Fresh Voices 

Local students win chance to work with theater professionals.

The program brings together statewide winners of a high-school playwriting and acting competition for a three-week work/study program put on by Theatre IV and SPARC. Student plays are staged with the guidance of top-notch professionals, including playwright-in-residence Clay McLeod Chapman and actor-in-residence Daryl Phillips. The plays are presented during the Festival of New Work at the end of the program.

This year, two local students, Mike Rozycki, a junior at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, and Erin McCabe, a graduate of L.C. Bird High School, won slots in the residency program along with six actors and six playwrights from across the state. (Tuckahoe Middle School students Rachael Hillmar and Melissa Rayford received honorable mentions in the middle-school playwriting competition.)

When friends encouraged Rozycki to enter the competition, he auditioned at one of four sites in Virginia, and “Boom,” he says — “I got in.” He beat out 70 actors to enter the program. It screwed up some plans for a role in a martial arts film as a featured fighter, he says, but “This is definitely more important.” Rozycki, who has been acting since fourth grade, will perform in “Evil Peanut Butter” at the Festival of New Work.

Erin McCabe says her theater instructor, Ted Boelt, encouraged her to enter. “I had the bones of a script about two or three pages long,” McCabe says. She had one week to expand her script to 18 pages to enter the competition. “I wrote like crazy,” she says. The resulting comedy, “Global Warming,” topped more than 150 plays.

Just a few days into the program, McCabe says she is pleased with the progress she is making on her script and Chapman, a six-time winner of the competition, has been very helpful. “He says things like ‘maybe try this,’ but he doesn’t push,” McCabe says. “He may offer a mild suggestion which stimulates ideas for change.” His coaching helped McCabe see the value of moving one or more integral parts of her script from the end of the play to the beginning. McCabe is savoring her experience with New Voices and is excited about the festival, especially to see her play “come to life on stage.”

Former winners know the feeling — how it can change your life. By the end of the first week of her first New Voices experience, former winning playwright Ellie Pyle recalls thinking, “I never want to leave.” In a sense, she never has. She went on to win a spot in three more New Voices competitions each year of high school, and now on summer break from college, she is back for her second year as a mentor, hoping to help her advisees, including McCabe, as much as she was helped by the program. As a freshman in high school, to sort out some personal issues, Pyle sat down to write a play, “Preferred Method of Suicide.” She wrote diligently for a week at school, and when she was done, she had a winning script and what she considered “some cheap therapy.” New Voices provided the means for Pyle to realize early on, “This is what I want to do in life.” She now pursues a degree in playwriting from Drexel University.

Pyle recalls her third year with New Voices when Chapman told the group, “If you’ve benefited from New Voices, you have to give back to this program.” True to his advice, Chapman is back for the fifth time as a mentor and this year as the playwright-in-residence. According to Chapman, his participation in New Voices helped inspire a stellar career for the young playwright.

He recalls the defining moment that changed his life. As a second-year participant in the New Voices program, Chapman was sitting in the audience of the sold-out theater watching his play, “Mowing the Dessert Lawn,” being performed on stage. “I was a bewildered 13-year-old boy barely experiencing puberty,” he says, “and all these people came together to see a show — my play — and it was an awestruck feeling.” It was that feeling, Chapman says, that he never wanted to lose. From that moment on, he has worked hard and his work is paying off. Chapman’s “Pumpkin Pie Show,” a rigorous storytelling backed by its own live band, is in its seventh year of performances in Europe and the United States, and just last week, it opened off-Broadway. Chapman’s first collection of short stories, “Rest Area” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and his novel, “Miss Corpus,” was published this spring.

In short, if it weren’t for the New Voices program, Chapman says, “I wouldn’t have been introduced to this whole new world.” And youth might have been wasted on the young. S

The Festival of New Work, two days of performances, will take place July 18 at 8 p.m. and July 19 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at The Empire Theater, 114 W. Broad St. Free.


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