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 Playwrights Project Expands in JCCS Classes

Hundreds of Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) students will be writing their own one-act plays this year as part of a partnership with a local nonprofit group.

When they’re finished, they’ll even get to watch portions of their plays performed by professional actors.

“As a teacher, these are the kinds of things that allow us to walk out with a smile on our faces at the end of the day,” said Tammy Reina, a teacher at North County Technology and Science Academy.

The effort is part of Playwrights Project, a nonprofit organization working to advance literacy, creativity, and communication by empowering individuals to voice their stories through playwriting programs and theatre productions. The group has worked with JCCS students for years, but it was able to double the number of students involved this school year thanks to grant money from  the California Arts Council, Qualcomm, Weingart Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Artists with Playwrights Project will work with students in 24 JCCS classes during the 2014-15 school year.

Students at five JCCS schools were able to create and watch their three-scene plays over the summer.

“The kids love it,” Teacher Aimee Trevino said. “They’re engaged; they’re excited; they’re getting the chance to share their feelings and emotions.”

Because students in the small court and community schools often don’t have as many options for extracurricular activities as students at other schools, projects like this really help build school pride and connection, Trevino said.

“To give them this opportunity, it’s huge, and it keeps them involved with school,” she said.

John, a student at La Mesa Community School, wrote a science fiction play about a kid who predicts the future through dreams. Knowing that professional actors were going to act out the plays was a strong motivator, he said.

“It has been pretty awesome,” he said about the experience. “It helps a lot of these kids open up their creative side.”

Daniel, another student at the school, said he doesn’t normally like writing, but being able to write plays in a more natural voice has helped him express his emotions and creativity.

“I thought it was going to be like an essay, but it’s not,” he said. “You can connect with people and with their stories.”

Now, he says he hopes to write more in the future.

The teaching artists encourage students to write plays about a character who is struggling to overcome obstacles, exploring themes of power, love, friendship, freedom, and justice, said Erika Phillips, education program manager for Playwrights Project.

“Plays show you a story happening right in front of you rather than describing it,” Phillips said. “It becomes extremely empowering for students to be able to give life to their stories.”

As an added incentive, one of the student’s plays could get a full theatrical production at The Old Globe in January as part of the California Young Playwrights Contest.

A student from Sarah Anthony School won the contest two years ago and had her play performed. A San Pasqual Academy student also won it six years ago.

“This is their world; this is their environment,” said Mark Broadnax, a teaching artist with Playwrights Project. “They all have stories and a voice that needs to be heard.”

Photo: Professional actors read scenes from student plays in July at North County Technology and Science Academy.