Three Baltimore second-graders watch their words come to life at the annual Young Playwrights Festival.

Children's imagination, plays take Center Stage

Pupils' plays take Center Stage

April 26, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Rob Nagle stomped across a stage yesterday, shouting in a gravelly voice to portray a boorish, discontented Sun in a play about the solar system. Then he put on a fake beak to play a talking toucan in a tale about why palm trees have coconuts.

The quirky roles figured in a pair of plays written by Baltimore second-graders and performed by professional actors last night at Center Stage's annual Young Playwrights Festival.

This is the first year festival organizers have accepted submissions from children as young as first-graders - and organizers said they are glad they did.

Two of the five plays chosen from among 250 entries were written by three city second-graders: Dylan Balter and Hanna Lau, 7-year-olds who attend Midtown Academy, and 8-year-old Lizzie Smith of Bryn Mawr School.

"We're always really charmed by our younger playwrights," said Julianne Franz, who oversees the festival. "We look to them for a particular aesthetic that we all seem to lose as we get older."

In the past, organizers limited the festival to children in the fifth grade or higher because it was difficult for younger playwrights to sit through a sometimes arduous rewriting and directing process.

During yesterday's six-hour rehearsal, the three youngest playwrights fidgeted a bit in their chairs but otherwise watched attentively as the director and stage manager called out directions and actors ran through their plays again and again.

In another room at Center Stage, a different group of actors was rehearsing plays written by Andrea Merchak, a sixth-grader at Harford Day School, David Kongstvedt, a junior at the Field School in Montgomery County, and Emily Pueschel, a senior at Eastern Technical High in Baltimore County.

Director Katie Byrnes said she spent time talking to the second-graders to understand the thinking behind their plays. Still, the children had occasion to correct the adults before the big show.

During the first run-through of Solar Sisters Save the Universe, the play written by the Midtown Academy pupils, Hanna pointed out to Byrnes that the lineup of the planets on the stage was wrong.

Byrnes thanked the pig-tailed girl and told an actor to reverse two painted cardboard cutouts he was holding in his hands, representing Mars and Jupiter.

The pupils said the adults' portrayal of their stories differed somewhat from what they had conceived.

Dylan said Solar Sisters was supposed to have superhero-like "sisters" who were in charge of the nine planets. The adults, however, interpreted the sisters to be the planets themselves.

But Dylan didn't appear to mind, giggling as Nagle's Sun stormed onstage like an angry lion.

In the play, the planets are upset because their temperatures are reversed, with Pluto having the highest and Mercury the lowest. They learn that the Sun has moved because he is suspicious about the planets constantly circling around him, and they convene a meeting to resolve their differences.

Nagle described Solar Sisters as "a fantastic cartoon to be able to perform" and said he treated it as seriously as any other play he has worked on.

"Everything should be in the text that you're given," he said. "They've done a wonderful job."

The Midtown Academy pupils said their story was inspired by lessons at school about astronomy and conflict resolution.

Lizzie's play also grew out of what she learned in class. She adapted Why Palm Trees Have Coconuts from a short story she had written as an assignment.

The play, narrated by a monkey, is about a grumpy snake who lives in a cloud and steals coconuts from a band of happy toucans who feed on the fruit. A palm tree comes to the rescue, and from then on, coconuts have grown on palm trees.

Lizzie said watching actors on the stage was better than seeing them in movies or on television.

"It's different because it sort of looks alive," she said. "I like to see things real."

So focused was the cast and crew on the work at hand that, at times, they seemed to forget the children's presence.

As she tried to figure out a way to get real coconuts to fly up and down the stage without hurting anyone, Byrnes, the director, muttered an expletive. She quickly apologized.

Franz, the festival coordinator, also grew exasperated at some technical difficulties. When someone asked her what she was looking for, she replied distractedly: "Uh, something sharp. To poke my eyes out."

The girls did not appear to share the adults' stress. They smiled, and bounced up and down on cushioned theater seats.

Dylan said she was impressed by the sophisticated props, including hand-painted planets that glowed against a black light. "It was a lot better than what I was thinking of."

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