Video, story: Stirring the passions of student writers … and future engineers

In the video above, we interview the three 2016 student playwriting finalists and look at performance excerpts as their plays were read by professional actors at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit in February. Video by John Moore and David Lenk for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The DCPA’s third annual year-long Regional High School Playwriting Workshop and Competition will culminate Friday, June 17, with two free, fully staged performances of student playwright Kendra Knapp’s Sonder in the Denver Center’s Conservatory Theatre.

Last fall, DCPA Education staff conducted 145 classroom workshops for 3,100 Colorado students. That resulted in 212 one-act play submissions from young writers all over the state – up from 158 the year before. A team of professional adjudicators determined 10 semifinalists. Of those, three were selected to have their plays workshopped by the DCPA Education staff and read by professional actors at the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit in February. They were:

Knapp, a recent graduate of Valor Christian High School, was a top-10 finalist last year. This year, her newest play was singled out for full production. Sonder follows a community of young people who are seeking real connection, but from the safety and distance of the internet.

Our complete Student Playwriting photo gallery:

2016 Student Playwriting Competition
Photos from rehearsal through performances of the three finalist readings at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. To see more, click the ‘forward’ arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 

Knapp said it was “super exciting” to get into the top 10 last year, and decided it was worth doing again. “When I got in the top three, I figured there’s really no worst-case scenario for me,” she said.

DCPA Director of Education Allison Watrous said the purpose of the teen writing initiative is to advance literacy, creativity, writing and communication through playwriting.

Teen playwriting quote“This program is all about inspiring the passion of playwriting in the next generation of writers,” she said. But playwriting promotes a variety of life skills, no matter what profession they one day choose. Knapp, for example, is headed to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where she will study aerospace engineering. “But I will probably still be writing, too,” Knapp said.

Submissions were judged blindly by DCPA artistic, literary and educational professionals. The three finalists each receive a cash scholarship of $250. In addition, each teacher of the three finalists receives a $250 gift certificate for books, supplies or other teaching tools for their classrooms.

Knapp’s play was then further selected for a full production this summer. The staging will be directed by DCPA Education Head of Acting Tim McCracken and performed by actors from the DCPA’s summer education classes.

At a time when much of the national theatre dialogue is focused on the lack of fair female representation among American playwrights, it was telling that all three of the student finalists are young women.

I think that‘s great, especially because it was picked blind,” said Wood, a rising senior at Denver Christian School. “We know we were not being picked just because we are women – we were picked because we have talent, and we have abilities, and it’s great that the DCPA is helping us realize this.”

Added Moore: “I really appreciate the DCPA for not feeling the need to fill a quota, and that we’re being appreciated for our talent, no matter what age or gender or background we come from.”

Another commonality the three finalists share is faith. Two of the writers attend faith-based schools – Valor Christian and Denver Christian – and the third writer (Moore) wrote her play about a young woman who goes on a meaningful search to understand how God’s fallen angel came to be known as the Devil.
Student Playwrights Sonder

From left: Student playwriting finalists Kendra Knapp, Jessica Wood and Gabrielle Moore. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The finalists found it refreshing that the adjudicators were clearly open to stories with a religious theme, which is not always the case in the theatre.

“I think there are certain stigmas about both the theatre and the church,” said Wood. “On the surface, they seem opposed to each other, but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think it’s really cool that you can be a member of the church and still be a writer in the theatre, which isn’t something a whole lot of people think you can do.”

Moore was worried that making the Devil a central character in her play might be taken the wrong way. “Offending people was not the goal at all,” she said. “I wanted to tell a side of the story we typically don’t hear in church. I’ve heard pastors tell us that we need to avoid the Devil – but I’ve never really understood why.”

Reserve your free seat to see Sonder

Knapp’s play has no religious overtones but she says she’s used to facing prejudice as a woman, a Hispanic, a person of faith and a theatre kid. “I’m used to people meeting me and then having this taste in their mouth where they go, “You’re from a Christian school? And you’re into theatre?” I’m used to that attitude. But then I come here to the Denver Center and they just say, “OK, let’s get to work.” And I’m like, “Wait, you’re not going to ask me about my political views? Where’s the interrogation?”

Each finalist was mentored during the Colorado New Play Summit in February by a commissioned playwright with the Denver Center Theatre Company: Rogelio Martinez (Knapp), Anne García-Romero (Moore) and Lauren Yee (Wood), all of whom are developing new plays for the DCPA’s right of first refusal.

“Rogelio had some ideas and insights for the play that hadn’t been presented to me by any other voice,” said Knapp. “It’s just a really good feeling to get feedback from someone you know is established who says to you genuinely, ‘This is good.’ ”

Student Playwrights Sonder
The cast and creative teams from the three student playwriting readings at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The three finalists and their plays are featured in the video report at the top of this page. Here are additional excerpts from their conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore:

John Moore: What did you think when you found out you were in the top three?

Gabrielle Moore: My mom told me I had to look at this email because it was really important. And I was like, “Mom you’re probably misinterpreting it. They’re probably just saying, ‘Thank you for your submission’ – not that I actually won. When I read it, I was genuinely amazed.

Jessica Wood: When I found out I was in the top three, I was really excited, because I put quite a lot of work into it. To see my work realized and accepted meant a whole lot. It was really great.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Kendra Knapp: I showed the email to my dad and he was like, “Wow, that’s super exciting!” And then I had this sudden moment of dread where I was like, “Oh gosh, I’m going to have to actually talk to people. No! I have to put on a dress! I can’t just sit in my pajamas all day!”

John Moore: How did it help your writing to work with a director from the DCPA Education team?

Jessica Wood: Shortly after I was selected, Mr. (Steven Cole) Hughes sent me some notes that said he liked my play, but there definitely were places where we can improve it. So I made some changes before I even went into rehearsal. Then I met my wonderful director (Allison Watrous), all of my actors, and they’re all great. We sat down and read the whole play through, and I said, “OK, I can definitely see some structural weaknesses.” So I changed my play – and then the next day, I changed it again. I think I had a rewrite every single day. And by the time we were done, I got to understand the whole feeling of the play. I got to learn how to best impact the ears of the audience, what sounds pleasing and what doesn’t, and really what makes for a good script.

John Moore: What was it like to see a professional reading of your work?

Gabrielle Moore: Starting out with an idea a year ago and getting to watch it develop into being on the stage was incredible. Even though there were some rewrites, my director Patrick (Elkins-Zeglarski) ensured me that I know what’s best for this play, that this is my authentic voice, and I could put in whatever I want, to an extent. It was nice to know that this is still my play, even though the DCPA has been nice enough to take care of it for me.

John Moore: What was it like to hear audience responses for the first time?

Jessica Wood: When the the lights went down for my play, I just felt this moment of sudden, sick dread because I was convinced that everyone would hate it. It’s really terrifying when you have a live audience because you don’t know how they’re going to react. You don’t know if they’re going to connect. You don’t know if they are going to be bored out of their minds. And if that happens, you’re to blame for that. But they were great. They were kind, they were polite, they laughed, and hopefully they cried a little bit.

John Moore: How is this whole experience emboldening you?

Gabrielle Moore: I learned a lot about myself through the writing process, especially through my character, Teresa. Because I’ve had trouble understanding everything I need to know about being a Catholic. And writing this play really helped because I did a lot of research on Mother Teresa. She said a lot of times when she prayed, she wasn’t sure if God was always there. But that didn’t stop her from doing good things and being a good person. I think she’s such an amazing woman to do that. I just want to keep being a good person and being a good writer and impact other people to do good through plays like this.

Jessica Wood: I definitely think there’s a bit of a look that you get from adults when you tell them you write. They say, “Do you, really?” And then here comes this opportunity at the Denver Center where they say, “Yes, you are a writer. Now why don’t you give us some of your writing and let us help you make it better?”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Sonder: Performance information
1:30 and 7 p.m., Friday, June 17
Conservatory Theatre in the Robert and Judi Newman Center for Theatre Education 1101 13th St.
This performance is free, but an RSVP is requested by clicking here 

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of the Student Playwriting Competition:
2016 finalists named for Regional High School Playwriting Competition
2016 Summit: An infusion of invisible color and hidden voices
Denver Center launches statewide high-school playwriting initiative
Direct link to our Flickr photo gallery

Our complete countdown of 2016 semifinalists:
No. 1: Jafei Pollitt, Denver School of the Arts
No. 2: Jessica Wood, Denver Christian High School
No. 3: Kristine Guo, Peak to Peak Charter School
No. 4: Gabrielle Moore, D’Evelyn High School
No. 5: Ashley Wright and Amelia Middlebrooks, Valor Christian High School
No. 6: Kalina Gallardo, Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy
No. 7: Kiera Eriksen-McAuliffe, Denver School of the Arts
No. 8: Stephanie Kiel and Mady McGraw, Chatfield Senior High School
No. 9: Kendra R. Knapp, Valor Christian High School
No. 10: Jacob Kendrick, Peak to Peak Charter School


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