Reflecting on her experience in New Voices in Theater — a Yale playwriting program for New Haven high school students — Taijae Carson-Smith said she’s learned that sometimes it’s wise not to get too bogged down in details.
“[W]hen you’re writing a play, you don’t have to know exactly how it’s going to end, or even how it’s going to start,” said Carson-Smith, a junior at New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities (Co-op) High School. “The first scene I ever wrote was a random scene from the middle, and I built on it from there. It’s important to not get caught up in knowing exactly where you want to go: Just write, and it will happen on its own.”
Carson-Smith is one of 26 high school students who participated this year in New Voices in Theater. The program is led by Yale School of Drama students and hosted by Pathways to Arts & Humanities, which engages hundreds of New Haven youth in free classes, lectures, and events on campus throughout the year. Managed by the Office of New Haven Affairs, the initiative complements Pathways to Science, which ignites the interest of city middle and high school students in STEM via laboratory visits, classes, and more.
In eight monthly sessions during Yale’s academic year, students from high schools across New Haven learn the art of playwriting from a cast of School of Drama student dramaturgs, directors, writers, actors, and designers. By the end of the program, each student writes a play of their own. Some New Voices students previously participated in the Dwight Edgewood Project, a month-long playwriting program hosted by the drama school for New Haven middle school students. The students can participate in New Voices in Theater throughout their high school years.
Madeline Charne, a third-year Yale dramaturg student, started the program two years ago with the support of two Office of New Haven Affairs staff members: Claudia Merson, director of public school partnerships, and Sarah Wessler, coordinator for arts and humanities partnerships. The three — along with a number of New Haven high school teachers — hoped to fill a void left by a defunct playwriting program for students from Co-op High School, but wanted to open it up to all high school students in the city.
“I think the arts should be an essential part of growing up,” said Charne, who was involved in theater education prior to coming to Yale. “I have found the arts in general, and theater particularly, to be a place where students can not only write their own version of their story or of a story in their heads — rather than someone else telling their story — but it opens them up to allow others to collaborate with them. This can be especially meaningful for marginalized students.”
Before the campus was shut down due to COVID-19, the participants in New Voices for Theater met for three-hour workshops in a School of Drama classroom at 149 York St. Since mid-March, they have convened with their mentors in Zoom sessions.
“We were excited to continue the program during this quarantine,” said Charne. “Great art can come out of times of hardship.”
During workshops, the younger students spend their time completing intensive writing exercises to build characters, create dialog, or imagine scenes, among other activities, working independently and with peers. This year Charne, along with second-year directing student Alex Keegan, led the sessions with help from second-year dramaturg student Jisun Kim and Wessler. Other Yale drama students — in acting, playwriting, and directing, and in sound, lighting, and set design among other specialties — offer a master class in their area of expertise.
“Our students may not have the life goal of becoming a playwright, but they enjoy the experience of making things together,” said Kim. “Feeling how imagination can manifest in physical form is incredibly powerful. It affects how our students interact with people, how they see the world. High school students are amazingly open and so malleable, so New Voices in Theater can be transformative for them.”
The students in New Voices in Theater also attend performances at the Yale Repertory Theatre and the School of Drama. This year (before Yale adopted social distancing measures), participants saw “Manahatta” at the Yale Rep and “Tilted” at the drama school.
While the younger students missed seeing other campus productions that were cancelled due to the pandemic, they were brought into the creative worlds of their mentors via Zoom sessions. In their very first Zoom workshop, for example, composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe ’20 YSD explored the way music can convey emotions or nonverbal information in a play, noting that some ideas “can actually be conveyed better without words.” In another master class, playwriting student Gloria Majule ’20 spoke to the students about how she invents her plays, including “Tilted.”
“Gloria explained that one method is to ask big questions and to answer them in her plays,” said Charne. “Our students came up with their own deep questions: Why is there police violence? Why are people not nice to each other when niceness makes the world better? Why are there billionaires when other people are starving? Why does private property exist? It was a beautiful snapshot of the kinds of questions they want to answer in their own plays.”
Ninth-grader Lillian Palluzzi of Co-op High School described the main character in her original play as “a normal girl who doesn’t know that three different boys have a crush on her.” Sound School junior Caleb Crumlish’s play focuses on “an aspiring young supervillain looking for mentorship from a washed-out world conqueror of generations past,” he said. In her play, 11th-grader Jamiah Green of Co-op High School tells of a teenaged girl who “lives her life in different perspectives,” in an environment that is “a mixture of negative and positive energy.” Fellow Co-op student Ezra Nierenberg, a freshman, takes up the theme of “survival of the fittest in modern-day society” in his play about two friends and the challenges they face, he said.
These and other characters will come to life when the students gather, via Zoom, for a weekend writing retreat to finish their plays with the guidance of their mentors May 16-17, followed by a Zoom reading of their plays before friends and family members the following weekend.
Green, now in her second year of New Voices in Theater, is grateful for the encouragement she’s received from her Yale mentors.
“[T]hey show constant support for and positive energy around every single one of us, and they also hear us out if there is anything that we may feel like we need more help on, and do their best to get us the help we need,” she said.
As Charne graduates from Yale this month and passes leadership of the program to Keegan, Kim, and other School of Drama volunteers, she leaves with the hope that the young playwrights have gained confidence in their artistic impulses.
“I have been blown away by the creativity and perseverance students have shown in their lives and in their writing during this pandemic,” Charne said. “Our New Voices workshop meetings have been some of the times I have felt the most hope for theater moving forward since this quarantine began. Theater as a form is going to change because of this time, but change is not necessarily a bad thing, and with voices like our students’ to lead the way, I can't wait to see what American theater becomes.”