In a city that is rethinking its education systems and constantly creating quirky new performance showcases, it seems only natural that at some point the two phenomena would marry.
The idea to integrate a comprehensive theater education program into local schools came from Goat in the Road company member Rachael Carrico, who worked for a theater company in St. Louis that helped bring elementary students’ plays to life in a program similar to Play/Write.
For the sixth consecutive year, New Orleans-based performance ensemble Goat in the Road Productions will present its Play/Write Showcase, featuring productions from 10 local fifth- and sixth-grade students. The program — which launched in 2009, originally designed as a 10-week project — has expanded into a year-long program that offers New Orleans youth an education in various aspects of performance arts, from costuming to improv, voice strengthening to the program’s cornerstone: playwriting.
“The program inspires the kids to appreciate and enjoy writing. If shows them — hey, if you’re a creative person, this is a way you can apply that skill in a real life application,” says Play/Write program director and Goat in the Road company member Shannon Flaherty.
In addition to furnishing young, creative minds with both an outlet and a vocational path, the program is also designed to bolster students’ writing skills, Flaherty says.
“Several kids end the program telling us they didn’t realize they were good writers until they participated in this project. It’s different than writing an academic paper, and I think the fact that 10 of them get to see their work come to life is so special. I wish we could bring all 100 or so to life in this very adult context.”
After working with students, Goat in the Road’s Play/Write program pairs 10 students from a group of more than 150 kids from New Orleans schools (Renew Cultural Arts Academy, Success Preparatory Academy, and the International School of Louisiana) with local theater companies (Cripple Creek, New Noise, Shadowbox Theatre’s Lux et Umbra , KM Dance Project, Dillard Theater Department) that perform the finished plays with costumes and sets.
“We wanted to integrate a bunch of aspects of theater — not just playwriting — into our program, because we wanted to show the kids that you don’t have to be an actor or writer to create a career in the field,” Flaherty says. “There are so many paths in the industry, so it’s important to expose the kids to all of those options.”
So what inspires the plays themselves?
Flaherty says Goat in the Road integrates the fifth- and sixth-grade historical curriculum into its teaching model. For instance, since the sixth-graders study ancient Egypt, Goat in the Road creates exercises based around that country’s culture; they did a free-association image exercise in which they showed the kids images of Egyptian antiquities to inspire stories. In the same vein, program directors showed the students the script to Shaekspeare’s Cleopatra in order to demonstrate the structure and dynamics of a play script.
“It expands the way they think, “ Flaherty says. “They start wanting to write about malls — we’ve actually said ‘no more mall settings. And at the end of the year you end up with these amazingly developed stories about stuff you wouldn’t think a middle school-aged kid would think about.”
Flaherty says the program not only helps students strengthen their writing skill and identify potential careers in theater production, but also serves as a means for youth expressing their conflicts through alternative means.
“What’s on the kids’ minds comes into their plays. This year is mainly comedies, but there are instances in which their experiences living in New Orleans comes through,” Flaherty says. “We definitely get stories with peer and family conflict in them, and you know it’s based off of their own experiences. And having that alternative outlet for personal issues is so very helpful for them.”
For audiences, the showcase will also not prove disappointing.
“The kids are so creative, so smart, so funny. The kids run the gamut — drama to comedy. It really can’t be understated how joyous and hilarious the showcase is,” says Flaherty.
Goat in the Roads’ Play/Write showcase will show on Monday, May 11 at 7 p.m. at Dillard University Cook Theater (2601 Gentilly Blvd.) / $10 at the door or online.
Check back each day through the end of the week for interviews with the 10 featured student playwrights.