Founded in 1985, Playwrights Project (PP) has been nurturing writers, especially young ones, ever since. For over three decades it has sponsored the Young Playwrights Contest, offering California students, ages 10-18, a chance to win professional productions of their plays at an annual festival in San Diego. This year, the winners, selected from 432 statewide submissions, are all female — that only happened once before, in 2015.
The youngest winner is 11-year-old Aisling Archdeacon, a fifth-grader at St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Carlsbad, who wrote her script in a three-month classroom residency with one of PP’s teaching artists, Steve Smith. Her teacher at St. Patrick’s, Aleta Barthel, is also a PP teaching artist, and every year she invites Smith in for one 45-minute period a week to give her fifth-graders a crash course in playwriting. At the end, when each student hands in a completed 10-minute play, he talks about the Young Playwrights Contest and encourages them to enter. This is the first time the school has had a winner, with Aisling’s “Alone by the Playground,” whose main characters are Paper, Scissors and Rock.
“It’s about friendship,” Aisling said. “I got the idea from seeing how my friends act out in the playground, and Paper, Scissors, Rock is a game we sometimes play. The three main characters — one’s lonely, the other two lost — aren’t human; I thought that made the play more fun. I wanted to show the ups and downs of friendship, that good friends are worth keeping, and that friends don’t have to be just like you. You can be different and still be great friends.”
Aisling said she’s been having a great time with the pre-production process, even though she had to cut two minutes from her play. “That was kind of hard, because there were some parts I really liked. But my dramaturg (Aleta Barthel) and my director (Ruff Yeager) helped me; I’ve learned so much from them. And I love going to the production meetings, seeing the actors bring what I wrote to life.”
As always, four of the winning scripts receive full productions, and two (one of them Aislings’s) receive staged readings. All are directed by local theater professionals, including actor/director/playwright Yeager, who is also artistic director of the Festival.
There are six school matinees and four public performances, and if you’ve never been to the Festival before — or even if you have — you’ll be surprised and captivated by the plays and the performers. And you can bring the whole family, as long as they’re at least age 11, Aisling’s age when she wrote and submitted her play. She’s 12 and a sixth-grader now.
IF YOU GO: The 33rd annual Festival of Plays by Young Writers, runs Jan. 18-27 at Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in The Old Globe complex at Balboa Park There are two different programs, tickets are $10-$25, or for $60, you can go opening night, which includes all four full productions and a reception, but no staged readings. To see Aisling’s words come to life, choose Program A, Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m. For times and play descriptions, visit playwrightsproject.org For reservations, call (858) 384-2970 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cassandra Hsiao, the one playwright not pictured above, is now at Yale, having graduated from the Orange County School of the Arts. ‘Fire Hazard’ is her second contest-winner; ‘Supermarket of Lost,’ was presented at last year’s festival. On broadwayworld.com/losangeles she wrote: ‘Now more than ever, we need theater to bring people together ... If the pen is mightier than the sword, then theater must be the equivalent of a 3,000-pound cannon.’