Samantha Bliss, Lilly Stanley (back to camera) and Sydney Snyder in “The Girl at the Bakery” | Photo by Isaac Spradlin

Part of Blue Apple Players and Walden Theatre’s merger has a been experimenting with new approaches to programs the two companies had done for years.

This week, Commonwealth Theatre Center opens its annual Young Playwrights Festival, an event that goes back decades. But this year, the teachers at CTC have decided to shake things up by putting almost the entire production in the hands of the students.

“It’s not just written by the students, it’s directed by them and acted by them … (they) design the costumes, one of the students wrote a press release for us,” says CTC outreach director Heather Burns.

Demi Handley and Lily Schweitzer in “Camping” | Photo by Isaac Spradlin

That press release, written by student Bella Detwiler, promises that “Each play delivers a miniature plot and a rapid-fire reveal on an imagined world featuring ideas relevant to young people.”

Insider spoke with a few of the student writers, directors and actors in a brief moment of downtime during rehearsal on Monday.

“This is the first thing I’ve officially directed,” says Jude Stivers, a 15-year-old Trinity High School student. “I feel like I’m more connected to the actors. There’s definitely more of a sense of equality.”

Zoë Peterson, a 15-year-old Atherton student, is pulling triple duty. She wrote one of the plays, is directing another, and is helping with costumes for the entire festival. She notes that working in a supervisory capacity over other students isn’t without its difficulties.

“I’m directing my friends, so I don’t want to yell at them and go, ‘STOP! What are you doing?'” says Peterson, recalling a moment when one of her actors came on stage chewing gum.

During our visit, the students were rehearsing in the Nancy Niles Sexton Theatre, but the festival started out in the classroom.

Burns is one of the adults helping with the production, and so is Keith McGill, a local actor, writer and comedian. McGill was brought in to teach the playwriting class and then was asked to stick around to facilitate. The students are directing the individual plays, but McGill is keeping the student-led festival from turning into an accidental homage to “Lord of the Flies.”

McGill certainly had his hands full; it was the first day many of the playwrights were seeing their plays performed. The directors and actors were excited to share the work they had done, and spirits were high. While the CTC students are an uncommonly focused and serious group, they are still teens, and when they get exited, it gets a little hectic.

Sydney Snyder, Lilly Stanley, and Samantha Bliss in “The Girl at the Bakery” | Photo by Isaac Spradlin

McGill believes the Young Playwrights Festival is a valuable artistic learning experience.

“The instruction they get from the staff fully prepares CTC students to become successful in every aspect of both collegiate and professional theater,” he says.

Part of preparing teens for the future is letting them make some of their own decisions. At the beginning of the semester, the students self-selected into one of three classes, choosing between directing, acting and producing. Burns says letting the kids choose makes them think about what they want and why, and also gets them more invested in the process.

“The students who wanted to direct, we asked, ‘Why do you want to direct?’ They had to think about that — whether they had an answer then, or it’s something they are still discovering,” says Burns.

Letting students steer the ship also helps develop executive function, a thing some child development specialists think is missing in many modern kids’ lives.

While the adults may be interested in learning goals, the teens themselves are still focused on the art.

Meaghan Northup, another student playwright, said it can be difficult to turn your play over to a director.

“I feel like you have this child that is your play, and you have to hand it to another person, and you’re, like, ‘Please don’t drop my child,’” she says.

Peterson says she trusted her director, but it’s still nerve-wracking.

“I trust the person directing it, but at the same time, there is this little part of me, like, ‘Everything is going to go wrong.’ I get this panicked feeling,” she says.

Learning to take control is a valuable life lesson, but maybe it’s just as important to learn how to share, a lesson the Young Playwrights Festival has been teaching for decades.

The Young Playwrights Festival runs nightly through Feb. 18 on the Nancy Niles Sexton Stage,
1123 Payne St. Evening shows start at 7:30 p.m., and there is a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, Feb 18. Tickets are $8. For info or reservations, call 589-0084 or email [email protected].

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.