LAURIE BROOKS: Playwriting for Young People
by Jackie Kappes
I recently had the opportunity to interview award-winning, children’s theater playwright Laurie Brooks. Laurie shares some of her journey as a playwright and gives inspiring advice, not only for playwrights, but for anyone working with young people in our field.
How did you get started as a playwright?
I did my graduate work at New York University in the Program in Educational Theatre. I worked with the brilliant children’s theatre playwright, Aurand Harris, and the founder of the program, Lowell Swortzell. At the time I did my graduate work I had three young children and was interested in them and their world. So studying theatre for young audiences was incredibly important to me. I took two playwriting classes with Aurand and one with Lowell. They both kicked my butt and made me work, and I am grateful to both of them. They were such loving and kind people. They took an interest in me and believed in me. That made all the difference. So at one point Lowell said, “I think you ought to enter your play (Imaginary Friends) in a competition”. So I entered the play in the NETC John Gassner Award competition and won. I couldn’t believe it. Then Lowell said to me, “You know about New Visions/New Voices at The Kennedy Center. Why don’t you enter that?”. So I did and I was fortunate enough to develop the play there.
During my time at New Visions, I met wonderful people. It opened up a new world for me. And that was the beginning of a long, happy, and fruitful relationship with The Kennedy Center. I don’t have enough time to tell you all the people who helped me along the way but Aurand and Lowell were really the two who were my mentors.
Do you have any pieces of golden advice or things you wish you had known as a young playwright?
Learn how to listen to what people have to say. Know how to avoid being reactive. How to write down ideas and think them through. As I’ve said many times, no one knows your play and your intent for the play better than you. Trust that you’ll recognize the advice and suggestions that will be helpful to your play.
If you can find a theater that will produce your work, that’s fortuitous. If you find a theater that believes in you, that you really connect with, that’s fabulous.
I would advise people to get out there in the world. Go to gatherings like New Visions/New Voices. Pay attention to what people are doing, writing and saying. Meet people. Don’t be shy. Let people know who you are. Network in the nicest way. Listen carefully. And don’t be afraid to ask for help! Most of us who have been around for a while want to help the new talent.
Speaking of finding a theater to produce your work, how did you get started with The Coterie?
The Coterie is my artistic home. I’ve done eight plays with the Coterie and we are already planning our next project. Jeff Church, the artistic director, is a fabulous collaborator. I’m a person who enjoys the collaborative process. I write the first draft of the play alone in a room with my computer but then I want to work with a bunch of really smart people – director, designers, actors. They bring the play to life. Jeff is a fabulous director, dramaturg and a good person to work with. He likes a challenge. He’s very smart, a keen-thinking director, and he’s supportive of all my crazy ideas. He never gets in the way of my creative process. So what could be better for a playwright than that?
Our relationship began with The Wrestling Season. I had written a draft before I met Jeff but hadn’t shown it to anyone. I thought no one would like it much less produce it. So much for assumptions! Jeff and I met at The Bonderman and we got into a conversation. You know how sometimes you meet somebody and you just pop off ideas? We knew right away that we wanted to work together. So I mentioned the play to Jeff and he said, “I’m interested in this and I want you to send it to me right away”. So I sent him a draft and then we were off to the races. It was commissioned by the Coterie and premiered in 1999. The script was developed at New Visions/New Voices in 1998, included in American Theatre, and featured at One Theatre World at The Kennedy Center, both in 2000.The Interactive Forum for The Wrestling Season was the first forum that I ever devised.
Can you explain the idea of the Interactive Forum and the purpose behind them?
The whole idea of the Interactive Forum began to take shape in my head in 1995, to put it in historical context. I was inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and also by Dorothy Heathcote, the British drama in education practitioner who did such exciting work. So many practitioners who have gone before have inspired me. It’s humbling.
I wanted to create an interactive post-performance activity for audiences. Jeff and I felt it would be irresponsible to present a play like The Wrestling Season, so filled with ideas and hot-button issues and not allow for some processing. This forum would not be the usual kind of talk back, where the audience in invited to ask the actors questions like ‘What was it like to play that character?’, or ‘How do you become an actor?’. I wanted this forum to focus on the ideas, character choices and actions embedded in the play. So I created a different structure that would address the ideas already presented in the play that I thought audiences would want to talk about.
Also, The Wrestling Season, at that time, was a daring, controversial play. It was actually the first widely produced play for young people that dealt with gay issues. So Jeff and I felt a responsibility to process these ideas, and not present what Jeff calls, “drive-by theater”, where you experience powerful actions and then send young people off, leaving teachers and parents to deal with whatever questions there might be. So we gave young people an opportunity to process what they had seen, giving them a chance to hear lots of opinions in a communal space.
What we learned is that with an audience of young people in the space, what I call “back door teaching” was happening. Audiences would listen to what others were saying, hearing different points of view from people they may never have spoken to before, even though they might be in the same school or the same family. Amazing what happens when you ignite a spark and then encourage people to share their opinions.
Now I’ve done many forums, with my own and other people’s plays. There are three steps to creation. The first step is exploring the ideas, characters and character choices that I want the audience to process, making a list and exploding out ideas of how these ideas might be investigated with the audience. The question I ask is: How can we engage the audience, take them deeper into the play they’ve just seen? That is the goal.
I also want the forums to be as theatrical as the play itself. I like to have the actors onstage, still in character, in dialogue with the audience. I’ve done two plays where the forum is actually embedded in the action of the play. For instance, in Jason Invisible (commissioned by The Kennedy Center, 2013), the main character, Jason, at a high point in the action, turns to the audience to ask for their help and through their suggestions, the audience leads the characters to the end of the play. And talk about how carefully that has to be structured! But I cannot tell you how successful this forum has been, how empowering for the audience. Like Dorothy Heathcote has described, we lay the “mantle of the expert” on the shoulders of the audience and empower them to be a part of the action.
So in order to end the play as planned, does the actor just wait for the “correct” suggestion, or a helpful suggestion?
The actor listens to all suggestions without judgment of any kind, but in every performance for nearly a month someone, usually more than one person, offers a suggestion that takes the play where it needs to go. It was all tightly structured and mostly scripted. The most important thing in the forum is that there is no right or wrong response. The facilitator or actor/facilitator never makes a comment that has a judgment embedded in it, so that all ideas are accepted. But yes, at every single performance at The Kennedy Center, there was more than one person who led us to that ending. It was never a problem. Creating the forum is problem-solving really, as I’m writing the play, I have to begin to figure out what the forum will be, how it will flow freely, so it doesn’t feel scripted, even though it is. it is crucial that the audience perceive it as entirely improvisational.
In Afflicted:Daughters of Salem,Tituba, the Caribbean slave, asks the audience to help her understand how the girls became accusers. She empowers the audience through asking them a series of questions. In one section, the five girls who were accusers form a tableau of a key moment during the play and Tituba taps them for their inner thoughts, asking what were they actually thinking during this moment. It can be pretty revelatory for the audience to hear what actually was going on in the character’s minds. This forum ends with Tituba asking the audience, “Do you think these girls should be forgiven for causing the Salem Witch Trails?” Then the audience chooses to stand if they think the girls, one by one, should be forgiven or they remain seated with arms crossed if not. This turned out to be hugely powerful. People were energized, still talking about their choices as they were leaving the theater. The forum is all about empowerment and asking people to think about their values.
What are some of the things you enjoy most about writing for youth?
I like to write for young people because they are still figuring it out, and by that I mean life. They are filled with passion and they have many, many questions. I love young people’s intelligence, their passion, their questioning. And, by the way, there are some of us adults, who are also still figuring it out, still saying, “I don’t know. I know less than what I used to know. And everyday I’m trying to learn something new”. That’s pretty exciting. Someone once suggested to me that I write for young audiences because in a former life, when I was teenager I was killed in a car accident, and am drawn to writing young people because of an unfinished life. At the time she said it, I laughed, but I wouldn’t completely discount the possibility.
What are some of the challenges of writing for youth?
There are some playwriting rules worth following when you write for young people. Keep the action moving. Long, chatty scenes where nothing is happening will not work with today’s “Instagram” audiences. It is important to have a young person at the center of your writing. Your protagonist should be a young person, close to the age of the audience you are writing for. You want to address issues and ideas that are crucial to young people. The language, characters and actions should live in the authentic world of young people. Do you research! What is the point of writing for young people if you’re not talking about their world? Also, you’ve got to have a sense of humor. You can write a dark play like, Afflicted: Daughters of Salem but it must still have a sense of humor. It’s really important to have both pathos and humor in every play.
In Afflicted:Daughters of Salem ,your most recent play at The Coterie, you mentioned that the post-show forum ends with Tituba asking the audience if the girls should or shouldn’t be forgiven. Many of your plays ask questions of the audience. How do you go about creating plays that are seemingly more about raising questions than providing answers?
Well, I think it’s all in your goal. Young people spend all day with people telling them what to do and what to think and how to think, what is right and what is wrong. I don’t want to be telling them anything. I want to be showing them a story with characters they care about and let them make up their own minds. They are so smart and intuitive. It is important that playwrights trust them.
So that’s why I do it, but exactly how I do it? I don’t know how to answer that. It’s all about the story. If you set out to teach something when you write a play, that’s a terrible risk. I wouldn’t ever write an “issue” play. Jeff and I always say that The Wrestling Season isn’t about gay issues, although those ideas are embedded in the action of the play. It’s about rumors and the devastation they can cause.
How do you balance remaining true to the original intent of a play with the demands of being produced? Have you ever felt you had to compromise your play in order to produced?
There can be a a myriad of voices in new play development, a lot of masters that playwrights have to serve – directors, producers, dramaturgs – and I think it is important for playwrights to try to be mindful that some of this input is right on the money, helpful in moving the play forward. And some of it comes out of left field, more about the person giving the idea than it is about helping while staying true to the intent of the work. It is great to hear what everyone has to say, but it is more important to remain true to your original intent. Because if not, then the work becomes written by committee rather than written by a playwright who has an arc and a goal. As a playwright, it took me a while to figure that out. I find that the best dramaturgs for me are directors I’ve worked with.
The most challenging thing for me right now as a writer, is that there are so few professional theaters producing for teenagers. Some if it is because of the recession. Some of it is due to complex school schedules and budgets. The other thing is that we have become more conservative in our theatergoing. Currently, TYA is tracking younger. There is a lot of focus now on theater for younger kids, in popular entertainment, musicals – light-hearted entertainment – and I believe it is due, in part, to the recession. We want to be cheered up! It’s a scary world and people are worried. There has been a cultural shift and theaters need butts in the seats in order to survive and thrive.
There are stories I want to tell that may not be able to find a producer on our stages. For me as a playwright, it has been challenging to find ways to continue to write what I am driven to write. I’ve been commissioned by The Kennedy Center recently and The Coterie, too. I’m very fortunate; still there are some topics that I would like to take on that I can’t right now. The young adult book world is more open to challenging ideas at the moment.
How has being a member of TYA/USA benefited your career?
It’s all about networking, getting to know people, developing relationships, working for and with the field. Ours is a fairly small field and we need to care about each other, support each other. My time on the TYA/USA board was so valuable to me. I learned a ton from super smart people on the board. Being a member of TYA, I was able to meet people, not just in the theater for young audiences field, but also in adult theater and in education. When I was editor of TYA Today, I enjoyed bringing people in from all walks of life to write about a wide range of topics of interest to us, and who could forward the field. Thinking back on it, I realize I was feeding my artistic self. Getting involved is super important. You learn so much and travel deeper and deeper into the field. I’m grateful for it.
About Laurie Brooks: Laurie Brooks is an award-winning playwright whose innovative After-Play Forum design is changing the way audiences engage in post-performance experiences across the country. Awards and grants include TCG’s National Theatre Arts Residency Program, with The Coterie Theatre, Kansas City, MO, AT&T Firststage award, two Distinguished Play Awards and the Charlotte Chorpenning Cup from AATE, NY Foundation for the Arts, and an Irish Arts Council Commissioning Grant, with Graffiti Theatre Company, Cork, Ireland. Brooks was a featured artist at the 2007 TCG National Conference at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis sharing her After-Play Forum methodology. Newer plays include, Atypical Boy, commissioned by the Coterie, All of Us, commissioned by Dramatic Publishing and Jason Invisible, commissioned by The Kennedy Center. Brooks novel for young adults, Selkie Girl, was published by Knopf in 2008. Her play Afflicted: Daughters of Salem, a commission for the Coterie Theatre, premiered in January, 2014. For more information about Laurie and her plays visit her website http://lauriebrooks.com/ !