Word/Play at ALLPS

 

Teaching Artist, Rodney Wilhite: Although the promise of writing their own short plays which would be performed by professional actors before a live audience seemed daunting to our students at Fayetteville High School’s Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services Center (ALLPS) at first, Erika and I made the idea more approachable by collaborating on a story arc. For each class we showed a different photograph. For our first class it was the iconic Dorothea Lange photo of the migrant mother and her two children. For our second class, we showed the students a photograph of the singer Tom Waits. We then had the students brainstorm a list of assumptions: what can we tell about this person’s character from this photograph?

Our first class, inspired by Dorothea Lange, came up with a poor woman in Mexico whose husband dies, sending her on an epic quest to provide for her children, a quest which eventually leads her to America, where the kindly coyote (immigrant smuggler) who takes her across the border sacrifices himself to save her and her children.

From the weathered face of Tom Waits, our second class yielded the character of a struggling musician who travels from city to city playing banjo and harmonica on street corners and on stage, sitting in with bands he’s become friends with during his years on the road. The character yielded a plot: a man who has struggled with drugs in his past, but has overcome that. Somewhere in his distant past is a beautiful woman, whose love he lost due to his addiction. After being diagnosed with cancer, he meets a young, drug-addled homeless guitar player to whom he becomes a mentor.

As we collaborated on these plots, the students became more and more invested in this character and his, they cared what was going to happen to him, how he was going to overcome his problems. It was inspiring to me, as both a teacher and a writer, to see these students (some of whom had started off somewhat reluctant to engage in this exercise) become immersed in the act of creation and storytelling.

This exercise formed the basis for many of the short plays the students wrote, each choosing a single moment from the epic story we wrote together and expanding it into its own play. Others, however, challenged themselves to write a play that had nothing to do with our collaborative story whatsoever. Some others split the difference and were inspired by our story, but combined it with their own interests and created something completely new.

I greatly admire the sensitivity and honesty with which the students approached this task. All of them put themselves on the line by sharing bits of their own lives while telling the stories they invented, something that is a challenge for even the most seasoned writers. I very much look forward to seeing the fruits of their labors, performed by professional actors in the Young Playwrights' Showcase at TheatreSquared’s 2013 Arkansas New Play Festival.