Look no further than the March for Our Lives for proof that the next generation knows how to turn pain into beauty and change. Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP), a powerful agent for that exact alchemy, celebrates 30 years this week with the opening of its Mouthful Monologue Festival.
PYP began its playwriting program, designed to increase literacy, in 1987 and presented its first professional production of student-written plays a year later. Since then, it has earned a sterling reputation for cultivating young talent, boasting alumni that include Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes and New York Times bestselling author Roger Hobbs. Emily Acker, who got her start in PYP, became a founding member of Orbiter 3, the collective of Philadelphia playwrights that has changed the landscape for new work in Philly.
Lisa Nelson-Haynes, executive director of PYP, is proud of the luminaries produced by the program, but her focus remains firmly on the writers of the future. “So many people are dismissive of this generation, but I’m struck by their agency. They are highly capable and very in tune with the world around them. Our artists cultivate, nurture, and provide a platform for their voices.”
Professional actors, playwrights, and directors shepherd the creations of young writers from page to stage in a rigorous process. Starting with workshops in the craft, the program culminates in public performances like this year’s Mouthful Festival, and the 10-episode Mouthful podcast. This year’s festival showcases 18 monologues chosen from 600 submissions citywide.
The young playwrights’ work does not shy away from the real darkness Philadelphia students know firsthand. Monologues this year touch on issues ranging from fear of deportation and incarceration to bullying and family neglect. Nelson-Haynes says, “Students are experiencing stress and trauma we could not imagine 30 years ago. So much, in fact, that we have developed a trauma-informed teaching curriculum. More than ever, students need us to provide them with a platform and lend their voices credibility,”
It would be difficult to find a purer platform than PYP. The program opens the inner thoughts and feelings of teenagers, which adults so often consider inaccessible, to a wide audience. Playwright Stephanie Walters, a dramaturg for the festival, stresses that she and other adult guides are there to support the work, not to change it. “[Our] questions are presented in a neutral way to the playwright. Hopefully, the questions from the group bring out the strengths and opportunities within the piece.”
Actor Jenna Kuerzi, who will perform one of the monologues onstage, is happy to lend her voice, noting how powerless young people can feel in a world that seems out of control, even to many adults. “Students are consistently underestimated. PYP is a way to get their thoughts, no matter how big or how small, out into the world. And they get to be spoken out loud by people who speak out loud for a living. Their words are given action, and that’s extremely empowering.”
It’s particularly empowering for young women. Twelve of the 18 festival monologues were penned by female writers, and each of those featured on the podcast is a young woman’s story. PYP takes care to select work that represents the full breadth of young people’s experience.
Although the Mouthful podcast, which will feature 7 of the 18 monologues, is a great way to plug into the work, Kuerzi encourages those who might not usually attend theater or who don’t have a connection to the students involved to attend the live performances. She calls the experience an antidote to scrolling through disheartening news stories. “It’s fresh and uncensored and genuinely delightful. These playwrights are exploring how to have conversations and not just make blanket assumptions about people, movements, or beliefs.”
What, When, Where
Mouthful Monologue Festival. Philadelphia Young Playwrights. Through April 21, 2018, at the Drake's Louis Bluver Theatre, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 665-9226 or phillyyoungplaywrights.org.