Curious Theatre Company’s catchphrase is “no guts, no story,” and education director Dee Covington — who also directs and acts — has been helping young writers find and tell their own stories for twelve years through Curious New Voices, a summer playwriting festival. During an intense four-week program, students between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one work with professional playwrights, each completing a one-act play. The session culminates with a staged reading of all the plays performed by fine local — and sometimes visiting —actors; this year's performances start Sunday, August 2.
Shawn Cremer has participated in the festival for three years, since he was sixteen. “I had written a lot of prose and done theater as an actor, and I wanted to try this new form,” he says. “The first year’s experience just really made me fall in love with playwriting. Everybody’s working on an individual show — and you also have the group conscience and the collective experience of writing together.”
During the first week, Cremer says, the students work on their beginnings — coming up with ideas, learning how to research, doing writing exercises and “trying to come up with a story to tell,” he says. The second week is spent on middles — “the meat, the heart of the play," he notes. "As you’re writing you’re learning about yourself, which is always cool to do. The third week, when most everybody has a play even if it’s just a framework, a third playwright comes in to work on endings.”
For the young writers, the process of creative discovery is exhilarating. During his first year, Cremer was working on a play that involved a wanderer coming across two siblings at a beach house. “I didn’t really know why he was wandering,” he says. “And then, during an exercise, I just decided that he wanted to fly and that he thought he needed wings, so that over his life he had sewn feathers into his arms. That definitely surprised me, and it became an important part of the play.”
Cremer speaks of Covington as a major influence: “She really has a passion about trying stories that get to the heart of people. She loves when plays are intellectual, but it’s also very important to have the human connection. Through Dee leading us, I learned to think about what characters really want and how they can go about getting that and what is stopping them.
“It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful three years,” he concludes, “and each time is so different in a great way.”
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For Curious, which produces contemporary work and has contacts with playwrights all over the country, the summer festival was a natural choice, Covington says: “Enough theaters across the country have acting opportunities for kids, and we wanted to build on what Curious does best. I don’t think we should be the only people sitting around having conversations with playwrights about what makes plays important. If we have access to these writers, teenagers should have access to them. We’re carving out paths, reminding them that they’re walking beside these people on this creative path together. No one person has the secret keys to the kingdom that is playwriting.”
Curious maintains long-term relationships with its young writers, some of whom have gone on to have plays read or produced elsewhere, major in writing or dramaturgy in college, or take up other professions in theater. For example, one-time student Max Posner will have a play performed at the New Ohio Theatre in New York in fall, and he is also a commissioned playwright for Playwrights Horizons.
“I’m always happy when someone writes a play where the structure is completely inverted, different from anything I’ve seen before, or a short play that has the value and merit of a full length play,” says Covington. “They can sometimes totally shock and surprise me. No one thinks that young people are writing incredibly deep and complex material, but they are.”
This year’s Curious New Voices readings take place at 7 p.m. Sunday, August 2, and Monday, August 3; there’s a suggested donation of $10. Find more information at curioustheatre.org.