Students at Chesapeake Bay Middle School discovered this week that Shakespeare was right. The play is the thing.
About 65 students at the school spent the week learning the art of writing plays from local playwright Steven Schutzman. Mr. Schutzman, of Baltimore, visited as part of Center Stage's Playwrights-in-Schools program.
"Figure a way to focus the conflict and focus the scene," Mr. Schutzman told a student who had just presented a rough draft of his play. "If you have no conflict, you have no play."
Mr. Schutzman is the author of "History of Sleep: Stories and Smoke The Burning Body Makes," a book of short stories. His plays include "The Beauty and The Terror of Being a Dog;" "Science, Emotion, Science;" and "The Text For 'Go.' "
The session at the school began with a bit of improvisation. Mr. Schutzman gave students a scene with conflict between a mother and daughter over whether the daughter should go to college. But Mr. Schutzman stopped the scene before the conflict was resolved and told the students to finish the story on their own.
"The pens were flying," he recalled. "I got two pages from almost every one of them."
Mr. Schutzman said he tells the students to avoid using the violence and special effects they see daily on television and develop characters, instead.
"They have to learn what drives the play, and that's conflict," he explained.
Yesterday, sixth-grade student Chip Clayton, 11, presented a rough draft of his play about high school students trying to decide whether to attend an anti-war demonstration.
Chip said he has always liked to write, but that he never thought of writing a play.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "We're learning about characters. And, then we get to act them out. But the best part has just been the writing and thinking."
The Playwrights-in-Schools program places a playwright in local schools throughout the state for a week at a time. By the end of the week, each student will have written his or her own play.
The program, which has been operating for nine years, visits about 40 to 50 schools and 2,000 students a year.
At the end of their week, the playwrights leave the teachers with exercises to help the students continue their writing.
Students also have the opportunity to enter Center Stage's annual Young Playwrights Festival at the end of the school year. The winners, one each from the elementary, middle, and high school levels, are given the opportunity to work with a director and cast to see their script put into production.
Jenni Fields, 11, said she plans to enter her play about a dog who talks only to its young owner. Jenni, a sixth-grader, said she has written plays before, but her week with a professional has taught her how to improve her work.
"Sometimes my plays didn't have a plot," she said. "A lot of them were more say and not show. And, you have to show."
The week-long session has had a profound affect on 12-year-old Ron Spriggs, also in the sixth grade, who said he has never spent so much time in the house and enjoyed it.
"I had never thought about play writing," Ron said. "I didn't really know anything about it."
But Ron now has two scenes written in what he expects will be a four-scene play about a boy who turns into a dog and changes gender because he watches too much television. Ron said he'll be spending even more time in the house until he completes his play.