'Write Now' makes kids critics

March 15, 2013

From the cast of “Glee” to the “Twilight” franchise, it seems there are more young characters in the media these days than ever.

But how do you make these fictional youngsters actually connect with real-world kids? Write Now is a theater festival sponsored by Childsplay in Tempe and Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis that tries to answer that question. The Write Now does it with a panel of experts – actual young people.

On Thursday night, the fest was in full swing. The crowd giggled as an old man talked to a teenager about days gone by.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” the prodded grandfather-type. “Well, why not? I had plenty of girlfriends when I was your age.”

bloom Angelica Howland and Stephen Hersack act out "Bloom," a play for young audiences at the Write Now theater festival. (Photo by Childsplay and Jeremiah Pfleiger.)

That got a huge, happy laugh.

So, the actors were animated, and the audience was engaged. But technically, it this isn’t a play yet. It’s the very beginnings of one, and no characters or lines are set in stone. Even the show’s name, “Bloom,” might change. It was just a reading on a plain black stage, with five actors going through the script from their music stands. Even the stage direction is read out loud. It’s was no frills as can be. 

And the crowd loved it, so much so the players had to pause often for wild applause.

Everyone wants a good review, of course, but that’s not the point of Write Now. The festival is about honest feedback, from the very audience these plays are aimed at: kids, from elementary school to high school. The vast majority of “Bloom’s” packed house was adults, who paid to see the festival. But the front row was reserved for special guests: about a half-dozen teenagers from a local church group.

They first saw this show, about the impact of an inner city garden, days ago and talked about their likes and dislikes with the actors and playwright. Tonight, they watched “Bloom” for a second time – and saw their notes put into action. Enrique Bustos, 17, liked it, even though he couldn’t explain why.

“I’m not that kind of person that could, like, give too much examples,” he said, smiling an embarrassed smile. “I just thought it was pretty cool. Yeah.”

It also forced Bustos and his friends to do what most teens hate: speak in front of a crowd. And that make him nervous?

“Oh yeah,” he admitted, stifling a laugh. “I’m nervous right now."

But for Bustos and the others, helping the play evolve was worth it. Jazmin Sanchez saw a huge difference.

“It was way better,” she said, in her soft voice. “It was, like, it made more sense to me.”

“Sanchez says she liked how one character, Ashley, got tougher from one reading to the next. But  the 13-year-old seems to like the process of Write Now even more. Like all the teens in the group, she’s never had an opportunity like this before. She’s never had adults hungry for her constructive criticism. It feels good, she said. When asked why, she leaned in and whispered.

“I feel important,” she said, barely audible.

And she is. Feedback from Sanchez and the others has been amazing, stressed “Bloom” playwright Andrew Morton. As he continues to develop this show, he’s always asking himself whether it speaks to young people.

“I think that’s a question for any playwright who’s  writing for, writing characters of a younger age,” he said, “really trying to get them, where it’s not condescending, and capturing their experience and their voice in a very authentic way – and isn’t patronizing either.”   

It makes sense, then, that entry into Write Now is so competitive. Morton’s “Bloom” was one of only four scripts that made it in the semi-annual festival – out of 117. The next fest is slated for 2015 in Indianapolis, and two years later, it returns to Tempe. As for Morton, he admits he might not have everything about “Bloom” figured out yet, but he definitely understands his audience better.

“These are plays for young people, so we’re going to listen to them first, before we open up this conversation to a bunch of theater people,” he said. “So it’s great.”


EDITOR'S NOTE (3/19/2013): The photo caption misidentified one of the actors in "Bloom." He is Stephen Hersack.