written by Megan Oliver | photos by Leah Nash
Most seats are filled in the Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro. A 15-year-old gets on stage. Fidgeting with his notes, he shakily tells the audience, in Spanish and then in English, about the play he wrote. He establishes time and place, and then describes the two characters in the eight-minute piece: a monkey and a cherry-colored pogo stick. He hurries back to his seat in the front row and two actors jump on stage, bringing his words to life and sending the audience into fits of laughter and applause.
This performance is the finale of a dozen annual youth playwriting workshops for 14- to 24-year-olds put on by PlayWrite Inc., a nonprofit organization that works in conjunction with Portland-area youth-focused groups, such as homeless youth agencies, alternative high schools and residential treatment centers.
Five Hillsboro youth were invited by Bienestar, a local housing development nonprofit providing housing for mostly hispanic low-income families, to participate in PlayWrite’s workshop.
Under the workshop curriculum, participants spend four days with PlayWrite coaches exploring matters of character development and conflict, dialogue, and how to connect their personal experiences to three fictional characters (a manmade object, an object found in nature and an animal). They spend the next five days with the coach, writing a short play with two of the characters. On the final day, the students meet their actors—professionals from the theater community in the Portland metro area. The kids direct the actors on character movement and emotional expression for a few hours. “The public performance that follows is the culmination of their experience,” said executive director, Bruce Livingston.
Livingston came from a background in teaching anthropology before getting involved in the nonprofit world. Working for now defunct Portland nonprofit, The Haven Project, he was asked to write a play for a young child, and the experience changed his path.
Livingston saw the impact of similar programs on participants’ self-confidence and decided to branch out and establish PlayWrite Inc. in 2003. The twenty-or-so-employee (mostly part-time) organization is currently expanding its focus beyond the ten-day workshop. In September, two Playwrite senior staff will travel to the Republic of Georgia for the first international workshop, coordinated by a former student of Livingston’s from when he was a professor at Pahlavi University in Iran. “Adventure has always been the through-line in my life, and PlayWrite fulfills that need for me and, I believe, for everyone involved,” said Livingston.
Continued support for PlayWrite graduates is another goal. Maxwell Faulk, one of Playwrite’s early graduates, is now a junior at Lewis & Clark College, studying poetry. Faulk joined PlayWrite Inc.’s board in June and will spearhead outreach for PlayWrite graduates. “PlayWrite coaches were the first people to tell me that writing as a career was a viable option,” said Faulk. “I want to make sure PlayWrite can continue to provide writing workshops, mentoring and even free tickets to the theater for our graduates who are interested in pursuing writing.”