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When high schools face budget cuts, the common warning that the arts will be the first on the chopping block is an unfortunate truth. Add a year-long pandemic that paralyzes the economy and prevents in-person meetings, and the fate of grade school art departments is in even more jeopardy. How can teachers successfully recreate their classroom environments online?
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the city’s oldest professional theater company, is aiming to help with the Lyric First Page Playwriting Festival. Students in grades 3-12 in the greater Boston area were able to submit original scripts for the competition.
“Lyric First Page is a virtual education program that we developed for the first time this year to encourage playwriting in youth,” explained Katherine C. Shaver, the program director.
According to Shaver, the festival’s goals are to provide students with more “creative opportunities” and to provide teachers with another classroom tool.
Theater teachers across Boston were able to incorporate Lyric First into their virtual classrooms. Fabiola R. Decius, a teacher at the Josiah Quincy Upper School and one of the evaluators for Lyric First, includes a playwriting unit in her curriculum, and was excited to encourage her students to submit their work.
“When I found out about this, I was like, ‘This will be awesome,’” Decius said.
However, many of her students were “very hesitant.” Decius noted that many of her students felt that they were “not good enough” to enter the competition. Fortunately, two of her students still submitted their scripts.
Jaynice Lorenzo, a senior at The English High School and a competitor, also indicated that her teacher’s support was a driving factor behind her participation. “One thing that motivated me was my teacher, Mr. [Paul] Sedgwick,” Lorenzo said. “He saw the potential that I had and all the hard working I was doing, so he thought that putting my writing out there a little bit more was a great opportunity just to, like, grow as a person.”
Students who submitted to Lyric First Page had the opportunity to receive feedback from a reading committee — a panel of theater professionals — in order to strengthen their playwriting skills. Mayra N. da Costa Pereira, a junior at Josiah Quincy and one of Decius’ students, named character development as a weakness that she was able to recognize.
“In stories, you usually have to keep the character's personality consistent and make sure the characters don't do anything out of order,” she explained. “The entire time, I was like, ‘Wait, is this something that my character would say?’”
Once final edits are completed, Lyric First Page will work with their pool of actors — a mix of Emerson College students who work behind the scenes and actors who frequent their stages — to virtually perform readings of all the plays. “These are professional actors who are lending their voices to these students’ plays,” Shaver said. “Our artistic director Courtney O'Connor was really excited about [it] because she thought seeing these adults, these really seasoned professionals, reading a little kid’s words is delightful.” No matter how delightful these readings will be, for now, shows are limited to friends and families to respect the privacy of the students.
Regarding future iterations of the competition, however, da Costa Pereira remarked “I would love directing it. And maybe could I do both? Like, direct and be in the play? I wouldn't mind that. Because I've always been interested in acting ever since I was little.” All the students interviewed, in fact, expressed interest in further participation in future, in-person competitions.
Nevertheless, the success of this pilot festival and the quality of original submissions have already pleasantly surprised the Lyric First staff, according to Shaver. “I think when kids do stuff, it always exceeds expectations,” she noted. “The plays the kids wrote are so broad, all the way from a ‘living room with my brother and sister’ situation to the future on a starship in space.”
“But the things that matter the most to the students... that’s what they write about,” she added, even if those things are as ordinary as “hanging out with your friends.” Often students wrote about regular, pre-pandemic situations. Jennifer Mei, one of Decius’ ninth-graders at Josiah Quincy, described her play as a chance encounter between “a boy and a girl.” Perhaps scripts like Mei’s reflect a longing for the former everyday interactions that the pandemic has made impossible.
Still, Decius seeks to maintain an engaging virtual classroom with a continued relationship with Lyric First Page and remains optimistic about her students’ growth: “Even though there is a pandemic going on, there are a lot of students who are maturing in ways that it's not always easy to identify.”
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