From the Pens of Babes -- Big Dawg's Youth Play Festival

It's not unusual to see kids and teenagers on Wilmington's stages. The region has a number of youth theatre companies. But it's only once a year that you can hear young people acting out their own words - at the Youth portion of Big Dawg Production's annual New Play Festival. WHQR's Megan Williams visited a rehearsal for the shows, and has more.

Wilmington, NC – Whatever you might expect from a play written by a third-grader, it's probably not a post-modern sense of humor. But among the offerings at this year's New Play Festival, is a play about the process of writing a play, for the play festival... The author of that comedy is Helena Boldizar, Wilmington's youngest playwright. She certainly has a way with words, describing getting chosen for the new play festival as a "tingly feeling of excitement

Boldizar's no stranger to the stage; her resume as an actress already includes more than a dozen productions here in Wilmington... and that's just for starters. Boldizar has big plans. "I want to live in a loft in New York City," she says, "so I can be close to Broadway."

That kind of self-possession is pretty routine for the young people involved in the Festival. And they probably need it for the topics they're fearlessly putting on stage. The authors of the show's seven works range in age from elementary school to the end of adolescence. And the topics vary wildly too. In fact, the second half of the evening comes with a parental advisory warning... as the authors get older, their subjects get more intense, dealing with everything from rape and teen pregnancy to child abuse and isolation.

Christie Grantham, who's directing one of the Festival's most mature plays, says the material offers a surprising peek into kid's heads.

"I guess I always seen kids at a distance. And it's so rare, if you don't have your own children and get to spend some quality time with them, you just don't get a chance to find out what they're thinking. You know, It might turn out that they feel the exact same way you do, the same anxiety that you have, or fears for the world, or for their own lives."

For the teenage playwrights, these scripts plays require them to open up, and become vulnerable, at one of the most self-conscious ages. High school freshman Laura Guidry's play, Family Portraits, traces the inner conflicts of two teenagers who yearn to leave home, but feel responsible for their divorced father. For Guidry, the hard part actually came after she finished the script.

"It is really interesting, she says, "when a real person actually takes it on. I actually get more nervous when I see my own play performed than when I'm on stage, because I just, you get the feeling that everybody's judging it, so it's really kind of scary."

Before any of these plays make it to the stage, they go through an intense series of workshops to refine their structure and language. They push the young playwrights not just to explore the limits of the craft, but also to learn where those limits are. Guidry's a veteran of the process, which she describes as hard "when people are just like, 'that's not going to work.' Like, last year's play, I had lots of monologues in there. Like, there's no way somebody can memorize that, which is true. So, being edited, they really only make it better."

Martha Rusnik leads those workshops. She says the writing, even at its most emotional, is often surprisingly authentic to teen speech (although possible with fewer 'likes').

"There's nothing about the way they write that's crude, or flashy, or attention-getting. It really comes more from the heart and they do really write with a freedom sometimes I don't think we find in adults."

All this effort has sometimes yielded even bigger things than the stage at Thalian Hall. One of the works from a few years ago was a finalist in a national young play writers contest. But for many of these young authors, this weekend will be enough of a star turn. As Helena Boldizar puts it, "when I walk down the streets now, I feel so powerful, because I am a playwright."

Megan Williams, WHQR News

Find out more about the New Play Festival at Big Dawg Productions' website.

Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.