Philadelphia contest rewards young playwrights
by Julia Terruso, for The Philadelphia Inquirer
Long into the night, Haley Gordon kept tweaking. Her script - an award winner - was just a day away from its premiere at the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Development Series.
“I just kept thinking of things I could make better,” said Haley, 14. “I finally sent it in around 10:30.”
She’s been at this awhile. Haley started writing plays in the third grade - and she still rides the bus home with pencil and notebook in hand, ready in case an idea strikes.
That dedication has paid off. Haley, a rising freshman at Cheltenham High School, won first place - beating 759 other entries - in the contest. Five professional actors read her play, Beads, at the Wilma Theater this week as part of the program’s play-development series.
Tiara Taylor, 15, a rising sophomore at Upper Darby High School, won second place. Her play, The Youth of Black America, also will be read, on a date to be determined.
The backdrop for Beads was the elaborate set of the Wilma’s current show, Leaving. A grass floor matted the stage, and rope swings hung from the rafters next to floating doors painted in pastel pinks, greens, and yellows.
It looked a little bit like Wonderland - and it seemed that way to Haley, who got to hear her words spoken aloud for the first time since she’d crafted them.
“It was surreal, but really cool. And as awkward as it is, it ultimately gives you the best idea of what you need to change,” she said. “You wind up rewriting every word in your head as you hear the actors saying them.”
Beads follows a 65-year-old nun who revisits a past of tragic loss and neglect. Its inspiration came as Haley questioned the meanings of faith and vocation as she prepared for her Confirmation.
Tiara’s play chronicles a 17-year-old boy who is evicted from his home and must move in with his gay father in West Philadelphia.
Both plays explore mature themes of violence, loss, and self-reflection.
“A lot of kids face a lot of this,” said Tiara, who often stays late after school to patter away on her classroom keyboard.
Monday night, Haley took the stage to field audience questions and get feedback. Her principal, Iris Parker of Cedarbrook Middle School, complimented her ability.
“I loved the sophisticated writing and the way you were able to capture what adults would say. I was amazed at how well you spoke through the priest,” Parker said.
Haley worked with the Wilma’s literary manager, Walter Bilderback, to make her play clearer and to add depth to some of her more minor characters.
“For a really experienced playwright, it’s really a tough thing to let your words go out there in the air, even if your audience is friends and family. I think we should all applaud her courage,” Bilderback said.
Bilderback, who has coached young playwrights four times, was struck most by Haley’s maturity.
“She came to us as this tiny little seventh grader, but there is such a quality to her writing,” he said. “And she has an incredible ability to craft natural dialogue and memorable lines.”
Tiara, meanwhile, looks forward to the dramatic reading of her play, which she said would make all the writer’s block and late nights worth it.
“It pays off because school is stressful and annoying,” Tiara said, “so having something that you do and that you get rewarded for is fun.”
Neither winner knows for sure whether she will pursue playwriting as a career. Haley put it well when a character in Beads, Sister Marie, explains the meaning of a vocation.
“These things should not be postponed or ignored,” Sister Marie says. “They should be followed with your heart.”