At the 2019 International Thespian Festival, the Thespian Playworks program marked 25 years of celebrating and nurturing original writing by and for high school students. In the decades since the program was founded in 1994, Thespian Playworks has been expanded as the Next Generation Works suite of writers’ programs, which now also includes Thespian Musicalworks, Thespian Filmworks, and Thespian Criticworks.

Dramatics connected with the original Thespian Playworks writers the fall following their Thespian Festival debuts to get feedback regarding the impact of the program. 

TWO NIGHTS BEFORE his play Flambée was to be performed in front of an audience for the first time, Jim Buescher had a dream. He was sitting in the theatre watching the staged reading, and about halfway through, the actors stopped saying his lines and began uttering streams of obscenities and gibberish. Every member of the audience turned in their seats to stare at the playwright.

“I’m glad I can at least figure out what it means,” Buescher wrote in his production journal the next day. “I could have dreamed I was tearing off my skin or urinating in a microwave or something and then I’d be twice as concerned and nervous tomorrow.”

The published scripts for the original 1994 Thespian Playworks finalists.

The published scripts for the original 1994 Thespian Playworks finalists.

It’s no surprise that Buescher’s work found its way into his dreams. He was one of four student writers who were selected from a field of 40 entrants and invited to participate in the first-ever Thespian Playworks program at the 1994 Thespian Festival at Ball State University. It was an intense week of developmental readings designed to give the students a taste of the process a professional playwright goes through when a new play is workshopped.

The writers spent the week watching directors run companies of student actors through rehearsals of their shows; consulting with dramaturgs; and writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more. At the end of the week, the plays were presented in script-in-hand staged readings before a Thespian Festival audience.

The four Playworks finalists and their plays:

  • Buescher, a 1994 graduate of Penn Manor High School in Holtwood, Pennsylvania. In his play Flambée, a writer creates his own made-to-order world, including the woman of his dreams, and then has to contend with the consequences.
  • Alayna Dusenbery, a spring graduate of Aztec (New Mexico) High School, who brought Puppet’s Strings, a dark exploration of a disturbed child’s delusions.
  • Christopher McNeil, who was a senior at Arroyo Grande (California) High School when he wrote God and Poker. The play tells the story of a young man whose theological curiosity involves him in a high ­stakes card game with Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Krishna, among other adventures.
  • Doug Rand, a 1994 graduate of Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida. Rand’s play The Idiot and the Oddity sends up pretty much the entire canon of Greek literature and mythology.

The Playworks professional staff included directors Carol Patterson, Madelon Horvath, and Jane Armitage, and playwrights Steve Gregg and Kira Obolensky, serving as dramaturgs.

The people who put Playworks together — Jane Armitage, Steve Gregg, and me — weren’t sure what to expect when we published the call for scripts last fall. We and others associated with the Educational Theatre Association, notably president Joe Burnsworth, had been talking for a long time about establishing a student playwriting program, and two years ago the board gave the proposal a green light. The program would be a memorial to former Assistant Executive Director Doug Finney, who died in 1992.

One reason we felt it was important for the Thespian Society to support the development of young playwrights was also one of the reasons we were a little uneasy about the program. We suspected that most American high schools haven’t been doing a very good job of teaching people about writing, let alone teaching people about writing plays. We weren’t sure what we would get.

What we got was some wildly imaginative, highly sophisticated work. A play that wonders, wisely and hilariously, just what God is up to. A full-tilt-boogie parody of everything the ancient Greeks held dear. A meditation on the line that separates sanity from whatever’s on the other side. And a play that revisits the territory Luigi Pirandello explored 70 years ago, and finds something new to do there.

“I was surprised at how good the plays were, even before they were workshopped,” Gregg said. “And I was very pleasantly surprised by how much work the writers did on them during the week we had together, how much better they got.”

In an early meeting, the writers talked about how their plays came to be. Alayna Dusenbery wrote Puppet’s Strings for a classroom assignment. Jim Buescher was writing on assignment, too, but Flambée had been simmering for quite a while. Chris McNeil wrote God and Poker and a couple of other plays because he thought the exercise would give him a new perspective on his work as an actor. Doug Rand had written The Idiot and the Oddity two years ago for a student one-act festival at his school, won a Florida playwriting competition with it, and didn’t learn that former Florida Thespian director Deb Barnum had submitted it to Playworks until we called to tell him he was a semi-finalist.

Inaugural Thespian Playworks writers Doug Rand, Chris McNeil, Jim Buescher, and Alayna Dusenbery. Photo by Don Corathers.

Plays were cast in an open call during the first day of the Thespian Festival. That was another thing we need not have wasted any time worrying about: We were casting, after all, from possibly the richest pool of young acting talent that ever gets together in one place.

“I don’t think any of these kids had ever worked on a new play before, and yet almost all of them were instantly tuned in to what we were doing, and to what the writers needed,” Armitage said.

“The actors that are reading the script are dynamite,” Doug Rand marveled to his journal after the first read-through of his play The Idiot and the Oddity. “Some of the characterizations were almost instantaneous — during a semi-cold reading!”

Rand took full advantage of his cast’s imagination and talent for improvisation. A key scene late in the play takes place on the Isolated Nether-Island of Infamous Evil Greek Women, introducing the protagonist (whose name is, of course, Protagonis) to Clytemnestra, Medea, Circe, Helen, and Pandora. Rand knew the scene needed some serious attention; he began referring to it as “The Void.”

“On the third day, it was time to read that scene, but I hadn’t had time to work all the problems out of it,” he said. “I didn’t have a scene done, but I knew I didn’t want it to be staged like it was. So, I just gave the actors some ideas, and they just went with it. All kinds of really cool things happened.”

From Rand’s journal entry about that day’s work: “It was great! The actors would improv their way up to a point, after which the action disintegrated. So, Jane [Armitage] would offer suggestions, back it up, and replay until the old hang-up was overtaken and a new one was discovered. Fresh, hysterical ideas came flying in …

“I got a great sense of how the scene could work in new ways, with more movement and business and action and conflict than before. The exercise helped me see ways of making the scene more dramatic, not literary and static. And it was a wellspring of great ideas to boot.

“Now, if only I actually revised the scene …”

Over the next two days he did. When the writers weren’t observing rehearsals, meeting with their directors and dramaturgs, or attending festival main stage shows, they were either eating, sleeping, or hunched over a keyboard in a Ball State computer lab. One of the lessons of Playworks was about the collaborative quality of writing for the theatre. Another was about how much hard work a playwright has to do after he thinks his play is finished.

Saturday was showtime. The audience is the last unknown quantity in the theatrical equation, the mysterious pudding that the proof is supposed to be in. A half-hour before the staged readings were scheduled to begin, the playwrights were, variously, somewhere between bad anxiety and exhilaration. The stakes had gone up some the day before when the readings were moved from the cozy black box Strother Theatre to Pruis Hall, a cavernous, 700 seat recital space, to accommodate the anticipated crowd.

Playwright James Buescher with Thespian Playworks dramaturg Kira Obolensky during a workshop reading of Flambee.
Playwright James Buescher with Thespian Playworks dramaturg Kira Obolensky during a workshop reading of Flambée. Photo by Don Corathers.

Obolensky and Gregg had taken pains to make certain the writers understood that they were under no obligation to make changes in their scripts. “We didn’t want them to rewrite for the sake of rewriting,” Gregg said. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to see and hear their plays, and decide for themselves what, if anything, needed to be done.”

Still, three of the four plays were substantially changed between Tuesday and Saturday. Buescher systematically brought his actors new pages every day. McNeil wrote an entirely new scene and a revised ending. Rand, whose play was scheduled to be performed at four o’clock Saturday, handed his cast a rewritten major scene, replacing The Void with his response to their Thursday improvs, at three-fifteen.

Audience reaction to all four plays was warm and intelligent. They laughed and clapped in the right places and asked smart questions and said nice things during the discussion periods that followed each reading. Just the same, seeing his play in front of strangers for the first time was a wrenching experience for at least one playwright. From Buescher’s journal:

“I was terrified when I sat there waiting for the play to start. You have no control once the play starts, none. It is all in the actors’ hands, and you pray to God they don’t make a mistake. Every joke that the audience doesn’t get makes you feel like dying. It’s like taking the SAT times 20 and then realizing that you forgot all your pencils at home.

“It went well, I think.”

“For me, the best thing about Playworks was that by the time it ended, I had more to do than when I started,” said Rand. “At least, I was aware of more to do.” He’s at Harvard, still circling around a major. Will he write another play? “I hope so,” he said.

“I’m very happy about what happened in Muncie,” Buescher said. “It was a wonderful tool to polish Flambée. I want to get home and assemble all the ideas I scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper into a well­-written one-act.”

Buescher is at Wake Forest now. He’s considering a theatre major, but for now he’s more interested in acting than playwriting. (About three hours before the staged reading of Flambée, he learned he had won a Thespian scholarship on the strength of his acting audition.) “I learned a lot more about acting, being on the other side of the stage,” he said. “I think that was the most valuable thing. It was wonderful seeing something I had written come to life, but even more important than that was what I learned about acting by watching actors work on my play.

“When I feel the need to,” he said, “I probably will write another play.”

“It was tremendous,” Dusenbery said. “I thought it was a really great learning experience. I’m telling all my friends who are still in high school to write a play and submit it next year.” She’s now at the University of New Mexico, undecided on a major but interested in continuing writing.

McNeil added a chorus to God and Poker after he got home, solving a tricky staging problem, and tinkered with the ending some more. “For me, the process hasn’t stopped,” he said. Not long ago he learned the play had been named a finalist in a California young playwrights’ competition and will be produced at the Old Globe in San Diego in November. He’s in the actor training program at the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts, and he likes the way his acting and writing fit together. “Playworks made me a better actor,” he said. “It made me a more respectful actor.

“But the important thing is that it hit me in the head that it’s possible to become a playwright. I thought of it before as something you’d have to spend years in college and take a few hundred courses to prepare for. Now I realize that’s not true. It’s like acting. It’s something you learn in the doing.

“That’s an important thing to learn. And it’s contagious. Three or four guys who came with me saw what was going on and said, ‘I can do that.’ And now they’re writing plays.”

This story appeared in the October 1994 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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