From Assignment to Stage

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Every student writes a play, and sees it being performed,” explains teaching artist Catherine DiSanza.

DiSanza hopes to do in the Valley what Karen Zacarias, an award-winning playwright, did in 1995 at the start of Young Playwrights Theater. In Washington DC, Zacarias volunteered to teach students how to write plays, while also bringing professional actors to perform them.

The workshops became so successful that in 1997, they’d turned into a non-profit organization. “We have blown up since then,” YPT Executive Director Brigitte Pribnow Moore adds. “What started as just Karen and her car has grown to the point that we’re serving about two thousand students every single year.”

For DiSanza, YPT’s benefits to them are endless. Besides building writing skills and critical thinking, she believes even other subjects are better assimilated. “We don’t take away any time from the academic material,” DiSanza clarifies. “I work closely with the faculty so that our material will prepare the students for the STAR test and connects to what they’re doing the rest of the week.”

The goal is to leverage the program’s success so that YPT can come back year after year—at Garcia’s and across the Valley. “Our pilot’s success and making sure that the community’s aware of this possibility is what we’re counting on to be here long term,” Moore hopes.

To the YPT’s team, as the program grows in South Texas, so will our schools. “What we teach can be used in other classes,” Moore comments. “A fifth grade teacher once had the class write monologues from the point of view of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly,” and she believes that illustrates playwriting’s transforming power in classrooms.

YPT’s audience ranges from elementary to high school, each grade with their individual attention. “Our curriculum is tied to what the students need to learn in English class,” Moore elaborates.

When DiSanza approached the team about bringing YPT to her home state, they loved the idea. “We’ve already started traveling around the country, going to students that have similar challenges and opportunities to the ones in DC,” Moore points out.

That’s how Garcia Elementary School came to receive YPT’s pilot program—a twelve-week workshop with all five fourth grade classes for six weeks. When DiSanza announces that each student will write a play, she describes it as an exciting and scary moment. “Not everyone would’ve signed up for a play-writing class,” she laughs.

But the daunting start is made easier by a play presented by two actors to the class. “It ends in climax,” DiSanza continues. “So we ask them, what happens next?” Students then create different endings that are also performed. “They’re playwrights from day one,” she highlights. “We take that energy to start a very structured process where each will write a play.” At the end, actors present at least a piece of everyone’s creation. Even as simple as a monologue and a scene, the YPT team is always amazed by the students’ creativity.