In March 2014, Max Bush completed a three-day residency at DaVinci Academy in Ogden, Utah, hosted by drama teacher Adam Slee. During the writer’s time on site, the students workshopped, rehearsed, and presented a staged reading of one of Max’s current works in progress:  What Remains.  The playwright also made classroom visits and provided critique and encouragement to student writers on their own plays.

The residency was part of AATE’s Playwrights In Our Schools Project, facilitated by the AATE Playwriting Network and sponsored by MagicSpace Entertainment, which operates the Broadway Across America –Utah series.  Through the education foundation that he established, MagicSpace CEO Steve Boulay has supported one or two residencies in Utah schools each year since 2009.  Other award-winning playwrights who have completed Utah residencies include Ric Averill, Carol Korty, D.W.Gregory, Claudia Haas, Brian Guehring, and Barry Kornhauser.

The objective of Playwrights In Our Schools (PIOS) is to involve secondary school students in the creative process of play development.  Through exploring the text with the writer, students learn that playwrights can be living contributors to the production process and that playwriting is primarily rewriting.  When students witness a successful professional writer who listens to the text, responds to student feedback, and makes judicious choices that make a strong play stronger, they emulate the same kind of self-critical reflection in their own work and are able to rewrite and improve their own plays.

unnamedIn What Remains, Maggie, who is a couple of months from graduating from high school, agonizes over a major life decision:  should she follow her dream and become an artist, or should she do the sensible thing and go to college with her boyfriend?  As Maggie struggles with her choice, she is hired to assist an older woman, Cliona, who faced a similar dilemma in her youth.

Adam Slee, as the reading director and residency facilitator, and Max Bush, as the writer, had numerous conversations on line about the text before the residency in Ogden began.  The students at DaVinci Academy read the script in advance and Adam funneled their comments to Max before he arrived.  Max notes that the students’ comments and overall feedback altered the script in small as well as substantial ways, even before the three-day residency started.

Once Max arrived in Utah, Adam immediately involved him in the rehearsals for the reading.  Among other things, they focused on the development of two primary characters:  Maggie’s boyfriend, Mike, and Maggie’s confidante, Trisha.  Max reports that while working with Adam and his student actors, Mike’s character gathered range and depth.  “He became much more sympathetic and funnier,” says Max.  “The ending for Mike was greatly altered in tone and tension.  Together in the workshop, the actors, Adam, and I literally changed the trajectory of the character.  This would not have happened with me sitting home in my office.”

During the course of the workshop, Trisha’s character also grew, not just in terms of having more lines but also with the inclusion of more of her past experiences in a psychiatric hospital.  (Trisha also appears in Max’s earlier play, Voices from the Shore, which was developed in a PIOS residency with Mike Pearl at Cherry Creek High School in Colorado in 2003.)  The expansion of Tricia’s role in the play came after improvisations by a couple of the key actors in Adam’s troupe.  Max recounts, “Through these improvisations—which grounded the character in an honest series of exchanges reflecting what it is actually like in a hospital -  the play gained validity and impact as well as humor, as some of the new lines are funny.  These humorous aspects seemed to pull the audience further into the play, which was an expressed goal of mine prior to the workshop.  Again, these specific rewrites would not have been possible in my office at home and without these talented, committed students.”

Not only did the play become more profound through the workshop process but the  students’ understanding of the writing process deepened.  Of the experience, Adam says that “during this experience our students found a love for the writing process:  creating, peer editing and revision.  They learned that the writing process can be fun and rewarding.”

During the residency, as has happened in most PIOS residencies, students have been validated and encouraged as fellow theatre artists when their ideas are solicited, listened to, seriously considered, and often implemented by the professional playwright.  Adam recounts, “Max encouraged my students to speak up and to share with him their opinions about his script, and as they did, their ideas and thoughts transformed the play.  They were surprised when Max, an award-winning playwright, not only cared about their opinions and concerns but implemented changes in the script!  WOW!”  Adam added that “many of these ideas changed the whole show and took it in different directions than what the playwright had originally intended in the story.  Further, the students were awed when Max said he was going to keep the changes because they made his script stronger than it was before.”

unnamed-2One aspect of the workshop experience that Max found particularly valuable was the fact that Adam had different actors read the same role so that he could determine how much of the impact of the line was coming from the text and how much was coming from the particular interpretation by the actor.  Max relates that “this allowed me to focus the character on the base level; I saw a scene could play with different actors, different voices, different movements, and still remain true.”

Adam and Max decided to incorporate this technique into the staged reading, as some of the roles were read by one actor at the beginning and another actor at the end, with the audience made aware of the convention before the reading began.  Max notes, “I found this extremely informative and (it) produced—not surprisingly—a number of cuts of over-written speeches.  It was clear—and I pointed (this) out often to the students—that they were directly influencing the final text of the play, and all future productions of the play.”

The development of Max’s script provided a tremendous learning experience for the students.  “This alone makes the experience worth it,” says Adam, “but Max went one step further in reading and giving input to the students’ own writings.  He not only gave sage words of wisdom but also complimented them on their script development and writing ability. I can tell my students every day that they are talented, but when someone as talented as Max comes in and says the same thing, then the students really think- ‘Man, if this REAL WORLD WRITER thinks that I am good then maybe I AM!’”

The residency had a definite impact on Max’s play and helped prepare it for the next phase of its journey.  After the workshop and after completing the rewritten draft, Max sent the script to three theaters and all three have scheduled productions in the coming year.  This includes two youth theaters:  the Savannah Children’s Theater and the Adrian (Michigan) Youth Theater.  Also, a year from this fall, the First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland will produce the play.  Max observes, “I believe these productions are a testament not only to the success of the workshop but primarily to the importance of the workshop.”

Likewise, the residency had a demonstrated impact on the student-written plays that the playwright reviewed.  Adam reports that “following the residency, many of my students revised their own scripts based on what the playwright said, held readings of their scripts, and submitted their works to a local theatre.   SIX of these plays were selected for performance at a theater in the community!”

The development of What Remains continued in a “fishbowl” session at the recent AATE national conference in Denver.  A combined ensemble of adult and secondary school actors workshopped the play under the direction of Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, who directed a PIOS residency when she was teaching at McAllum High School in Austin, Texas in 2003.  As the script approaches its final form, the work with movement and text during the breakout session helped the playwright make smaller refinements, whereas the workshop at DaVinci Academy, at an earlier point in the play’s development, helped him to make larger changes to the characters.

The Denver workshop ended with a description of a dynamic that was key to the success of the residency at DaVinci, as it has been with other PIOS residencies:  for the students, it’s all about the development of the playwright’s play and for the playwright, it’s all about the development of the students’ understanding.  When that reciprocal relationship is established, the script and the students flourish.  What remains after the residency is an enduring understanding of the writing process and a strong script that will resonate with young actors and audiences in the future.

NOTE ON PLAYWRIGHTS IN OUR SCHOOLS:  MagicSpace Entertainment will be sponsoring another residency in a Utah secondary school in 2015.  Playwrights must be members of AATE and must have won at least one of three of AATE’s distinctions for playwriting:  the Distinguished Play Award, selection for the Unpublished Play Reading Project, or the Chorpenning Cup.  Host teachers must teach in a Utah secondary school.  Look for application information for teachers and playwrights in the AATE Update in September.  Also, contact John D. Newman, [email protected], if you or your organization are interested in sponsoring a PIOS residency in your own community or state.

John D. Newman is a professor of theatre at Utah Valley University and the founder of the Playwrights In Our Schools Project.  

Max Bush is a freelance playwright and recipient of the Charlotte Chorpenning Cup.  

Adam Slee, a graduate of Utah Valley University, directs the drama program at DaVinci Academy.

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