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'New Voice' Arises in Theater

Herndon resident chosen as one of the top young playwrights in the state.

A one-act play about a war between different classes of members on the periodic table of elements has brought state-wide recognition to its author, Nate Peterson, 15-year-old sophomore at Westfield High School.

Peterson was chosen this month from a pool of more than 100 candidates by the School for the Performing Arts in Richmond Community (SPARC) as one of eight young playwrights who will make up the "New Voices for the Theater."

Describing the characters in his play — all elements from the periodic table — by saying that Hydrogen is "a pimp of the elements," and the Oxygens are "pretty girls and very ditzy," Peterson said that the idea to write his play, entitled "Periodicity: A Drama of the Elements," wasn’t something he thought out long in advance.

"My English teacher mentioned the contest and said that we could do it and get some extra credit … I had already written a few things so I thought I’d try it out," said Peterson. "I was just thinking about [the contest] in my chemistry class and I didn’t think that anyone had ever written a play about the periodic table of elements, so that’s why I did it."

"I turned it in and then all of a sudden I heard that I had won," he said. "I didn’t even think it was the greatest thing I had ever written … it was kind of a rough idea."

Now that rough idea will have its chance to be produced by Peterson when he attends the New Voices for the Theater special three-week workshop in Richmond on June 25 where he’ll be working alongside professional theater representatives from Richmond and the East Coast.

The judges for the contest were "looking for the strong pieces, but also the ones with the most potential to go somewhere, where the playwright has a strong voice," said Christina Brookman, project manager for New Voices for the Theater. "I think the wit in [Nate’s] script really spoke to [SPARC’s judges], the intellect and cleverness is something not seen normally in a lot of scripts."

The students who will attend the special workshop will see as many five plays, work with different representatives from the theater industry on their scripts and work on developing new material.

"When you’re there, from what I know, you get a chance to write new stuff and develop your ideas more," Peterson said. "I always like to get the opportunity to learn more."

"One thing I didn’t like about [this play] was how poorly I wrote the dialogue," Peterson said. "That will be one area where I want to improve it … before it is produced."

LISTING ONE of his greatest influences as 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, who once comically suggested that the poverty-stricken Irish should start eating their children in his essay, "A Modest Proposal," Peterson said that he tries to keep a "sort of edginess" to a lot of his stories.

"I thought that [Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’] was a very good idea because he really gets in there and exaggerates a lot of issues, and I thought that it’s a lot like the type of thing that I do," said Peterson. "I will over-exaggerate a point so much, just so I can get it across, and I liked that about Swift’s work."

This edginess had a significant consequence in his first experience in writing.

He first realized that he wanted to be a writer in seventh grade after he used a journal assignment for an English class as a chance to write something off the top of his head and read it to his classmates. It was a tongue-in-cheek approach on how he would take over the world when he was older — complete with resurrecting the dead to be used as troops to invade Canada.

It landed him with an in-school suspension.

"I did it as a joke, but some people got a little nervous about it," Peterson said.

The experience with the in-school suspension did little to deter Peterson from writing, and ended up being the impetus for him to pursue his writing deeper, he said.

"I just thought, ‘hey, I really like doing this,’" Peterson said of writing. "It’s a whole mix of things that you get to do."

DESPITE THE MORE avant-garde approach, he is a traditional and conservative thinker, which shows in his work. Moving to Singapore, when he was six-years-old with his father, a chemical engineer, had a monumental effect on his social outlook, he said.

"Singapore is kind of a sheltered country, they don’t have an ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ or something like that on TV," Peterson said. "It’s a really small island. When something happens like that, it’s big."

"Because [life in Singapore] was so sheltered, when I moved to America I sort of experienced everything in a real short period of time," he added. "I saw a lot of things really quickly and I didn’t really like a lot of what I was seeing."

Socially speaking, life in the United States, especially with teenagers, was "too liberal" for Peterson.

"In Singapore the biggest thing that would happen would be like, ‘Oh, he kissed somebody? Whoa,’" Peterson said. "Here it’s like with the high school kids, ‘Oh, he slept with somebody? Whoa."

It’s the belief that people have lost track of traditional values such as modesty that fuels a lot of Peterson’s inspiration.

"I really like writing criticisms about things that I don’t like," he said. "Like Freak Dancing. I wrote a criticism about how freak dancing is basically like sex with your clothes on at a dance."

It wasn’t picked up by Westfield’s Literary Magazine when Peterson submitted it earlier this year.

"I think that [Peterson] is extremely conscientious about the world around him," said Scott Pafumi, Peterson's drama teacher and the head of the Theater Department at Westfield High School.

"He's very set in his beliefs and he's very outspoken about them. He has a very good sense of humor and doesn't back away from the issues that he feels strongly about."

SITTING ON A BENCH outside of Westfield High School a few yards from the theater, Peterson said that he had no apologies for his work and would continue to write what is important to him.

"I don’t like the way that the world is right now," Peterson said. "When I write, I try to focus a lot on the subliminal. I won’t necessarily make it a point to single something out. When I’m writing it just sort of comes out somehow in the events."

"Hopefully I want people to notice how we have changed as a society from the '70s and '80s. We’re off to another way, back then everything was so innocent and dating and relationships were a lot different," said Peterson, who was born in 1990.

Peterson, who will enter his junior year as the newly-elected president of his class, said that he will try to get some of his work published in next year’s literary arts magazine, in spite of the challenges of getting his style of writing in the publication.

"My writing style is not typical, it’s not the type of thing that they put in [the literary magazine]," he said. "They like deeper stuff and my stuff is a bit more shallow. They tend to go with the more emotional things."

Peterson said that while it is a goal to get into the magazine, he wouldn’t change who he is as a writer.

"I won’t change my [writing] style for other people," Peterson said. "I might adjust it a little if I’m trying to get my point across to a certain group of people, if that will work. I’m flexible."

"I might wrap it up differently and change it up … but I’m keeping the writing the same."