When you bring to mind the word “playwright,” what image do you see?
Do you see Layla Vaughn, a 3rd grader in Ms. Freeman’s class at McNeal Elementary? Can you picture Adam Gratzer, a sixth grader at Manatee School for the Arts, or 10th grader Matrick Thorpe of Ms. Light’s class at Osprey’s Pine View School?
Each one of these young people are, in fact, playwrights. And not only are they playwrights, but they are each award-winning playwrights, recognized for their outstanding creative achievements this year by Florida Studio Theatre.
Each spring, FST’s WRITE A PLAY program culminates with a very special celebration in our community: The Young Playwrights Festival.
At this one-day-only event, participating students, teachers, and families from across the state of Florida and as far as Scotland and Israel, come together to celebrate the winning plays submitted through the program over the past school year and the playwrights who had the courage to write them. For many of these students, this day marks the first time they are able to see their own plays performed live on stage.
“There is absolutely nothing like the excitement and pride these young writers experience when they see something that they wrote and imagined brought to life on stage by a cast of professional actors — complete with sound, set, and costume design,” said Caroline Saldivar, FST’s Director of Children’s Theatre. “It is always a magical experience for our artistic team to interpret the students’ writing for the stage. But to see the children’s own eyes widen in awe and smiles bursting from their faces, piercing through the darkness of rows and rows of theatre seats — that, for me, is what is ultimately most magical about this annual tradition.”
Following these live performances of winning plays, attendees were invited to gather for the annual awards ceremony, where over 85 young
playwrights were recognized for their outstanding creativity with certificates and medals on stage.
Award-winning Philadelphia-based playwright Bruce Graham (Visit Joe Whitefeather...) gave the keynote speech. “As cliché as it may be, you folks are the future," shared Graham with an audience full of young writers. "Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is one of my favorite plays of all time. Last year in Philadelphia, we had three productions of it. Now, I love that play, but we don’t need three productions of it. We need to be finding and encouraging the next Tennessee Williams. The next August Wilson. The next Lillian Hellman, Lorraine Hansberry – that’s what we’ve got to be doing. Because without new voices – and I am looking in your direction, playwrights – the theatre will turn into a series of reruns and revivals and it will lose the excitement that comes with a new play."
In addition to the playwrights, themselves, FST had two other esteemed guests to publicly recognize at this year’s event. The Educator of the Year Award was presented to third grade teacher Mary Wedebrock of Bay Haven School of Basics Plus. Her classes have been participating in FST’s WRITE A PLAY program for 20 years, and this year, three of her students wrote winning plays: Sharing Joy, The Power of PB&J, and Taco Heroes, which received an honorable mention.
This year’s 2023 WRITE A PLAY Partner of the Year Award went to Carol B. Williams. A longtime FST audience member, Carol has chosen to go beyond the role of loyal theatre attendee to help bring FST’s WRITE A PLAY program into Sarasota and Manatee schools for the past five school years.
“Anyone who observes a class of third graders writing a play under the direction of FST Teaching Artists would want to support WRITE A PLAY,” said Williams. “The students’ excitement and bubbling creativity is contagious as they learn about play structure and suggest plot points and dialogue. I’m pleased and honored to support the staff and interns who carry out this wonderful program.”