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Play School

The Coterie puts young playwrights to the test.

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Monique Maes is on a tear. It's a Sunday afternoon, and the Blue Valley High School senior is standing in a classroom at the Coterie Theatre delivering a blistering, unscripted monologue stemming from her feelings about the war in Iraq. Her sentiments are not fuzzy; she speaks of the insanity that sends a friend -- a former Blockbuster clerk only two years older than she is -- into a desert thousands of miles away.

Maes and about twenty other high school students are part of the Coterie's Young Playwrights Roundtable, a program that has been nurturing potential playwriting voices for eleven years. These young writers are serious, devoting a good part of the school year to their art. The project's best scripts debut at the Young Playwrights Festival this week.

The Roundtable is part of a three-tiered educational project that begins with Reaching the Write Mind, which sends area playwrights to schools to present five-hour seminars on the basics of playwriting, says Jeff Church, the Coterie's artistic director. For a few kids, this ignites some kind of spark, and they end up meeting in the Roundtables throughout the year, honing their craft and perhaps getting their scripts staged at the festival.

"From there, we select the crème de la crème," Church says.

Maes performs her piece one day in late March, when other kids are vying for position. Church and his educational staff and directors will finalize the festival lineup the next day, so everything is at stake; it's like a less glamorous but smarter American Idol.

One of the writers is Anthony Turner, a sophomore at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas. He has brought a freshly penned script about his aunt, who is taking her female lover home to meet Mom. It's a clever piece and communicates that, if Turner didn't exactly see what went down at his grandmother's ranch, he did his homework. Several kids jump at the chance to read it.

Another script, by Blue Valley High School's Jennifer Bradin, also addresses homosexuality; it's about a charismatic boy in love with his best friend. Nobody flinches about portraying its characters. Bradin's classmate Ian Romain has written a sci-fi comedy with religious overtones called The Matchstick Theory; it feels like an unintentional nod to Kevin Smith's film Dogma. Shawnee Mission North student Megan Weaver takes a comedic jab at a salty old sea captain in a piece hilariously titled Jesus Is Love Bed and Breakfast.

Only Romain's script makes the festival. So do ten others from previous Roundtables, including two by Truman High School junior Matt Leonard. But missing from the list are Turner, Maes, Bradin and Weaver. It's a brutal business, playwriting.

Some of the kids say it's the process, not the festival, that's important. "I want to be a better writer," says first-time Roundtable participant Connie Lim of Grandview Alternative. Nevertheless, she's represented in the festival by Somebody Else's Mistake.

Others acknowledge their ambition to have their work staged. "The general motivation is the festival," says Shawnee Mission East's Catherine Fogel, whose What's Left was selected.

This year's festival crop also includes selections by students from Olathe South, Pembroke Hill, St. Ann's, Raytown and Shawnee Mission North high schools. The scripts are divided into two loose themes -- "Looking In" and "Looking Out" -- and they'll be staged by professional actors and directors who have worked closely with the young authors. Among this year's cast are Jennifer Mays, Walter Coppage and Scott Cordes. The kids rarely get to perform their own scripts, but Leonard says that's beside the point. "You get to work with actors and directors and give the public a finished product," he says.

"There are no constraints on style or content," Church says. "There are no genre lines. Comedy and pathos butt right up against one another."

Some of the pieces are monologues, such as Leonard's rant. It's marked by pointed questions aimed at no one and everyone: "Why don't we fight back? Why are people dying? Why is there never enough to eat? Without the why, there is the why not."

Other scripts selected for the festival tackle such subjects as death, divorce and violence. Fogel's is about an eighty-year-old woman learning that her recently deceased husband wasn't who she thought he was. There's even a nod to the 1960s, a generation and a half removed from the young writers: Mallory Murray titles her script A Speech to Future Flower Children.

Leonard believes the program grants him one of the few intellectual challenges that doesn't fit into any proscribed list of graduation requirements. "With school, they say, 'Write this, but it has to do this and this and this.' I feel squelched, because there are things I want to say and am not able to. It's a very liberating feeling."

Especially given that there aren't a lot of outlets for teen voices. "[Those voices are] ignored on a large level, even a national level -- through the arts, through the media, through the recent political protests," Leonard says. "The youth rose up to protest decisions being made, and everyone carried on regardless of what the youth had to say. The youth are the ones that have to deal with the mess later on."

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