Four area students were named finalists as part of a playwrighting collaborative between SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development in St. Paul and Action Transport Theatre in Ellesmere Port, England.
The students’ writings focused on anti-bullying.
The workshop participants are incoming junior Abby Olson, incoming seniors Alyssa Sturdevant and Adam Whitt, all of St. Francis High School, and Michael Voit, an incoming senior at Blaine High School.
A total of 20 finalists participated in a series of workshops last month, where they learned from theater professionals and worked together to come up with original theater pieces.
Ultimately, six students from the SteppingStone program and six from Action Transport will be selected to create a 70-minute play with the working title “Bully!” Plans are to perform the piece at SteppingStone in March 2014 and later in England.
This is the first time SteppingStone has participated in such an international collaboration.
Olson had written short stories and narrations before attending the workshops, but this was her first time writing for the stage.
She teamed with five finalists who wrote a 10-minute piece titled “Little Things Matter.”
The scene centered on bullying by a once-close friend, a kindergarten classmate.
“What I took away from this is you can’t judge a book by its cover because you don’t know a person without knowing what they’ve been through,” Olson said.
As for developing skills, she said she learned not only about writing, she also improved her listening and people skills. “I learned about compromises and dealing with other people in an elegant manner,” Olson said.
The young playwrights’ program was open to children ages 13-19. To be accepted, they completed an application. They were asked to answer questions on why they wanted to be a part of the collaborative, for instance, and to submit a sample of their finest writing. The 20 finalists were selected for their ability to express themselves, their commitment to collaboration and for their interest in the topic of bullying. The workshops were offered free of charge.
When the workshops ended after a three-week period, students pieced together their favorite creations, filmed them and sent them to the English children for viewing and discussion. Also, the SteppingStone participants performed their scenes or monologues for families and friends at the conclusion of the workshops.
‘A hot button’
The collaborative idea came to Richard Hitchler, artistic director at SteppingStone Theatre, six years ago after talking to people about important issues. The topic of bullying kept resurfacing.
“Bullying continues to be a hot-button issue with kids and adults,” Hitchler said. “It’s become epidemic across the country and internationally. It’s a worldwide issue.”
Hitchler met the former director of Action Transport Theatre at a youth artist conference in St. Paul. It turns out they had similar interests. Gradually, the collaborative between the theaters took shape.
Students participating in the workshops learned how art can impact real-life situations and how it can influence community. They learned the “nuts and bolts” of writing a play and expanded their own artistic talents. Among other skills, they learned different ways of generating material and how to write for the stage. They worked individually and in group assignments collaborating with peers who directed their original scenes.
They will become writer-performers, a new wave spreading in the arts, Hitchler said in an interview last month.
“It’s going great,” playwright Dane Stauffer said, also last month.
Stauffer headed the workshops. “These kids… they’re just so curious and intelligent and fun. I’m so impressed with every single one of them,” he said.
Stauffer boasts an impressive résumé as a stage, TV and film actor/playwright. He appeared in “When A Man Loves a Diva” at The Lab Theater in Minneapolis.
The 20 workshop participants have been narrowed to the final six. (Results were not available as this publication went to press). Those students will collaborate to create a final main stage production with students from across the pond.
To communicate, they plan to Skype each other. Plans are also in the making to blog and set up a Facebook-sharing space to share documents and ideas.
Hitchler estimates the cost of the program, including the playwright’s salary and transportation costs to send the six student playwright/actors to England to see the production performed, at about $55,000 to $75,000. Funding, in the early phase of the program, will come from the theater’s general operating fund. SteppingStone is now in the process of looking into other means of fund-raising.
But the show will not end after the exchange trip. Hitchler plans to continue the anti-bullying show, to take it on the road to schools and communities outside the Twin Cities metro area.
Youths tell story
Hitchler said he is not sure how the format of the 70-minute show will play out. It could be 12 different stories, vignettes involving two kids or a single story. It will depend on how the creative process unwinds.
But one thing sets this play apart from others. Most plays he’s read or seen about bullying are written by adults. This one will be told by youth.
“I think that’s where we differ,” he said. “We’re looking at a peer education model defined here. … We’re trying to open up the door for a more intelligent conversation on how to deal with it (bullying),” he said.
Only three days into the program and Hitchler was already pleased with what was transpiring among the students.
“I’m very impressed by the intelligent and thoughtfulness and talent of these young people and how much they care about the world and what they can contribute,” he said.
“It’s more than creating great writers; it’s about creating global citizens.”
Said Olson about participating in the workshops, “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience and I would do it again in a heart beat because I learned a lot and met a lot of people. I gained more than I gave.”
Started more than 20 years ago, SteppingStone Theatre’s mission is to “develop the whole child by using educational theatre programs and fully-staged productions to build self-esteem, confidence and a sense of community, while celebrating diversity in a supportive, non-competitive atmosphere,” according to the theater’s website.
For more information, visit www.steppingstonetheatre.org.
Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]