Mentors Work with Student Playwrights on Their Craft

Posted: December 7, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Creativity is in the air at Mason this semester as several student playwrights scramble to write scenes, develop characters, and push their plots forward—all in the name of sweet competition. This month and last, about 20 students from Mason and Fairfax County secondary schools have been working on plays to submit to the Theater of the First Amendment (TFA) First Light Festival Competition for Student Playwrights.

The festival, now in its fifth year, has instituted a mentoring program to help motivate students to write. The winners of the competition will showcase their plays on stage during the festival in March.

Musicals, operas, and dramatic monologues are just some of the plays being developed this semester. Working with professional mentors Kevin Murray and Suzanne Maloney, TFA; Kristin Johnsen-Neshati and Heather McDonald, Theater; Rick Davis, College of Visual and Performing Arts; Kimberley Cetron, TFA Board of Directors; and Mary Hall Surface and Dolores Gregory, TFA artistic affiliates, students received advice and guidelines to help them in the writing process. For many students, this is their first attempt at writing a play.

When the mentoring process is over, the students will submit their plays to the First Light Festival. The winning entries will receive professional five-day workshops and public readings. Runners-up will have selected scenes read at this event as well. Members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will also get a taste of the stage when one of their plays is read during a brunch at the festival.

The students are paired with mentors who best match their writing interests. Extended Studies student Harriet Lawrence, MEd ’73 Secondary Education, is working on her first play with Johnsen-Neshati, and meets several times a month with her for advice and support. Lawrence submitted her play, Mama’s Dream House, to the First Light Festival after working on it for three years. “The character, Mama, is loosely based on my mother, who died in 2001 at the age of 95. She was having a dream the last year of her life about a dream house,” says Lawrence. “I taped her [talking about it] for eight months, trying to discover what the house looked like, where it was located, and what the dream meant. She never could tell me. The play tries to locate the dream house and discover its meaning.”

Because of her experience writing musicals for young audiences, including the award-winning TFA production Perseus Bayou, Surface is working with students who are writing pieces involving music. “I have a student writing a musical about labor abuses in Bangaldesh and another writing a play for young people. That’s what’s fun about it—the variety.”

Zach Myers, a senior theater major who is working with TFA managing director Murray, says his mentor’s experience reading thousands of plays and his logical approach to playwriting have really helped Myers focus and work on his story. This advice has motivated him to continue writing, even when the going is rough.

“I’ve never written anything like this,” Myers says. “The creative process just hits you after awhile and you get weird impulses to write in the middle of the night. It’s been great.”

“I applaud TFA for adding this component to the First Light Festival,” says Surface. “Young writers need encouragement, and this mentoring program is a testament to TFA’s commitment to the university community and the community at large.”

Playwrights have until Dec. 17 to submit their final drafts for the competition. Even if they don’t win, the students say the experience of writing has been well worth the exhaustion and late nights. “I don’t know what the final product will be like, but I’m happy I did it. The whole experience has been terrific,” Myers says.

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