The voices of young people aren’t always heard. But the Playwrights Project, which was founded in San Diego, has always been dedicated to giving a platform to youthful, creative thinkers. This is the 26th year of the annual statewide California Young Playwrights Contest that culminates in professional productions of the winning plays.
Nearly 300 scripts were submitted this year. Only two were chosen for full productions, and one of those winners was Carlsbad native Ben Kelly.
“Ben‘s play is wacky and intelligent,” says Playwrights Project Executive Director Cecilia Kouma. “It showcases his creative genius.”
Trevor is about an intelligent, eccentric, 13 year-old outsider who has a grand master plan—for world domination.
“I grew up wanting to write,” says Kelly, 18. “I especially love writing dialogue.”
When he was in seventh grade at , Kouma led a Playwrights Project residency in his English class.
“She taught us the beginning of playwriting,” recalls Kelly. “That was my introduction. I wrote a play during that eighth-week residency and submitted it to the statewide contest. I was 13 at the time, so I couldn’t get a full production [which is only open to students over 14], but my winning script, Idaho Lament, was presented as a reading at the Old Globe. I even wrote a couple of songs for it. And that began my relationship with the Playwrights Project.”
At , Kelly kept writing, both plays and screenplays that he and his friends would film.
“Now I’m trying to branch out—to short stories, prose fiction,” says Kelly, now a first-year English major at UC Davis.
But back in elementary school, “I had my own separate fantasy world,” he admits. “I didn’t write; I’d just pace my backyard and speak dialogue out loud.”
Kind of like what Kevin does in the play—deliver long monologues.
“I wanted to hang out in the head of one character,” Kelly says of his “young, immature, sarcastic” protagonist. “He’s not who I was, but who I saw myself as. A smart kid. But I was pretty straitlaced, too much of a coward to act out like Trevor. And never as ambitious as Trevor. He’s talking about how he’s gonna take over the world.
“It’s really a sort of odd coming-of-age story. He’s progressing into adolescence and he doesn’t understand how the world works,” Kelly continues. “And that sort of scares him. His solution is to take control.”
The other contest-winning full production is Next Train to Nowhere, by Santee resident Kelsey Bavencoff. In her light-hearted contemplation of heavy subjects (life, death, cancer), the chance meeting of two strangers on a train changes each of their lives.
In addition to the two full productions, there will be two play readings, winners in the under-14 category: Russet by 11-year-old Kira Nolan of Encinitas, about a timid wolf pup; and The Spirits of the Bells, by San Diegans Kaylin Jeanne Greisen and Sydney Yockey, both 11. In their collaborative creation, a young girl tries to prove that spirits ring the bells in the Silver Tower, but she pays a price for her knowledge.
Another new production will be presented in association with Plays by Young Writers. For Telling Stories: Giving Voice to Foster Youth, professional playwright Lisa Kirazian was commissioned to write a play incorporating the heartfelt and harrowing tales told by young participants in the Playwrights Project’s “Telling Stories” program.
The process of working on a new play is really enjoyable to Ben Kelly, including the input he gets from director Ruff Yeager.
“When people talk to me about things they see in the play that I didn’t think of, I love that. That’s one thing I really like about literature and writing: how many interpretations there can be and all of them can be accurate.”
The Playwrights Project’s Kouma has high hopes for Kelly’s play—and his future. “I expect great things from this young man,” she says.
"Plays by Young Writers" will be produced at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza, April 1-10.
Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., and Tuesday-Friday at 10 a.m.
Saturday and Sunday, April 9 and 10, at 2 p.m. are “Inspire a Youth Performances”; purchase an adult ticket and bring a youth for free.
Tickets ($15-$20; $9-$12 for groups) are available at 619-544-1000 or lyceumevents.org.
NOTE: The presentation of Telling Stories: Giving Voice to Foster Youth is recommended for those 15 and older. All other plays are for age 11 and above.