Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Students think outside the box and onto the stage

Script writing brings creativity, fun and competition to language arts

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Students at Grace Episcopal Day School have been dreaming up stories of families living in bow ties and princesses attending their school, all in an effort to come up with the next great stage production at a venerable Washington playhouse.

The sixth-grade students at the Kensington school are participating in Arena Stage’s Student Playwright Project, a regional competition that asks students in fifth through 12th grade to submit scripts for 10-minute plays. In May, Arena Stage will produce the 10 most creative and well-written plays and 20 others will be read by actors for an audience.

‘‘I just want to be really creative, because [Arena Stage] said they liked more creative plays,” said Jori Contee-Staten, 11, of Silver Spring.

Her play is about a race of scientists in the year 2050 that live in a bow tie. One scientist wants to make a flying car, but has trouble doing so because he hates paper.

‘‘I’m not sure about a lot of [the story],” she said. ‘‘But when that car flies, it’s a whole other world.”

Script writing is nothing new for the Grace Episcopal students. English teacher Anne Bierne has incorporated script writing into the school’s language arts curriculum for the past four years. Bierne said the emphasis on playwriting started with one student’s short story.

‘‘It had great dialogue and she was a fantastic writer,” Bierne said. ‘‘So we adapted it for a script and performed the play that year,”

The story, about a father who left his family behind to fight terrorists in Iraq, was so well received that Bierne and other teachers made script-writing part of the school’s language arts curriculum. The school established a competition among students where they would pick one student-written script and perform it at the end of the year.

This is the first time Grace Episcopal students have participated in the Arena Stage competition. With larger stakes, the students received help from professional actors at Arena Stage, who came to the school to work with students at a workshop on Jan. 23.

‘‘They had a bag with rocks, and we got to pick out a rock and make it into a character,” said Rae Bernard, 11, of Adelphi. ‘‘Mine was an old lady because it was a dark colored rock with lots of marks. So I made her into a grandmother.”

Her play focused on a grandmother who is a retired lawyer and struggles to meet new people and cope with the death of her beloved dogs.

Hilary Trudell, Arena Stage playwright project coordinator, said 300 to 500 scripts will be submitted from schools in Maryland, Virginia and the District by the end of the month. Schools receive the free acting and writing workshop if they submit at least five scripts.

The scripts are judged on creativity, originality, length and whether they are easily adapted for a live performance, Trudell said.

‘‘The staff here helps read the scripts and everyone gets involved and it’s something we’re very proud of,” Trudell said. ‘‘It’s a big deal around here ... and it’s a huge program that we do as part of our community outreach projects.”

Creating the characters was the first step to writing a play, students said. Then writers have to create a story idea with challenges for the characters to overcome.

That was the toughest part for Langley Parker, 11, of Burtonsville.

‘‘I just wanted to do something with action,” Langley said, who was writing a play about a person learning to climb rocks.