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Theater of the Weird

Lake Braddock Middle School theater students participate in Arena Stage's Student Playwrights Project.

Kit Benz witnessed first-hand the creative process at work, and it was really, really weird.

"When you're writing by yourself, it's all your ideas. I thought it would be a weird experience, but it was really good. There was stuff in there I never would have thought of," said Benz, an eighth grader from Burke.

Benz and the other members of the middle school Advanced Theater Arts class at Lake Braddock Secondary School are taking part this school year in the Student Playwrights Project, an educational program of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Lake Braddock was one of 10 schools chosen to participate in the year-long project and the only public school from Fairfax County.

The highlight of the course, which includes weekly instruction from an Arena Stage University Teaching Artist (UTA), is the creation of a 10-minute play that the class performed in mid-March on the Arena Stage's Finchlander stage.

"Because I have extremely talented, creative, motivated students, I felt confident they would devour the experience with exuberance," said Sharon O'Brien, who teaches the theater class. O'Brien applied for the program before the school year started, and the program began in October.

UNDER THE guidance of O'Brien and UTA Rebecca Campana, the students began working in groups to create their play.

"We did a lot of brainstorming, a lot of asking provocative questions," said O'Brien.

At first, the class used improvisation to develop characters, but quickly the challenge became apparent — they needed to create a short play that involved all 28 members of the class.

"Normally, you would use two or three characters," said Campana. "To decide to write a story in which each of them is going to be a character and tell the whole story in 10 minutes is a feat, to say the least."

The play evolved, and by January a plot had been developed. Then, the students worked on nailing who would say what lines. That was another challenge, said Benz.

"I had two lines I thought were really good … and they were taken away from me, because they didn't really fit my character," he said.

Benz ended up playing "Mikey Macaroni," who he describes as "sort of a weird Jim Carrey, overacting, with lots of poses that were really strange."

The play itself was also strange, according to O'Brien. "Mysterious Bumps in the Black of the Night" tells the story of a murder in an apartment building, which turns out to not be a murder at all, but a big misunderstanding instead.

"I think what we really did was create our own genre," O'Brien said. "It became a murder mystery, but it was weird. Instead of the theater of the absurd, it's theater of the weird."

With the collaborative play under their belt, the students are now each working on individual plays, to be submitted as part of the Arena Stage's "Student Ten Minute Play Competition." Those projects will be due Friday, April 8, and the winner of the competition will have his or her play staged at the Arena Stage in June.

Benz developed the idea for his play, which he is calling "The King of the Iron Mask," during a three-day Master Playwriting Workshop he attended at the Arena Stage in March. Along with Braddock eighth-graders Tom Mason and Sophia Dudte, he heard instruction and participated in interactive exercises designed to expand the students' understanding of the writing process.

"This class was such a treat, because they already knew the basics, so we were able to do much more than I anticipated being able to do," said Campana. "The piece they came up with was the oddest, weirdest, most delicious piece of play-building that I've seen."