Students get individual attention from the playwright, who not only gives feedback, but even hands out his home phone number for off-hours advice.
By the end of the week, the students are expected to have written an original scene that they read to the class. The playwright also gives the classroom teacher a handbook of exercises to help students continue.
"We carry the enthusiasm he starts," Ms. Chaykovsky said.
"We facilitate the writing and critiquing after he leaves so they'll write more," added Ms. Kazora.
In the spring, students may enter finished one-act plays in Center Stage's Young Playwrights Festival, where first-place winners -- selected at the elementary, middle and high school levels -- have their works read by professional actors.
"It's meant to be a demonstration for all students on how scripts move from the page to the stage," Ms. Wilde said.
Howard High students have won honors at the festival three years in a row. Paul Bachmann was the contest's first-place winner as a senior in 1990. Two years ago, Malia Bloom won honorable mention as a senior, as did Jill Meyers last year as a sophomore.
"Paul is in college studying writing now," Ms. Kazora said. "It acknowledged for him that he had talent in writing and should pursue it."
Classes also go to Center Stage to see a production. Next spring, they will see "Othello."
Although Howard is not the first county school to participate, it is the only one to adopt the program as part of its curriculum, which was done shortly after Ms. Kazora read about the contest five years ago.
The cost of a week's program is $1,500, with Center Stage absorbing two-thirds of the fees that cover playwrights' salaries and materials.
To defray costs, the theater's development office and schoolteachers seek grants from local arts councils, businesses and government.
Howard High students pay a nominal fee of no more than $8.50. Teachers also try to limit instruction to classes of 20.
"It's a judgment call on classes that exceed that," Ms. Kazora said. "If we have students from another class who expresses interest, we try to get them in the program."
Although Howard has always brought in two playwrights, this year it decided to bring writer Steve Schutzman for both weeks because of his easy rapport with students.
The 46-year-old novelist and college writing teacher, who had two of his plays produced while living in San Francisco before he moved to Baltimore in 1989, has been been involved with the program at Howard every year since it started.
"Howard High is committed to the program," Mr. Schutzman said. "It takes interest and commitment by teachers. If students will enter the contest, the teachers have to follow up. You need that teacher involvement."
The Howard teachers credit the program's success to the contagious enthusiasm whipped up by the playwright.
"The students work to develop a scene from a one-act play by the end of week. They must do that," Ms. Kazora said. "But they go beyond that, because they're so excited and interested in what they're doing. Some have gone on to write three-act plays."
Mr. Schutzman motivates students by helping them draw on personal dramas. "You try to put them in touch with meaningful stories they have in their imaginations and with material important to them," he said.