Southwest High students work with playwright Sheri Wilner on a play about discrimination
A group of Southwest High School students clad in jeans and T-shirts sit in a semicircle, reading aloud the script “Equilibrium,” a play they co-wrote with playwright Sheri Wilner, in a rehearsal at the Guthrie Theater late April.
This is where all of the theater's plays undergo criticism during preliminary phases. They get feedback from a private audience, long before the show is performed onstage.
That's the idea behind Partnership for One-Act Plays for Teenage Actors, a program that connects high school students with playwrights in the process of writing and producing a one-act play geared toward actors their own age, said Michael Dixon, the Guthrie's director of studio programming. The students get insight into a play's journey from inception to performance and portray characters their own age.
In its fifth year, the partnership forged by the Guthrie, Children's Theatre Company, Commonweal Theatre Company and the Playwright's Center, has included a dozen Minnesota schools. The well-known Playscripts Inc. has published 16 of the 21 resulting scripts.
Collectively, the plays have been produced more than 100 times throughout various international venues. They conform to the guidelines of the Minnesota State High School League One Act Festival, giving high schools the opportunity to perform their shows competitively.
“Equilibrium” hasn't been published yet, but Southwest might later present the play at the festival.
The students have high hopes for the play.
“Wouldn't it be awesome if the play got really big? When you [Wilner] get famous, we'll all say we wrote a play with you,” said one of the students, Ally Schroder.
Wilner, a full-time playwright and New York native, is in Minneapolis for a Jerome Fellowship at the Playwrights Center, an incubator for up-and-coming dramatists. Seven of her plays have been published, including “Bake Off,” “The Bushesteia,” “Hell and Back,” “Joan of Arkansas,” “Moving Shortly,” “Relative Strangers” and “The Unknown Part of the Ocean,” which commonly contain characters that eschew labels.
Similarly, the students who collaborated with Wilner on “Eqilibrium” overthrew the real-life stereotypes they had of each other while they developed the script. Even though they also want to resolve the turmoil they feel within the course of the play, there are too many obstacles in the way of challenging the equilibrium.
Casting off stereotypes
Wilner has been working on the script with the 10 junior and/or senior students at Southwest since December. Action centers on a group of predominantly white students who have genuine intentions to study for a chemistry test in the school library. Wilner used the parameters of their assigned chemistry chapter about maintaining a constant temperature or equilibrium as the backdrop from which to reveal the push-pull of the characters. Tension mounts as the students cope with a teacher's racist actions.
She threw away the storyline she'd initially pitched about a high school student who was passionate about catching muskies because the teens immediately rejected it. They complained that they couldn't identify with the characters or the language she used in her early script. Interestingly, the thought-provoking question of the discarded play was “is it more important to fit in or be true to yourself?”
In this case, Wilner resolved that it was important for the students to be themselves. She opted instead for an intense 30-minute drama about the real in-school divisions they described vividly during class. They opened up after she brought in copies of Thornton Wilder's play, “Our Town,” which expresses aspects of daily life through a stage manager who addresses the audience.
Wilner instructed the children to act as the stage manager and as such, tell her about their school. That unleashed a serious discussion about discrimination.
“It was apparent after the second class that what I wrote wasn't relevant to their day-to-day lives. They wanted to talk about much more important things,” Wilner said.
Student Ben Koppel, who wants to be a filmmaker, joked that for the show he dubbed “Crash for Kids,” Wilner must have been stalking them to depict them so well. But she said she couldn't take full credit, because a lot of the student's feedback was incorporated directly into the script. They revised their own lines. Lamont Brewer, who reworked all of his lines, was praised for sounding especially natural.
Wilner left their changes intact. “They don't realize how much of their own voices are in there,” said Wilner. “I think the teenage characters in the play sound like teenagers. That is not something I could have done without the students rewriting their lines and correcting my ‘adult-isms.'”
As a result, “Equilibrium,” features the students who play themselves, with their own names. Although events have been fictionalized a bit, it's based on their true tales of clashing groups - the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) versus more abstract Arts and Humanities (AH) programs, minorities and whites, popular students and geeks, and male and female. As these issues arise, the room's temperature also increases. Eventually the students become unbearably hot, while the thermostat veers away from equilibrium.
On page two, John Carroll's character declares, “The only people that use this place are in IB. It might as well be called the ‘white-IB-kids-only' clubhouse.”
In the play, Carroll, who's white, reveals that he'd been granted the freedom to wander the hallways while a black student was reprimanded for the same offense. Nimo Ali, the only black person in the group, adds that she was only allowed certain liberties after people got to know her better. Koppel says he's tirelessly exposed to Jewish jokes while Brewer criticizes fellow students for hiding their valuables when he walks by. Elizabeth Richardson says she's a high achiever because of academic pressures imposed by her parents.
Connie Turke, Richardson's mom, attended the Guthrie reading. Afterwards she remarked, “It's really weird watching your daughter interpret you onstage.”
But she maintained that's she glad to see her daughter growing and forming her own opinions. While they delved into the heavy topic of discrimination, the students learned much more than playwriting and production phases, they said.
Eleanor Hennen said, “It was cool getting to know each other. It was awkward before. As we learned about stereotypes in the play, we learned to break the stereotypes we had of each other.”
Southwest Principal Bill Smith said the play was thought provoking.
After he listened in on a class rehearsal, he confessed, “It made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. It made me think, as an administrator. Are we really like that?”