Pros perform student works

Theatergoers of all ages filled Dillard University’s Cook Theatre for Goat in the Road Productions’ fourth annual Play/Write Showcase on Tuesday.

Everyone was there to see five local theater companies — Cripple Creek Theatre Co., Dillard Theatre Ensemble, Junebug Productions, NEW NOISE and Night Light Collective — give professional treatment to the staging of 10 one-act plays written by students who participated in GRP’s educational Play/Write program.

The plays ranged from historical fiction set during the Civil War to magical realism set in the bayou. The characters were human, super-human, animal and insect. Judging from the snorts of laughter and the hushed anticipation emitted from the audience, the night was a success.

The showcase was the culmination of an 11-week playwriting residency offered by GRP to 110 fifth- and seventh-grade students at three New Orleans schools: St. Mary’s Academy, Success Preparatory Academy and the International School of Louisiana.

Administered by six teaching artists, the program educates students about different aspects of the theater, enhances students’ literacy skills through games and exercises, broadens their capacity for creative expression and fosters arts appreciation and self-confidence.

Goat in the Road Productions, established in 2008 by Will Bowling, Rachel Carrico, Chris Kaminstein and Shannon Flaherty, is a local performance ensemble dedicated to the production of original and invigorating new works of theater, dance and performance art.

For Play/Write, the educational branch of the company, the “Goats” — as their students affectionately call the teaching artists — are also joined by theater professionals Emilie Whelan, Francesca McKenzie and Rebecca Mwase in the classroom.

Play/Write was based on WiseWrite in St. Louis and New York’s 52nd Street Project, among other similar programs, with the goal of increasing literacy through the arts and hosting an event where professionals produce students’ work.

The GRP teaching artists come to the students’ classrooms once a week and follow an arts-integrated curriculum developed with the assistance of the full-time teachers, coordinating lesson plans to make the exercises relevant to what the students are learning.

Through these exercises, “students get to experience what it’s like to be a director, a costume designer or a set designer, and they are all actors. One of the fantastic things about theater is there’s a niche for everybody, whether you’re a tech person, a visual person, or someone who wants to be out in front. They get to see all the different jobs, but they are also writing so it’s very comprehensive,” said Flaherty, Play/Write’s project director.

Sabah Rainey, a seventh-grader at the International School of Louisiana, watched her play “The Spy” staged by NEW NOISE.

“I liked it when we got to act,” Sabah said. “It’s given me the chance to explore myself and what I like to do.”

Each student completes a one-act play by the end of the program. A selection panel chooses 10 plays for the showcase and GRP hires five professional theater companies to interpret, direct and stage the plays using their own styles. The result is a lively evening of theater that entertains both the students and adults with creative sets and colorful costumes.

“I feel excited and shy,” said Jamaal Johnson, a fifth-grader from Success Preparatory Academy, while waiting for the showcase to begin. His play “Trumpet Man and Friends” was being staged by Night Light Collective. He hugged his mother, Danielle Johnson, who had tears in her eyes. “His work is being acted on stage,” she said. “I’m so proud of him.”

Jamaal said his play was about protecting people. “If somebody bullies someone, you should stand up for them.”

During his play, Jamaal sat smiling in a fancy armchair that was reserved for the playwrights in the corner on stage. A little less reserved was Kadria Montgomery, a fifth-grader from St. Mary’s Academy, who leaned forward and beamed from the chair during her play, “The Trickster,” and then high-fived and waved as she returned to her seat. It was clearly her day.

“Some kids really find themselves in our class and are shining now. It really helped them build their self-confidence,” Flaherty said.

During the daytime showcase, all the students who participated come to celebrate each other’s work and each receives a bound copy of his or her play. The fourth-graders who will take part in the program in the fall also attend the field trip. To date, Play/Write has published more than 300 plays and staged 36.

“It’s about inspiring kids to see the connection between what they do at school and what the real-world implications are. Coming to see the showcase, we want it to be the moment where they are like, ‘My play could be a piece of theater out in the world.’ It gives them a vision for the future, seeing what they could become; what their ideas have the power to be. We help kids think of themselves as artists,” Flaherty said.

This fall, GRP’s Play/Write program is expanding to a full school year. Play/Write is funded in part by grants and fundraisers, but donations are needed. For more information, visit http://www.goatintheroadproductions.org.