The New Generation Play Project was a daring experiment in American children's theatre. Begun in 1989 by a consortium that included the Seattle Children's Theatre, The Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre, and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, the NGPP raised half a million dollars to commission major American dramatists to create new works for young people and to produce these plays over a several-year period.
This book provides the full text of the plays produced through the NGPP:
Constance Congdon, Beauty and the Beast
Velina Hasu Houston, Hula Heart
Tina Howe, East of the Sun and West of the Moon
Len Jenkin, The Invisible Man
Mark Medoff, Kringle's Window
Eric Overmyer, Duke Kahanamoku vs. The Surfnappers
Michael Weller, Dogbrain
Y York, The Witch of Blackbird Pond
In his introduction, Coleman Jennings describes the work of the NGPP, some of the controversies surrounding its selection of playwrights who do not ordinarily write for young audiences, as well as the playwrights' reactions to the project, and the critical reception of the plays. Suzan Zeder, one of the nation's leading playwrights for family audiences, supplies the foreword.
Foreword (Suzan L. Zeder)
Introduction (Coleman A. Jennings)
Beauty and the Beast (Constance Congdon)
Hula Heart (Velina Hasu Houston)
East of the Sun and West of the Moon (Tina Howe)
The Invisible Man (Len Jenkin)
Kringle's Window (Mark Medoff)
Duke Kahanamoku vs. the Surfnappers (Eric Overmyer)
From an evening chat to a breakfast meeting, the idea of the New Generation Play Project began in Northampton, Massachusetts on the Smith College campus in June 1988 during a joint conference of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and ASSITEJ/USA. One evening Moses Goldberg, artistic director of Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre, and Bill Conner, who was then managing director of The Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, were discussing the idea of forming a theatre for young audiences consortium similar to the national LORT group that had joined forces to seek theatrical funding from national corporations. At a later meeting, Goldberg, Conner, and Jon Cranney, executive director of The Children's Theatre Company, Jane Campbell, managing director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, and Linda Hartzell, artistic director of the Seattle Children's Theatre, discussed the ongoing funding problems of theatre for youth as well as their desire to raise the profile of children's theatre in the United States.
At that time children's theatre companies, even the large ones such as The Children's Theatre of Minneapolis, received much less financial support from sources such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) than that given to adult regional theatres. In some cases efforts had been made to engage nationally known playwrights of the adult theatre to write for child audiences, but none had been successful. Those involved in the discussions which generated the New Generation Play Project addressed the frustration and difficulty involved in these previous attempts to commission works.
It was reasoned that since the four representative theatres served a combined total of over a million children each year, they and other professional children's theatres would have a stronger case in seeking money from fund ing agencies if they joined forces in some manner. The idea of forming an American consortium of major children's theatre companies seemed like a perfect plan. Early on, it was decided to limit the consortium to resident theatres in large cities and not to include professional children's theatre touring companies.
From this informal beginning the complicated process of realizing the project began. In 1989, the four producing directors met again during an ASSITEJ/USA board meeting, when it was decided that the project would, indeed, focus on the commissioning of new plays from major American playwrights of the adult theatre.
The directors believed that the creation of such plays would draw more attention to the work of professional, producing children's theatres and would result in recognition of theatres for young audiences as a branch of theatre as important as any other. The idea of plays for children from respected adult playwrights would be an exciting new project that would attract adequate funding. Such funds would also be used to increase production budgets, so that the playwrights-in-residence could work with major directors, composers, and designers. Most important of all, the development of new works would benefit not just the four theatres but the profession as a whole.
Obviously, all believed that their audiences deserved the best of the American theatre, and that this was a way to stimulate the writing of excellent plays. There was then, and continues to be, a great need for increasing the body of well-written children's dramatic literature.
The discussions concerning the generation of new works led to the realization that to persuade exceptional adult playwrights to consider writing for children, project directors would have to overcome two chief obstacles. One hurdle was that most established adult playwrights had seemingly no real reason to write for young audiences, and the other was that project directors would have to find means to offer compensation generous enough to appeal to playwrights of the adult theatre.
During the first six months of the organizing process, three major questions had to be answered.
Which theatres should be included?
How should the money be raised?
Which playwrights should be sought for the commissions?
In selecting the participating theatres, there was no intent to be exclusive. In fact, there was no official selection process other than the initial agreement that the four directors would pursue the idea together. Since the original five people knew each other's work, represented the four largest independent regional theatre for young audiences companies, and seemed to have the will and the means to realize such a national consortium, they became, almost by default, the New Generation Play Project. Goldberg was selected to be the project director and Conner agreed to spearhead the fund-raising efforts.
The New Generation Play Project proposal stated the goals of the project as well as the reasoning behind them:
The objective of the consortium is the creation of a body of superior dramatic works for young people and families. Nine to twelve new scripts will be commissioned and produced over a period of four years. Playwrights will be selected from among America's most respected dramatists. A selected anthology of the plays will be published and distributed to all major American theatres and will be available to university theatre programs.
The consortium will implement a combination of individual and joint commissions and productions, and initiate a combined approach in a significant fund-raising effort at the national level. Playwrights will reach audiences in four distinct regions of the country and will be given fully staged premier productions.
The objectives for playwright selection and commissioning will be both the artistic advancement of the four theatres and the lasting effect of the new scripts on theatre for young audiences and families as a whole. Funds solicited by the consortium will enable the theatres to engage respected playwrights with commission fees and royalties commensurate with their stature. The fund also will provide increased production budgets so that the playwrights may be assured of working with designers, composers, and directors of similar caliber.
The commissions are expected to cover the entire spectrum of work produced for young audiences and families—original scripts focusing on self-realization or adventure, innovative approaches to the adaptation of the classics of children's literature, and musicals.
A long tradition of undervaluing the artistic potential of theatre for young people has created difficulty in attracting the best known playwrights, such as Arthur Miller, David Henry Hwang, August Wilson, Tina Howe, and Eric Overmyer. Outside of the first rank of American children's theatre, creative and production artists, theatre patrons, and financial supporters have tended to take the view that theatre for an audience age eighteen and younger means a lowering of artistic standards and a corresponding diminished stature in the artists engaged. This limited point of view naturally results in a smaller pool of funds available for commissions, royalties, and production costs, thus limiting each theatre's capacity to realize full artistic potential.
The four theatres share the view that young audiences and families need and deserve the efforts of America's most talented playwrights and theatre artists. Through this series of commissions and productions, the consortium seeks to reaffirm, at the national level, the full artistic potential of theatre for young people and to create a lasting legacy of first-class scripts for young people and families. Together as four of the country's leading children's theatres, the consortium is uniquely positioned to address issues of artistic quality and public misconceptions.
In 1990, after an initial grant of $5,000 from the Children's Theatre Foundation, the group applied for a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The money from the Children's Theatre Foundation helped give legitimacy to the project. In addition, the theatres agreed to solicit a small portion of the budget from their own communities, making the fund-raising a truly national effort. The budget as listed in the project application for the NEA Arts Challenge Grant Program was as follows:
Total Estimated Project Costs
Total Estimated Project Income
Total Challenge III Funds Request
Once the NEA approved the funding of $125,000, Conner continued seeking corporate and foundation sources for the necessary three-to-one match for the NEA challenge grant. The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund provided the most significant support by agreeing to take on half of the project's $500,000 total cost.
Later, when Conner left the employment of The Children's Theatre Company, the national fund-raising efforts floundered. The income from four funding agencies as of that time was $455,000:
Children's Theatre Foundation
National Endowment for the Arts
Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund
It was ultimately decided to parcel out the existing money, and each of the four theatres would seek the remaining funds needed for their productions. A letter of agreement dated January 28, 1989 stated that the projected $500,000 budget was to be divided among the four theatres as follows:
Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theater
The Children's Theatre Company
Honolulu Theatre for Youth
Seattle Children's Theatre
Administration [Stage One]
John Kauffman, the artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, would later become involved with the originators of the project. The executive or managing directors of all four theatres, working with the artistic directors, played an important role in the operation of the project.
The original plan was to commission up to twelve plays; two of the theatres might co-produce one or more scripts, with the production(s) being presented at both theatres. It turned out that although this idea was an intriguing one, it was simply too complicated to execute.
The artistic directors of the respective theatres had the primary task of selecting and contracting with the playwrights for their theatres. The original group served as sounding boards for each other, but there was no oversight of artistic choices or playwrights other than brainstorming to create a long list of writers who met their goals. The standard for selection was originally stated as "mainstream American playwrights who would not ordinarily create dramatic work for young people." Further, they should have national reputations and recognition as writers in the American professional theatre because they had demonstrated extraordinary ability in playwriting.
In the early stages of the project, there were many discussions about who should or should not be involved. Many hours were spent identifying and contacting playwrights who met the standard. Since a number of the estab lished children's theatre playwrights already had working relationships, which included commissions with some of the theatres, and were unmistakably committed to high professional standards in theatre for young audiences, it was decided that they would not be considered for the New Generation Play Project commissions. The grants were to be awarded only to playwrights new to the field. The directors wanted to involve those who had not written for children, but who were recognized as important voices in the American theatreplaywrights who were, because of practical, financial, or logistical reasons, unlikely to write for a young audience. The directors believed that involving these playwrights would substantially advance the level of professionalism in children's theatre.
Suggestions were then sought from numerous sources, including Arthur Ballet, theatre program director of the National Endowment for the Arts. The artistic directors then individually contacted playwrights on their lists and dis cussed possible projects. The issues of playwright availability and suitability of subject matter were considered by each director and staff. Although a few of the playwrights contacted said that they had no interest in writing for children, others were concerned that they would be unable to write for children or were simply afraid of writing for them. A number of America's leading playwrights did express interest in the project but had to decline due to their previous commitments or the time restraints of the project. Several of the playwrights' agents had no knowledge of children's theatre and were surprised to learn of the generous financial compensation offered for these commissions.
Since one of the defining ideas of the project was to offer attractive commissioning fees, the standard arrangement with the playwrights was a $5,000 commission, plus performance royalties up to a possible maximum total of $10,000 depending on the size of the theatre and number of performances. Prior to this project the amount paid for commissioned plays for young audiences was substantially lower, ranging from $200 to $2,000. In the final report for the grant to the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, it was noted that "we may have underestimated the commission fee expectations of some wellregarded playwrights ... The level of fees, although higher than the participating theatres' usual commissioning fees, made it difficult to find writers who had the window of time available to work on a relatively small commission. Our competitors were films, TV, and video."
Because some of the involved theatres did not usually earn large revenue from ticket sales, it was envisioned that more than one of the theatres would present the plays, which would in turn generate additional revenue for the playwrights and give their works greater exposure. Only one play, however, Len Jenkin's The Invisible Man, was presented by two theatres for this project. The New Generation Play Project as originally envisioned was intended to be completed in four years, but due to delays in securing the commissions and a series of personnel changes at the four theatres, the project lasted eight years. Not all the commissions were established: several playwrights withdrew due to other stage or film projects; one withdrew due to the lack of "a viable idea." The lists of candidates were therefore revised, and this time female and minority playwrights who were emerging within the mainstream of American theatre were included. The names of white male playwrights had dominated most of the original lists, a fact noted by several potential funding agencies. Finally, the artistic directors made their selections and Constance Congdon, Velina Hasu Houston, Tina Howe, Len Jenkin, Mark Medoff, Eric Overmyer, Michael Weller, and Y York became the playwrights of the New Generation Play Project. Contrary to the original plan of commissioning playwrights of the adult theatre who had not written for children, four of the named playwrights (Congdon, Houston, Jenkin, Medoff) had already created works for children.
Constance Congdon was born in Iowa and grew up in Colorado and Kansas. She earned a B.A. degree from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In 1982 she received her M.F.A. degree from the University of Massachusetts, where she served as an instructor in rhetorical writing.
Winner of a Guggenheim fellowship in 1991, Congdon's Tales of the Lost Formicans received a number of honors and has been produced in over fifty regional theatres. Among her other awards are an American College Theatre Festival National Playwriting Award; the Great American Play Contest prize; a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; a Rockefeller award; an Arnold Weissberger award; a Dramalogue award, and an Oppenheimer award. She has served as playwright-in-residence for the Hartford (Connecticut) Stage Company. Her works for the adult stage include Casanova, A Conversation with Georgia O'Keeffe, No Mercy, Native American, and Dog Opera.
Congdon first worked with The Children's Theatre Company (Minneapolis) in 1987. Her Raggedy Ann and Andy, a musical collaboration, opened that year, and her adaptation of Strand and Grooms' Rembrandt Takes a Walk premiered in Minneapolis and played in Moscow in 1989.
Other works at Minneapolis included Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose, Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline's Rescue, and Tomie dePaola's Strega Nona Meets Her Match. Congdon's version of Beauty and the Beast premiered at The Children's Theatre Company during the 1991-1992 season.
Velina Hasu Houston holds a B.A. from Kansas State University and an M.F.A. in playwriting from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1991, she has been the resident playwright and director of the playwriting program at the University of Southern California. Her play Tea has had over thirty international productions. Among her other adults' plays are Asa Ga Kimashita, American Dreams, Kokoro, Cultivated Lives, and As Sometimes in a Dead Man's Face. Included in the number of theatres where her works have been produced are The Old Globe Theatre (San Diego), the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Negro Ensemble Company (New York), A Contemporary Theatre (Seattle), the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), the Nippon Hoso Kai (Japan), the Theatre of Yugen (Japan), the Odyssey Amagasaki Piccolo Theatre (Japan), the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Theatre Kai (Japan), the Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles), and the Lincoln Center Institute (New York). In addition to her stage works, which are represented in two anthologies, The Politics of Life: Four Plays by Asian American Women and Unbroken Thread, Houston has extensive credits in writing for film and television.
She is a member of the Writers Guild of America and the Dramatists Guild. A recipient of the Remy Martin New Vision Award from Sidney Poitier/American Film Institute, she is listed among the top 100 Asian Americans by TransPacific magazine; is noted as one of the Japanese American Women of Merit 1890-1990, chosen by the National Japanese American Historical Society; and was a California Arts Council Performing Arts Fellow. She has twice been a Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Fellow, and she also received the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award of the Kennedy Center.
Five Japanese television documentaries have been produced concerning Houston's work and/or her family. They focus on her writing, her activism for Amerasians, the productions of her plays in Japan, and her multicultural and multiethnic family. Velina Hasu Houston's Hula Heart premiered at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth during the 1996 season.
Tina Howe received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. She has been a visiting professor at Hunter College since 1990 and an adjunct professor at New York University since 1983. She has served on the council of the Dramatists Guild since 1990.
Her awards include an Obie for distinguished playwriting, an Outer Circle Critics award, the Rosamond Gilder Award, a Rockefeller grant, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, and two honorary degrees. In 1987, she received a Tony nomination for Best Play (Coastal Disturbances).
Howe's plays for the adult stage include The Nest, Birth and After Birth, Museum, The Art of Dining, Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances, Approaching Zanzibar, One Shoe Off, and Pride's Crossing. Her works have premiered at the Los Angeles Actors Theater, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), The Old Globe Theatre (San Diego), The Lincoln Center Theater (New York), and the Second Stage (New York). Her plays are included in numerous anthologies as well as in the collections Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays by Tina Howe and Approaching Zanzibar and Other Plays, published by the Theatre Communications Group. Howe's version of East of the Sun and West of the Moon premiered at The Children's Theatre Company in 1995.
Len Jenkin is a playwright, screenwriter, and director. His plays include Dark Ride, Pilgrims of the Night, My Uncle Sam, Careless Love, and Limbo Tales. His films include Blame It on the Night, Welcome to Oblivion, and Nickel Dreams. His works have been produced throughout the United States, from the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, as well as in England, Germany, and Japan.
He has also written for adult and children's television and received an Emmy nomination for the children's television show Family of Strangers. His other writings include the adult novel New Jerusalem, based on his play by the same name, and for children, The Secret Life of Billie's Uncle Myron.
Jenkin was born in New York City and educated at Columbia University. Since 1980, he has served as professor in the Dramatic Writing Program, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including a Rockefeller fellowship, three Obie awards for directing and playwriting, a Guggenheim fellowship, a nomination for an Emmy award, and four National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
Jenkin wrote his first script for young theatre goers, a dramatization of the Ramona Quimby novels, for the 1991-1992 season of The Children's Theatre Company (Minneapolis). The following season he was commissioned by the Seattle Children's Theatre to adapt H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man, which premiered in January 1993.
Mark Medoff won a Tony Award in 1980 for his play Children of a Lesser God. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the film script of Children and for an ACE award for his Home Box Office premiere movie, Apology. In 1973, he won an Obie award for his play When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?Children of a Lesser God, When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? and The Wager were included in the collection Ten Best Plays for their respective New York seasons.
Medoff is the author of fifteen plays and nine films. Among his motion pictures are Clara's Heart, Off Beat, and City of Joy. He wrote the script and produced the film version of his play, The Homage That Follows, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, in 1995. Santa Fe, an independent feature he wrote with Andrew Shea, premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival competition. His novel Dreams of Long Lasting was published in 1992.
He holds degrees from the University of Miami (B.A.) and Stanford University (M.A.) and received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (D.H.L.) degree from Gallaudet University. He is Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts at New Mexico State University, where he served on the faculty for twenty-seven years. He was head of theatre arts there for seven years and co-founder and artistic director of the American Southwest Theatre Company for five years.
Medoff's extensive work with the Omaha Theater Company for Young People includes productions of Kringle's Window, Stefanie Hero, and two new works, Showdown on Rio Road, with Ross Marks, and Crunch Time, with Phil Treon. Kringle's Window premiered at Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre in 1992. Medoff has accepted a commission from the Kennedy Center for a new play for high school and family audiences for 1999-2000.
Eric Overmyer was born in Boulder, Colorado, grew up in Seattle, and was educated at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he received a B.A. in theatre. He did graduate work at the Asolo Conservatory, Florida State University, Brooklyn College, and City University of New York.
He was the literary manager of Playwrights Horizons from 1982 to 1984; an associate artist at Center Stage, Baltimore, from 1984 to 1991; visiting associate professor of playwriting, Yale School of Drama, from 1991 to 1992; associate artist, Yale Repertory Theatre, from 1991 to 1992; mentor, the Mark Taper Forum Playwriting Workshop, 1992; and visiting lecturer, playwriting, Yale School of Drama, from 1994 to 1998.
His most frequently produced play, On the Verge, has been performed extensively throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and has been translated and performed in Paris and Oslo. In Perpetuity throughout the Universe, which has been translated into Quebecois and presented in Montreal, has also been translated into Bulgarian and performed at the National Army Theatre in Sofia. Among his other plays for the adult theatre are Mi Vida Loca, Don Quixote de La Jolla, Native Speech, and In a Pig's Valise.
He has written extensively for film and television and also is the author of a play for radio, Kafka's Radio, produced by WNYC. His television credits include St. Elsewhere, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and Homicide: Life on the Streets. Overmyer is the recipient of grants and fellowships from McKnight, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Le Comte du Nouy Foundation. His Duke Kahanamoku vs. the Surfnappers premiered at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth in 1994.
Michael Weller has written over thirty plays and screenplays. The best known plays are Moonchildren, Fishing, Split, Loose Ends, Ghost On Fire, The Ballad of Soapy Smith, Spoils of War, Lake No Bottom, Buying Time, ¡Help! and The Heart of Art. His films include Hair and Ragtime (for Milos Forman) and Lost Angels. Weller's teleplay, Spoils of War, was broadcast in 1994. In 1996 his Dogbrain premiered at Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre.
Weller's work has been performed On, Off, and Off-Off Broadway, as well as at many major repertory theatres in the United States, including the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles), the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Circle-in-the-Square (New York), Seattle Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and, most frequently, the Second Stage (New York).
One of his most satisfying professional activities is working with apprentice playwrights, several of whom have gone on to national acclaim: Sally Nemeth, Heather McDonald, Jon Field, and Chris Kyle. Weller is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, where he serves as a council member and actively promotes the introduction of standard conditions nationwide under which playwrights can work in all theatres. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
Y York, playwright and storyteller, was an inductee to New Dramatists in 1987, recipient of the New Dramatists' Joe Callaway Award in 1991, and recipient of the Berrilla Kerr Award in 1997. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild. Her adult plays include American 60s in Three Ax, The Beethoven, The Bottom of the Ninth, Gerald's Good Idea, It Comes Around, Krisit, Life Gap, Rain. Some Fish. No Elephants, The Richard Play, The Secret Wife, The Snowflake Avalanche, and Toast and Jam.
Workshops and/or productions of York's plays have been held at many major U.S. theatres, including ACT (San Francisco), A Contemporary Theatre (Seattle), Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.), A.S.K. Theatre Projects (Los Angeles), Childsplay (Tempe, Arizona), Empty Space Theatre (Seattle), First Stage (Milwaukee), Hartford (Connecticut) Children's Theatre, Horizon Theatre (Atlanta), Idaho Theatre for Youth, the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), the Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles), the Mixed Blood Theatre (Minneapolis), the New Harmony Project (New Harmony, Indiana), the Repertory Theatre (St. Louis), the Sundance Institute (Utah), the Seattle Children's Theatre, and Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre.
Y York's all-ages plays include Accidental Friends, the Portrait the Wind the Chair, The Perfect Pitch, The Last Paving Stone, and adaptations of Afternoon of the Elves, Frog and Toad (Forever), and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which premiered at the Seattle Children's Theatre in 1996.
The eight plays, therefore, as commissioned and produced by the four theatres are as follows:
Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre
Kringle's Window by Mark Medoff Director: Moses Goldberg Scenic Designer: Jim Billings Costume Designer: Jan Finnell Lighting Designer: Chuck Schmidt Composer: Scott Kasbaum Properties Master: April Bohler Brown Technical Director: Greg Karaba Stage Manager: Leslie Kay Oberhausen
Dogbrain by Michael Weller Director: Moses Goldberg Scenic Designer/Technical Director: Danny Mangan Costume Designer: Donna E. Lawrence Lighting and Sound Designer: Jen Groseth Properties Master: Kelly Wiegant Production Stage Manager: Leslie Kay Oberhausen
Seattle Children's Theatre
The Invisible Man by Len Jenkin from the story by H. G. Wells Director: Linda Hartzell Set Designers: Robert A. Gardiner & Cricket Price Costume Designer: Paul Chi-Ming Louey Lighting Designer: R. J. Conn Sound Designer: Steven M. Klein Technical Director: Silas Morse Special Effects Designer: Scott Ramirez Magic Designer: Steffan Soule Properties Master: Mark Rogers Wig and Hair Designer: Marjean McCaslin-Doyle Stage Manager: Renée Roub Production Stage Manager: Linda-Jo Brooke Dramaturg: R. N. Sandberg
The Witch of Blackbird Pond Based on The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare Adapted by Y York Director: John Dillon Set Designer: Scott Weldin Costume Designer: Melanie Taylor Burgess Light Designer: Greg Sullivan Sound Designer and Composer: Steven M. Klein Puppet Designer: Scott R. Gray Assistant Puppet Designer: Douglas N. Paasch Production Manager: Silas Morse Technical Director: S. Mark Hoffman Dramaturg: Deborah Lynn Frockt Production Stage Manager: Linda-Jo Brooke Stage Managers: Mo Chapman and Renée Roub Assistant to the Stage Manager: Kathy Cowles Assistant to the Director: Deborah Simon
Honolulu Theatre for Youth
Hula Heart by Velina Hasu Houston Director: Peter C. Brosius Kumu Hula: Vicky Holt Takamine Assistant Director: Bryan Wake Set Designer: Joseph D. Dodd Costume Designer: Laura Bach Light Designer: Don Ranney Sound Designer: Scott Baron Properties Master: Newton Koshi
Duke Kahanamoku vs. the Surfnappers by Eric Overmyer Director: Ron Nakahara Set, Costumes, and Properties Designer: Hugh Hanson Sound Designer: Wendelling
The Children's Theatre Company
Beauty and the Beast Adapted by Constance Congdon Director: Wendy Lehr Scenic and Costume Designer: Desmond Heeley Lighting Designer: Duane H. Schuler Composer: Lance Mulcahy Music Director: Victor Zupanc Sound Designer: Scott W. Edwards Voice Coach: Jeffrey Crockett Stage Manager: Kari Thompson
East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Tina Howe Director: Jon Cranney Composer: Mel Marvin Set and Costume Designer: John Lee Beatty Lighting Designer: Don Darnutzer Sound Designer: Reid Rejsa Music Director: Victor Zupanc Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran
Ten years after the conception of the project, these scripts have been combined to become this anthology, Eight Plays for Children: The New Generation Play Project. Having a published collection of the commissioned plays by a university press was an important component of the grant application and the fundraising efforts. As part of the contractual agreement, the playwrights gave permission for their plays to be published in such an anthology.
Questionnaires for evaluating the overall success of the project were created by the editor of this anthology and sent to the eight playwrights as well as to representatives of the four theatres. Eleven responded, the exception being the representative of the Seattle Children's Theatre.
Responses regarding their experience were generally quite positive. In evaluations of their experiences, all eight playwrights were pleased to have been part of the project. All benefited from the opportunity to write for a young audience, a new venture for four of the playwrights. For Constance Congdon the most rewarding aspect was "the beautifully realized production—something I would have wanted all my colleagues in the theatre community to see." Before writing Beauty and the Beast, Congdon had written or adapted several works for The Children's Theatre Company: Raggedy Ann and Andy, Mother Goose, Rembrandt Takes a Walk, and Madeline's Rescue.
Since Beauty and the Beast she has adapted Tomie dePaola's Strega Nona Meets Her Match for The Children's Theatre Company and The Wee Red Hat for a children's theatre in Missouri. She wrote Time Out of Time for Ralph Lee's Mettawee Theatre and is working on a project for the 1999 Seattle Children's Theatre season. For Congdon the audience is especially appealing: "Where else can you see your work [performed for] audiences of people age seven to seventy?"
The audience is also of primary importance to Velina Hasu Houston: "The most rewarding aspect ... is seeing the children's faces as they watch and absorb the plays, and also hearing their reactions [in the] postproduction process." Her initial reaction to being involved in the project was a positive one: "Its goals were in keeping with mine with regard to the creation of meaningful, educational theatre for young audiences. It had long been my wish that established dramatists would also turn their attention to this arena in the American theatre."
Prior to Hula Heart, Houston had written for children's television and the play The Matsuyama Mirror, which was produced at the New Visions/ New Voices festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Pamela Sterling, then artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, saw the production and later produced and directed it in Hawaii. From this relationship came the commission to write a play for the New Generation Play Project. As Houston began to write Hula Heart, Pamela Sterling's tenure at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth ended. Later Peter Brosius became the artistic director, and Houston was especially gratified by "the synergy that I experienced with my director. His creative spontaneity and excitement for the project made it a very special working experience. Brosius pushed the actors to excel as well, and I observed them going from very raw output to wonderful performance levels."
Although Tina Howe had written two plays which have sizable parts for children, Coastal Disturbances and Approaching Zanzibar, she had not written for child audiences before creating East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Recently she noted, "I will always use children in my plays because they project such power and mystery on stage. And if anybody ever commissions me to write another piece for children's theatre, I'll tackle them around the knees, screaming, 'Yes, yes, I'm your woman.'"
Obviously, Howe was especially appreciative of the involvement of the child audience—"listening to them scream and laugh as the play unfolds." Another rewarding experience for Howe was the design of the production. "The Children's Theatre Company stints on nothing! They built us three, count them ... THREE working polar bears. One was a gigantic bear that stood on its hind legs, one was a mechanical bear that actually walked, and the third was an actor hooked up inside a bear pelt. The effects were extraordinary. The audience went WILD! ... the North Wind appeared as a giant silver head exhaling frost and the staircases appeared and disappeared like magic ... it all happened in front of one's eyes." Although the designs were spectacular, Howe admitted that "we had to pay a price for launching such magical effects—all the sleights-of-hand were done in the dark, which meant we were always having blackouts. Next time I'd try to invoke the magic through the words of the piece and not have to rely on all the technical feats." Aside from the difficulty of the technical effects, Howe said that working with The Children's Theatre Company "was dazzling. It reminded me again that you really can do anything on stage."
Special effects were also a challenge in the production of The Invisible Man as adapted by Len Jenkin. For Jenkin, one of the most gratifying times of the production process was working with the director and the design team in creating the character of the invisible man: "... working out the special effects—after all, a man 'isn't there' on stage—This was done in five or six different ways, depending on the moment."
Before The Invisible Man, Jenkin had told countless stories to his children and had written an ABC Television After School Special, as well as dramatizing Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby for The Children's Theatre Company. Jenkin was exhilarated by the experience as he believes that writing for young people is "among the finest and most enduring in the literature of any culture. I was glad to have the chance to do it again. Kids (and their families) are a lively, wide-eyed, imaginative audience. I'd love to do more."
Mark Medoff has worked with children in one way or another for years. "I have three daughters. Originally I wrote Kringle's Window for them. Two of them were in the original production at the American Southwest Theatre Company at New Mexico State University. I also initially wrote for a number of students I admired, so the original cast included four or five college-age characters. Though as a young writer without children I could afford to be cynical, my children gave me a reason to find something positive to say about our disturbing world."
For young audiences, in addition to Kringle's Window, Medoff has written Stefanie Hero and Crunch Time with Phil Treon, and Showdown on Rio Road with Ross Marks. He has also written a modern version of A Christmas Carol, entitled A Christmas Carousel, with a deaf, female Scrooge (written for Phyllis Frelich, for whom he wrote Children of a Lesser God) and a female Tiny Tim (Justina Cratchet). "I don't think of these plays as 'children's' plays, however, so much as 'family' plays."
For Medoff, "Theatre is theatre. Writing for younger audiences has some slightly different rules than writing for older audiences. My mind is still seeking the same mountainous terrain to cross.... As a writer who has writ ten some pretty angry stuff, I enjoy the pleasure children and parents take from my 'family' plays. I cherish the notion of whole families coming into the theatre together." Kringle's Window was published in 1994 by Dramatists Play Service.
Duke Kahanamoku vs. the Surfnappers was Eric Overmyer's first, and to date, only piece for young people. For Overmyer, working with the director, Ron Nakahara, and "the actors, most of whom were natives of Honolulu and Hawaii, was intensely interesting and a real pleasure..." He became involved with the project through John Kauffman, the late artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. "I first learned about Duke Kahanamoku in 1987, during a visit, and I saw the statue in Waikiki. He captured my imagination, so I started doing some research on his life. I felt Kahanamoku was an unsung hero in certain ways, and that people everywhere should know more about his deeds as a young man. The problem of modern culture is that we tend to lose our history and leave it behind, so that we do not know that it may be what saves us in the future."
Overmyer said that the greatest challenge and the most rewarding aspect of the experience was "trying to enter into Hawaiian culture as an outsider." As to writing plays for children, he noted: "I don't think the pleasure (or frustration) of writing for young people are any different than they are for 'adult' audiences. If one writes plays for audiences, anyway."
According to Michael Weller, the greatest reward in writing Dogbrain was "entirely personal" in that he got the idea for the play from his son and his friend, who "invented the character of 'Dogbrain' to explain why they couldn't help misbehaving from time to time. Taking my son's 'idea' and turning it into a play was like making a gift out of some raw material he's brought to me. By utter coincidence, the play opened on his birthday. I took him to Louisville for a nice birthday present."
Before writing Dogbrain, Weller had had no experience in writing for young audiences. Some years earlier, however, he had contributed a short skit to "an evening of theatre pieces derived from the short stories of Anton Chekhov. The piece was a dopey version of an invented fairy tale. My niece, then age seven, loved it. The rest of the evening was serious and elevated. My niece was bored. A seed was planted in my head."
Moses Goldberg, artistic director of Stage One and a family friend, had asked Weller on a number of occasions to consider writing a play for his theatre. "When Moses first asked me to write a play for him, I was reluctant. The form seemed scary, and my ordinary dramatic concerns too 'mature.' I decided to lay back, wait and see if I warmed to the idea over time." Three years from the time Goldberg first broached the subject, Weller decided to write Dogbrain.
For Weller, the greatest challenge "was to keep the action of the play engaging for an audience of people (children, six to eight years old) whose collective minds I'm not sure I grasp. I know what my kids like, and how they'll respond to my stories, but are they typical children? Also, to entertain without talking down to a child—this is a real trick to pull off." To Weller, the highest reward was also the greatest "terror in writing for children—they can't fool themselves. Adults will bend themselves into pretzels pretending they enjoy something which in actuality bores them silly—it happens frequently in New York theatre. Kids never pretend they're amused. The greatest reward as a craftsman was seeing a roomful of children remain attentive and still for an entire hour while watching the story I had to tell. I felt I'd gotten something deeply right." Dramatists Play Service published Dogbrain in 1997.
Y York had never written for children prior to her adapting The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the Seattle Children's Theatre. She did, however, have two adult plays with children as leading characters. Since creating The Witch of Blackbird Pond, she has dramatized Janet Taylor Lisle's Newbery Award-winning book Afternoon of the Elves, which is included in the anthology Seattle Children's Theatre—Six Plays for Young Audiences, along with her original play, the Portrait the Wind the Chair. The acting edition of the Portrait the Wind the Chair is available from Dramatic Publishing.
In discussing the challenges of adapting a novel for the stage, York noted that "with The Witch of Blackbird Pond [the challenge was] finding a dramatic through line, compressing the action and time ... without losing the seventeenth century entirely." Seattle Children's Theatre has made a major commitment to the development of new scripts through workshops and productions. In praise of the theatre, York said, "I couldn't have done this big show in so short a time without the workshops. I also got an extra workshop when Stage One in Louisville decided to do a reading of Witch."
For York the most rewarding aspect of writing plays for children was "also the scariest thing about writing plays for young people. They are boundless and immediate with their adoration when the play entertains them, and they are boundless and immediate in their ridicule when it doesn't." Another aspect that she particularly liked is the fact that "in the quest to keep honest a character who is young," she was obliged "to solve the play in new ... ways." In discussing playwriting for children, York commented on the middle-school audience at one of the early performances: "These kids were bouncing off the walls. I thought they were going to riot or charge the stage. When the house lights went down, the students got quiet and stayed quiet until the curtain came down on act one. There was no applause, and the audience exploded for intermission bathrooms and snacks. I never thought we'd recapture their attention for act two, but as the lights dimmed, the whole place burst into spontaneous applause." Creating plays for children's theatre has now become an important pursuit in York's writing career.
Certainly persuading playwrights of the adult theatre to write for audiences of children was one of the prime goals of the consortium. Before the commissioning of the works, four of the authors had written for children, four had not." Included in the "had nots" was Y York, who is now one of the four playwrights who has continued to write or will write for young audiences. Jane Campbell, producing director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, commented that such a conversion is a "great gift to the children's theatre profession. By introducing playwrights and their agents to children's theatre we were successful in raising the awareness of the profession and in increasing a playwright's commissioning fee."
Continuing her discussion of the project, Campbell noted: "This was a difficult undertaking, especially due to the staff changes (managing directors, and in Hawaii, the artistic director) at all the theatres, except Seattle. The Seattle Children's Theatre was the only theatre where the original two people involved with the project continued to the completion." Campbell would definitely participate in a similar project in the future; however, she suggested several changes: "Next time we would need a longer time frame. The original schedule was too limiting. We were too optimistic. Good playwrights are busy—you have to allow time to fit into their schedule. Once the playwrights agree to a commission they need time (more than we gave them) to develop their scripts—and the chance to develop them at several different theatres. Due to the imposed schedule some scripts were rushed into production before they were ready. More time is needed to nurture the playwrights so they can develop their work over three to four years. The project succeeded despite all the challenges."
Jon Cranney also discussed the problems of limited time and the logistics of scheduling: "Making the work attractive to playwrights from a financial standpoint became less of a concern, but working out timing and getting writers to commit to a schedule became the most difficult part of the project. The result was that it took much longer to complete than we had ever imagined." For Cranney, the cooperation among the four theatres and the overall success of the project was gratifying. "Many people feared that we would not be able to work together, but I can assure you that was not the case.... I also think that the existence of the project brought a greater awareness of theatre for young people to the American theatre community and to the funding entities."
Cranney also mentioned advantages for the theatres: "New works were created. Voices not heard in our theatres were invited in, and we as artists and theatre administrators grew from the experience. We made new friends—not only the playwrights included, but others who did not participate. We also developed relationships with agents that were very positive and beneficial for us in subsequent dealings.... If a portion of our job is to bring young people into contact with the best of professional theatre, then involving writers of the experience and stature of the playwrights we commissioned is a positive and important step in that process."
The final report to the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund also noted that "a gradual but real increase in respect for the dramaturgy found in theatres for young people across the country has occurred simultaneously with the life of the New Generation Play Project. This was not, to our minds, coincidental. As more playwrights of stature became interested in work for young audiences, preconceptions and biases broke down throughout the field. Seattle Children's Theatre, recent recipient of the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Play award, a first for a theatre for young audiences, is evidence of a new respect for the young audience."
Moses Goldberg said that Stage One and the profession "advanced by adding new plays to the repertory, by achieving some recognition for having done [the] premieres ... and by demonstrating that our production stan dards were sufficient to the task of showcasing these new works.... The playwrights ... developed a better understanding of the needs of theatre for young audiences."
Goldberg was aware of very little criticism of the project. "After the initial concern expressed by established theatre for young audiences playwrights that this project was not including them, there [was] little criticism brought to my attention." Goldberg was especially happy with the "sense of partnership that the consortium gave the four theatres, and which spilled out to embrace other theatres as they grew in professionalism and also joined TCG or ASSITEJ/USA." In addition, the experience of working with "Mark Medoff and Michael Weller was priceless, and we were able to involve ourselves with Y York [producing her play]."
Goldberg stated that if a similar project were to be proposed today,
By now, there would be a least seven or eight theatres that would meet the criteria for inclusion in the consortium, so a new project would have to be devised with much wider participation. It would be good to complete our fund-raising nationally, so that such a project did not draw local money from our ongoing programs. It would be important to also expand the project to allow the theatres to share artistic staff on some basis, perhaps through joint productions, exchanges of resident playwrights, directors, or designers, etc.
It is impossible to predict whether or not there will be a similar commissioning project in the future. It is equally difficult to envision whether or not all eight of these scripts will enter the repertory of continually produced children's plays.
The eight plays represent four of the major sources from which plays for youth have been traditionally drawn. Two are based on European folktales, and two are based on published literature: a short story of the 1950s and a historical novel. Two are from contemporary family life, and two from a specific minority culture of American society. Each of the plays has one or more important qualities necessary to create an effective work for a young audience. For example, some have a compelling story line and interesting characters who grow and change through the course of the action. Some have strong male and female characters, and all have leading characters who are children or young adults. Suspenseful, fast-moving scenes are included in a few, and others strive to capture a child's view of the world. Some include social concerns that challenge the audience to consider problems of the adult world.
There are many instances, however, when these positive aspects are overwhelmed by trite, repetitive dialogue; distracting anachronisms; long speeches in which the action is told rather than shown; characters undifferentiated by their lines or reactions; a wandering, unfocused plot line with too little dramatic conflict; extended, anticlimactic final scenes; or an obvious message presented as a dramatized lesson. The lengthy playing time of most of the scripts will pose a challenge for many producers who present performances during school hours. Further, the extraordinary production requirements of scenery and special effects of some could be a major impediment for producers of children's theatre, except for those with extensive staffs and production facilities.
Obviously the quality of the scripts varies greatly, from an excellent one, to others that range from very good to second-rate. This assessment of excellent to mediocre is made solely on the basis of the printed plays as represented in this collection. Whatever rating one gives the individual printed scripts, a play in production can obviously be greatly enhanced or harmed by a specific director and production team. These eight plays all received positive evaluations by both theatre critics and the audiences at the four theatres where they appeared. Now, for the first time, through the publication of this collection, all eight plays are available to the general public and to theatre professionals for their evaluations.
From this experiment in American theatre for youth near the end of the millennium, a number of lessons were learned, as articulated by many of the project participants. Yet, still to be addressed are such questions as the following: Is the commissioning of plays the best way to raise the level of dramatic literature for young (or adult, for that matter) audiences? The circumstances under which a play is commissioned is an integral part of the puzzle. Within the children's theatre profession, commissioning of new works is one of the missions of some of the theatres. As the plays are created, the debate within the field continues. "Does an excellent play come from a playwright's own passion for creating and sharing a specific work or from an accepted commission with guidelines, deadlines, and contracted financial rewards?"
As these and other questions—such as how best to encourage and support today's established children's theatre playwrights—are debated, the producing theatres of this endeavor—Stage One: The Louisville Children's Theatre, Seattle Children's Theatre, Honolulu Theatre for Youth, and The Children's Theatre Company—are to be applauded for their initiative and determination to complete such an enormous project, which was a complicated, and, at times, frustrating undertaking. The eight playwrights are to be thanked for their willingness to write for young audiences, which for four of them was venturing into unknown territory. Each of the funding groups should also be commended for their generosity and faithful support of the New Generation Play Project. Clearly, future research and development of a variety of projects are needed as the children's theatre profession continues to evolve and mature.
Coleman A. Jennings
Former president of the Children's Theatre Association of America, Coleman A. Jennings served as Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance for twelve years at the University of Texas at Austin.
"This is a significant compilation of important new plays for young audiences." —Rives B. Collins, Associate Professor of Theatre, Northwestern University