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Summer Teen Playwrights Program Finds a New Crop of Daring Dramatists 

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Tom Topinka

Back in her high school days, Elise Watt spent two summers in residency at New Voices for the Theatre to learn the nuts and bolts of playwriting. But her biggest takeaways from the program, sponsored by the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, were skills that benefit her as a fiction writer.

"My character dialogue has been the strongest part of my fiction writing ever since New Voices taught me how much a single spoken sentence can create someone real," she says.
This year more than 160 Virginia high school students submitted one-act plays as part of the competition. Eight earned places in the New Voices residency program.

They will, as Watt, who graduated from the University of Virginia this year, come to Richmond for two weeks to take classes, visit cultural sites and work with assigned professional directors and actors to polish and ultimately present their winning plays as staged readings.

Bob Bartlett, a Washington based dramatist, is the current playwright-in-residence who will help guide these blossoming dramaturges through the process of getting their works staged during the New Voices Festival.

In addition to the finer points of getting a play ready for the stage, Bartlett hopes to challenge the participants to grow as writers.

"During that first week, before they ever see an actor or director, I designed a curriculum to address their particular scripts and expand on the world of getting their plays produced," Bartlett says. One of his methods is to deconstruct a film. "I want to teach them to become less passive viewers of theater, television, and film and view things as a writer. This way they can see how they are being manipulated by the scriptwriter or director so they can do the same."

Bartlett has had several of his own works produced at the Kennedy Center and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The world premiere of his latest play, "Swimming with Whales," opened at 1st Stage in Reston in June. Having just gone through the sometimes nerve-twisting exercise of working with actors and other artists to bring

his own work to life, Bartlett will be especially poised to guide his eight teenage protégés.
"I have been in the trenches in the last few weeks and this process of building the play has been so healthy and enjoyable because it made me less afraid to make a mistake," Bartlett says. "That collaborative experience, whether it is positive or negative, is something that can't be had until you actually do it with the director, actors and audience."

Current New Voices resident Joshua St. Hill, a 17-year-old rising senior at Monticello High School in Charlottesville, is ready to take full advantage of Bartlett's expertise. "I just want to learn as much as I possibly can, especially in directing since I want to major in film," he says. St. Hill wrote a piece titled, "A King's Story," about the responses of various individuals and groups to the shooting of a young black man, his topic made especially poignant following the events of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville last year. "What I see in these writers is a fearlessness I didn't have at their age," Bartlett says.

Regardless of what this year's residents take away from their experience, one thing is for sure: They will be premiering their plays July 13 and 14 for the 29th annual Festival of New Works at the VCU Singleton Center. Information can be found at sparcrichmond.org. S

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