If sibling rivalry isn’t enough of a motivator, a little cash might do. Or so it seems on the surface when you talk to 2022 and 2023 Middle School Playwriting winners, Wilson and Liesel Walker (ages 13 and 11 respectively).
But if you dig just a little deeper, expressing themselves creatively plus the encouragement of their mom — who happens to be their teacher — adds the purpose to their plays.
“My play was about Aluminum having an identity crisis and how he went to a doctor to help him get his mind right,” described Wilson who won last year’s playwriting competition. “Writing a play wasn’t at the top of my list of things to do, but I surprised myself with being creative.”
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Middle and High School Playwriting program features free workshops for schools that foster writing skills, critical thinking and creativity. While the workshops are not required for students to submit plays into the annual competition, many educators find it helpful.
“My goal is to expose my students to a variety of writing,” said Melanie Walker, parent of Wilson and Liesel and a Middle School English language arts and science teacher at North Routt Community Charter School in Clark, Colorado just 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs.
“Narrative writing comes in many different forms and playwriting is a fun way for them to focus on writing dialogue for characters and develop a plot,” Melanie continued. “Also, anytime my students get to write for a contest I try to support them as it gives them insight into how to apply their knowledge outside of the four walls of our classroom.”
This year, the DCPA received 179 total script submissions from 22 counties across Colorado including 20 of Melanie’s students. Three high school playwrights and three middle school playwrights won top honors including, for the second year in a row, another member of the Walker household.
“My play is about a homeless girl (Toby) who gets paired with another girl (Chloe) to work on a project together,” Liesel explained. “Chloe has no idea that Toby is homeless and their project is about homelessness. In the end, Chloe finds out about Toby and is shocked a bit.”
Requirements at the Middle School level are intentionally restrictive: 10 minutes, two characters, one location, 6-10 pages with a prompt to address a personal or social issue that is classroom appropriate in theme and language.
“One setting, two characters adds quite the challenge to the assignment,” said Melanie. “Every year [the students] beg for more characters and settings, and it is fun to watch them have a productive struggle and find creative workarounds to the parameters.”
Plus, the program comes with a cash award — $250 to the student and $250 to the student’s school. “This program gives an incentive to students to write, be creative and is a way to incorporate the arts into your classroom,” Melanie added. “There are a great many English Language Arts standards that can be taught through the playwriting lens. Also, the students have a chance to write for an authentic reason, and possibly be rewarded for their writing.”
“Last year my brother won and he received prize money and I found that a bit inspirational,” interjected Liesel. “Mom inspired me because she is my teacher and assigned the project to us. [She] kept telling me to read the dialogue over and over and ask myself if that is how someone would really sound.”
While as Melanie describes, “the workshop provides quality instruction on developing characters and settings [and] the time spent with the instructors was a great introduction to playwriting,” the workshop is only as good as the teachers and their students. Having a theatre-based program that’s versatile enough to apply to drama and English students as well as science and math among multiple subjects, requires teachers who are seeking out opportunities to enrich their curriculum in innovative ways.
Plus, it builds a bridge to other opportunities for students at the DCPA. “The 8th grade students recently came to Denver to see To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Melanie,” which is a book they read in my class last year. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to compare the book to a live production.”
“Honestly writing wasn’t my favorite thing to do,” Wilson admitted, “but my mom assigned us to write a play in science class for our chemistry project, so I just tried to make it as fun as I could.”
“We are 3-plus hours from Denver, so it is a bit more uncommon for my students to be exposed to the theater,” Melanie said. “This program brings the arts into our classroom…. Anytime you can make the standards relevant to students is a win and doing it through the lens of the DCPA just helps broaden their horizon.”
It was fun enough for Wilson to submit again this year, but he was edged out by his little sister. “I honestly thought my play was better. I am happy for her though. I just liked my play better. It is kind of crazy we both won.”
But watch out. Stiff competition is hot on their heels with youngest sibling, Hogan age 10, just two years away from eligibility. Will they rewrite that old phrase…two’s company, three’s a family? So it would seem.