Theater preview: How to become a professional playwright – at age 16

Elizabeth Weinstein, Columbus Alive contributor
Dakota Duclo as Martin2, left to right (foreground), Kimberly Martin as Carla2, Sheree Evans (background) as Carla1, Stephen Woosley (background) as Martin2 in the short play "Clues" by Hannah Woods as part of MadLab Theatre's Fourth Annual Young Writers Short Play Festival.

In 2011, MadLab Theatre and Gallery launched an innovative program – the Young Writers Short Play Festival – which was, and still is, the only one of its kind in Central Ohio. The program gives high school playwrights a professional theatrical experience, in which they are mentored throughout nearly eight months of show development, rewrites and staged readings, before debuting their original 10-minute plays in front of live audiences.

It's the sort of experience that can genuinely change young lives, said Michelle Batt, who co-founded Young Writers and helps oversee the annual program.

"We are giving students the opportunities to learn about how to be a playwright – to learn about theater, responsibility and creativity," she said. "[Schools] are cutting creative arts and creative writing programs and we as a community have to be able to provide students with these opportunities. We have to, or the theater community as a whole in the nation is not going to continue if we don't develop young writers."

Word is spreading about the program, too. Batt said that MadLab received a record 55 submissions from high school playwrights (ranging from freshmen to seniors) this year, for the fourth annual festival, and nine of those were selected to be performed during the festival. Most of the students are from the Columbus area, but last year, Batt started talking to school administrators in neighboring cities, and this year's group of playwrights includes one from John Glenn High School in New Concord.

Batt said she and her colleagues at MadLab are careful to select a well-balanced group of students – a diverse mix of ages, genders and backgrounds, with varying writing interests and career aspirations. And somewhat unsurprisingly, the scripts entered by teenagers skew toward darker subjects and themes.

"Most of the shows tend to be a little serious [every year, for instance, there is always at least one piece that deals with death], but we do have some fun ones as well," Batt said.

"Teenagers are in between still wanting to be an adolescent and striving to be an adult, and they write about those things," she explained. "They write about things they know about and things that they don't."

The plays this year tackle everything from family dynamics and sibling rivalries to mysterious illnesses and deadly Internet pop-up ads. "Edward," by William Lekan, for instance, is about a brother and sister who grapple with the death of their father. It takes place in a coffee shop, where the siblings discuss who will take care of their deceased father's cat, and, Batt said, "is about resentment, sadness and who they have become because of who [their father was]."

And in Avel DiFrangia's "Stereotypes Anonymous," a handful of stock characters (the Type A perfectionist, the truck driver, the John Mayer-esque singer-songwriter, the Goth girl, the doting mom) all come together in a support group for people who live in their stereotypes – with comedic results.

Batt said tickets are selling fast for all performances (last year every one sold out) – and that she cannot imagine a better foray into the world of theater for these young writers. "By the time [the students] leave this program, their play has been presented in front of a paid audience," she said, "and in the industry, that's considered a professional playwright."

Fourth Annual Young Writers Short Play Festival

MadLab Theatre and Gallery

July 10-25

227 N. Third St., Downtown