Arlington Arlington students Cassidy Boomsma, Sam Burris and Julie Kashmanian got to add “published playwright” to their list of accomplishments when “Write to Dream,” a collection of plays, was published by the Young Playwright’s Theater in October of last year. YPT, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, teaches students in and around the D.C. Metro the art of playwriting as a way to inspire their creativity, improve critical thinking skills and build confidence.
Founded in 1995, YPT provides free playwriting workshops to students in partnership with schools and community-based organizations. Through its in-school playwriting program, YPT delivers a writing curriculum as an integrated part of students’ regular coursework. Students receive instruction from established writers that falls outside the box of their typical English classes. Rather than focusing on grammar and sentence structure, students get to let their inner artist soar and concentrate on expressing themselves with no creative limits. Students also get to see their work performed by professional actors. In most cases, actors perform excerpts of students’ plays during the workshop. However, a select group of students get to see their plays come to life during special performances like YPT’s New Play Festival held each April at the GALA Hispanic Theater in Northwest Washington.
Boomsma, who is now a junior attending Washington Lee High School, is one such student who saw her play performed on stage. “When I saw it, I thought it was really cool,” said Boomsma who wrote her play “Love, Math and Martians Don’t Mix” when YPT came to her eighth-grade theater course. A tale of unrequited love and school bullying, Boomsma wrote her play with the intention to make people laugh. “I was so afraid that no one was going to laugh and that it was going to be really uncomfortable to watch,” she said. To her relief, her attempt to deliver a lighthearted comedy was accomplished. “The first time the audience actually laughed, I was so relieved,” Boomsma said.
Boomsma’s play was one of 30 chosen to be published in “Write to Dream,” which compiles work written during the organization’s 17 years in operation and addresses topics ranging from gentrification to bullying.
Washington Lee High School freshman Burris, who also wrote his play while in his eighth-grade theater class, chose to write “The Stranger” about the reality of mental illness among veterans. The issue hits close to home for Burris, whose family has a long history of public service. With family members who have worked for the CIA, Navy, Army and a grandmother who, at age 82, still works for the State Department, Burris takes to heart what he sees as the lack of care for public servants after their tour of duty.
“When you see these people after they’ve worked so hard to protect everything we have, you see them out on the streets, that really kind of makes me mad,” Burris said. In writing his play, Burris was aware that he wanted to make a statement. “I tried to say that no matter how different someone seems after they’ve come back from their service, or how scarred they may seem to be, they’re still a person. We still have to treat them with a lot of respect and we have to realize what they’ve done for us,” Burris said.
Gaining confidence and believing in their writing abilities are two of the tangible benefits that Boomsma and Burris say they took away from their experience in YPT.
Speaking about her son Sam, Melissa Burris sees a distinct growth in his ability to chart his own path in spite of what his peers may think. “It [YPT] gave him the confidence to be comfortable in himself. Before, he was trying to fit in and do things that he thought everybody should do,” Melissa Burris said. “He’s confident in his choices in what he’s interested in and what he wants to pursue even if those are different than a lot of his friends.”
Helping students develop such confidence through the creative process is a primary goal for YPT. According to its own assessment, developed with the help of education evaluator Dr. Barry Oreck, 87 percent of students completing the in-school playwriting program in the fall semester of 2011 were exemplary or proficient in their ability to convey unique view points and innovative thinking in their writing. The assessment used the Common Core State Standards established by Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association in its measurements.
In improving critical thinking and confidence, YPT helps some students, like Burris, find their passion in theater. Burris currently participates in his school’s theater program and hopes to work as a professional actor some day. Yet, not all YPT alumni see themselves pursuing theater as a professional career.
Boomsma, who participates on her school’s swimming and crew teams, wants to use her love of travel and helping people to pursue a career in international relations. To YPT, the ultimate professional goal of students isn’t important.
“At YPT, we are not just developing the next generation of great playwrights. We are developing the next generation of great thinkers,” said Brigitte Pribnow Moore, YPT executive director, in an email response. “YPT programming empowers students with the confidence, creativity and critical thinking skills they need to be successful in school and beyond — whether they grow up to be artists, business leaders or neuroscientists,” she said.
Though many students completing YPT do not want to become professional actors or playwrights, Julie Kashmanian, a student at H.B. Woodlawn Secondary Program, does. Since she was in the 5th grade, Kashmanian has known that she wanted to work in theater professionally. Having participated in plays throughout middle school and attending local productions with her dad, YPT gave Kashmanian a broader look at how the theater works. Kashmanian wrote her play “Polished,” the story of two sisters getting locked in close quarters, for YPT in the eighth grade. She continues to write and says she brings her background in performance to the writing process. “I really enjoy developing the voices for each character and imagining how it’s going to be performed,” Kashmanian said. “I’m thinking about how the actors are going to say everything and how it’s going to look on stage.”
Helping students take their writing seriously is something that Kashmanian’s mother, Margaret Egan, appreciates about YPT. “YPT is really a special organization because of the way they treat the young writers with such tremendous respect and consideration,” Egan said. Further, Egan appreciates the leadership role that Kashmanian has been able to take on. Kashmanian now serves as a member of YPT’s student advisory council and has helped to screen plays for the next round of New Play Festival winners.
Regardless of their interests for the future, Boomsma, Burris and Kashmanian agree that having a creative outlet for their own expression has been helpful. “Having a creative outlet is really important. It’s kind of hard to, in everyday life or in school assignments, put your emotions out on paper,” said Boomsma. “A lot of people who write are able to express their feelings in a story. I think that’s really helpful to do.”
Plays written by Arlington students Boomsma, Burris, Kashmanian and Maria Pavón Sanchéz can be found in “Write to Dream: A Collection of Plays by the Students of Young Playwrights’ Theater.” More details about purchasing the book are available at the Young Playwrights’ Theater website www.youngplaywrightstheater.org.