by Synthia Williams
I continue to espouse the need for good theatre scripts for middle and high school productions. I am a K-12 teacher currently working at a kindergarten through eighth grade all-girl preparatory public charter school in Atlanta, Georgia, and oftentimes finding scripts that get them excited and hold their interest are hard to find. Our older children are more aware of what is happening in the world around them, so where Cinderella or The Dog Ate My Homework may be great for the younger children, the older middle and high school thespians are ready to do the harder work.
Of course, there are plays that are based on Broadway shows that are adapted for actors of the age that I am addressing, but since I’m working at a Title 1 school the money is not always there to pay royalties and licensing fees for a major fall and spring show. To spark the interest of the students and bring them out to auditions I find myself having to write for them based on what they are seeing and experiencing in the world.
This is where my abilities as a teacher and playwright intersect. Through improv, theatre games and activities that we do in class I learn a lot about my students. Their real-life thoughts and opinions come out in their theatrical play. This was the impetus for one of the last productions we did before the world changed and schools closed for quarantine. One of the things that was in the news and affecting the students more than I realized was the Latin American children being held at the border. We talked about it and our conversations led to me writing a piece for our Arts Night, the event that always incorporates theatre, dance, and visual arts.
The result is a play called Voices Behind the Wall, which is the story of a middle school girl trying to understand (as she put it) “what the children at the border were being punished for,” as she watches the news with her mother. The play had current events, history, art, dance, and music from Latin America. The scholars learned, the teachers were proud, the parents—especially our Hispanic parents—were grateful. Voices Behind the Wall was eye-opening to me as I had the opportunity to explore the contributions of immigrants from Latin America. The play was not only a teachable moment, but also a production that spoke to the students.
I also adapt scripts to work for our all-girl cast. One of my favorites is our Urban Nutcracker. The characters were three sisters who had lost both of their parents but were trying to hold on to the Christmas traditions that they had created with them. There was not much money, but they were together, a family. Again, this adaptation was born out of conversations with the scholars. Just an aside, the first grader who played Claire was off book before anyone else and she stole the show!
This is the life of a theatre teacher that is also a playwright. I have a ready-made niche, but I invite playwrights who enjoy writing for a younger audience to join forces with one or two of the middle and/or high schools in your area. Listen to what the students are talking about, find out what they are watching, and what’s trending in their social media age range. Talk to your own middle and high schoolers, if you have children, to find out what is capturing their interest. These are the stories they want to tell.
We as playwrights become their voice not because they cannot speak for themselves but because they need a platform that commands people to stop and listen to what they have to say. They talk, we listen, we write, and they shine.
Synthia Williams is an award-winning playwright, theatre teacher, and actress. She lives in the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area by way of Atlantic City, New Jersey. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. Several of her plays have been produced, including Domestic Damages, Sins of the Father, Boxing Memories, and Sisters. Synthia is one of the founders of the award-winning New African Grove Theatre Company in Atlanta.