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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Playwrights for the Youth and High School Markets

Welcome to Theater is a Sport, my humble place on the internet to talk about all things theater. My name is Bobby Keniston, and I often introduce myself as a playwright for the youth and high school markets, and I'm telling the truth when I do.  I have thirty or so plays published for young people (with many that have crossover appeal for community theaters), and you can learn more about them by clicking HERE, or HERE, or HERE, or HERE.  

Now that I've gotten that self-promotion out of the way, today I would like to talk about playwrights for the youth, high school, and community theater markets.  Not just because I am one, but also because, to be frank, I don't think writers in this market get much attention or acclaim, but I'm convinced that what we do is not only vitally important to the survival of all theater in general, but important contributions to our overall culture at large.  And no, I don't just believe this so I can feel better talking about what I do at Thanksgiving while other family members have promotions and raises to go on about in conversation.

So what is a playwright for the youth and high school markets?  Well, quite simply, it is a person who writes plays to be performed either for or by children and/or high school students.  These are two types of what are known as "amateur markets", simply meaning that they are plays written for non-professionals to perform. I don't love the term "amateur market"  In truth, I've seen so-called "amateur" productions, both from schools and community theaters, that could really knock anyone's socks off, so there's nothing wrong with being an inspired amateur onstage, and yet, I find the term a bit condescending.  

So who decides what makes a play for the "amateur market"?  Well, once again, it simply means that it is a play that is designed mostly to have non-professional productions, and, perhaps, has never had a professional production (there are, of course, exceptions to this).  Yet, on the other, hand, many schools and community theaters do plays outside of the amateur market all the time.  For example, The Actor's Nightmare by Christopher Durang has been a very popular one act with high schools for years, though it was written to be a companion piece with his longer one act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You, to complete an evening of theater for an Off-Broadway run.  And, there's Almost, Maine, by John Cariani, which is now one of the most produced plays by schools and community theaters across the United States, and it started out Off-Broadway and in regional theaters.  Not to mention the plethora of schools who have performed plays by Neil Simon, or productions of Our Town by Thornton Wilder.  So, who decides?  The writers, in terms of their intended audiences, and the publishers, in terms of how they market the play.

The types of plays and playwrights I'm talking about, who focus a great deal of their energy on the youth and high school markets, are the ones who are found in the catalogs sent out to drama teachers across the world every fall and spring.  The names that keep popping up in the glossy tomes mailed out by Pioneer, Eldridge, Brooklyn Publishers, Playscripts, Inc. (in the youth and high school section), Heuer, Big Dog Plays, Dramatic Publishing and so forth.  Growing up, my father was a drama teacher and director for middle schools, and I would always look through these catalogs.  names like Tim Kelly, Craig Sodaro, Pat Cook, and many others would pop up over and over again.  I knew their names long before I had ever heard of Harold Pinter, Eugene O'Neill, or even Neil Simon.

Tim Kelly published over 350 plays in his life, and he died at the age of 67.  While he was alive, his plays were performed over 6,000 times a year, and were translated into almost a dozen languages.  His easy-to-produce, flexible cast plays were everywhere.  Google his name, and you will see a headline from when he passed away by Playbill magazine:  TIM KELLY, PROLIFIC PLAYWRIGHT FOR AMATEUR MARKET, DEAT AT 67.  Mr. Kelly was thought to be the most published playwright in America.  He studied at Emerson College, and got his MFA in Playwriting from Yale.  He talked a great deal about making a living writing plays for the "Way, way, way off Broadway markets".  He also admitted that critics would never like him or take him seriously.

Here's the deal, though:  how many of us read The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham before we ever read a novel?  I would say most of us.  How many of us read books like Charlotte's Web and Harriet the Spy before we ever read Great Expectations?  Nowadays, which is a kid most likely to read first--- the new Magic Tree House chapbook or The Lord of the Flies?  One might say there's a natural progression in a reader's life from Flat Stanley to the works of Beverly Cleary to mid-grade readers to Catcher in the Rye to Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac.  And chances are, young folks tackle Goosebumps before they jump into Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe.

I cite these examples in the progression of a readers life for one simple person:  no one calls young people "amateur readers".  Even Young Adult fiction is called just that--- Young Adult.  And while writers like Beverly Cleary, Louis Sachar, John Green, and Judy Blume may never be mentioned in the same reverential way people talk about Philip Roth, John Updike, or Joyce Carol Oates, their work is still celebrated, and people are able to glean the importance of work for young readers, and accept them by and large as literature.  There's even a National Book Award given each year for a book designed for young readers.

In my opinion, and completely from my perspective, I don't believe, outside of drama teachers, that people truly understand what goes into writing a play for the youth and high school markets.  We don't just dive in because we figure it will be easier to write for kids than adults. It's not.  People can argue about the merits of a Tim Kelly play, and I may grant that many follow a certain formula, but, speaking as a playwright, it is not easy to write a play with speaking parts for at least 20 kids, that can also be doubled if necessary, and to move this story through a dramatic arc with simple settings, and appropriate dialogue.  It is not a simple task.  It takes work, creativity and imagination.

Those of us who write for the youth and high school markets do so because we believe in the importance of theater in education.  Just as a readers' life progresses as they grow up, so does a performers'. Plays for young audiences are important.  Young actors need scripts that were written for them, with them in mind.  So do community theater groups.  My name might never be mentioned next to Harold Pinter or Edward Albee's, but I would like to think my work is one of many gateways that inspire a kid to grow up and read these men's fine work.

I am hereby suggesting these alternatives for the term "amateur market":  how about "the thespian-in-training market"?  Or maybe "Future Stars market?"

Perhaps we can just call it the "Youth and High School Market" and realize that it's just as important as any other market?

Thanks for reading.  If you have any thoughts, comments, or suggestions for alternatives to "amateur maket", please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

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