Although the pandemic has shut down most art and theater performances, San Mateo high school students with the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s Young Playwrights Project have adapted this year for virtual Zoom performances.
The TheatreWorks Young Playwrights Project allows high school students of various degrees of experience to develop their skills by writing one-act plays lasting 10 minutes through TheatreWorks, a professional theater company based in Palo Alto that hosts workshops for teens and college students.
Young Playwrights Project teacher Joanna Glum, who taught Aragon High School students this spring, said this had been a unique and challenging year.
“Every one of my students seems to approach this work not only as a break from the mundane, a break from the routine from what the Zoomasphere has been like but also as an opportunity to speak to where they are in this moment,” Glum said.
Students at Aragon and Hillsdale high schools participated in separate Young Playwrights Project classes this spring over Zoom. The class took two months, with students spending the first part writing their play while learning about writing structure and narrative. The second part focused on play feedback and critique, with a final selection and performance of eight student’s plays from a cohort of 20. The class started in January and finished in late March.
In contrast with previous years, Glum said the plays this spring focused on situations and changes caused by the pandemic. Around 60% of plays at Aragon High involved issues of purgatory and being stuck in situations. Other play subjects focused on grief, domestic tensions due to COVID-19, sexual assault and LGBTQ issues.
“To me, that speaks volumes about how they are processing where they are right now and it also to me reinforces the need for and the value of arts at this moment,” Glum said.
While collaborating and talking online was challenging, most students adapted and wrote about unique situations of isolation, while the ability to teach online allowed Glum to continue teaching despite living outside California.
“While this has been an incredibly challenging time for everyone, students and teachers alike, I have seen some students, because of differences in learning styles, have really thrived in this online environment and space,” Glum said.
Glum said theater allows students to express their emotions and challenges in an open and understanding space. It also allows students to work with friends while also sharing central themes in their lives.
“I think a lot of folks feel silence in isolation, and it’s really a joy to see them loudly be themselves,” Glum said.
Her students have been resilient throughout the pandemic, and she hopes they use this unique time to recognize they and what they have to offer is enough, as life in the theater world often involves rejection and change.
“I personally feel like it is an opportunity to say, things can’t be perfect, so how can we be good, and what does good look like to me? Is it me being on Broadway, or is it writing plays that offer someone somewhere a way out of their personal traumas or their heartache or their pain?” Glum said.
Hillsdale High School senior Anna Vanderford had her play, “Bread and Circuses,” selected to be workshopped and performed this year for the program. Inspired by the book “Water for Elephants,” it takes place in the 1930s and follows the main character, Dorothy, whose sister performs in the circus.
“I wasn’t really writing it to be performed over Zoom, and so I think it will be interesting to see how the actors adapt the story to be performed over Zoom,” Vanderford said.
She has enjoyed being part of the program the last two years and has had her plays performed both times.
“I never felt discouraged by how big of a task it was because the playwrights have done such a good job of encouraging us and giving us all the tools that we needed to write a play in such a short amount of time,” Vanderford said.
While this year has been a positive experience, she found last year was easier for the collaborative process to discuss and share ideas with other students. She has been isolated from other students during the pandemic and said other student plays have focused on experiences with anxiety and depression that teenagers have dealt with the past year.
“I noticed an overall trend in the plays this year has been focused a lot on mental health issues that students might be facing,” Vanderford said.
She cited her teacher, Matthew Keuter, as a key figure in helping her and the other students get insight and feedback on writing.
“I don’t think that any of us could have written such well-developed plays without his influence,” Vanderford said.
Hillsdale High School held its performance March 19, while Aragon High School held its March 26. Burlingame High School will hold its Young Playwrights Project 7 p.m. March 29, which people can watch online. Go to theatreworks.org/education/young-playwrights-project for more information.
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