Dorset's student playwriting workshops move online

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DORSET — Dorset Theatre Festival has moved its annual Jean E. Miller Young Playwrights Program and Competition online for the first time.

An annual collaboration between Dorset Theatre Festival and local schools, the festival has for the past six years provided opportunities for regional middle and high school students to learn about playwriting and create a play of their own. This year, Dorset has taken its classes online, making the annual Vermont tradition available to all students and teachers.

Each spring, visiting playwrights teach a series of playwriting workshops at participating schools. After that, students are invited to submit a short play for adjudication by a panel of nationally recognized playwrights. Before submission, the young playwrights may choose to work with a student from Bennington College, who serves as a mentor. Winners are chosen in autumn, and their works are then given a public reading. Ten Vermont schools participated in the 2019 workshops, from which 50 plays were submitted to the competition.

Dina Janis, Dorset Theatre Festival's artistic director, said, "In these daunting times, our teachers are our heroes. They all do the impossible everyday, supporting our youngest students as all of us move forward together in this Brave Little State."

For the 2020 session, entries will be accepted on a rolling basis and will continue throughout the summer, culminating in a celebration of the winning plays in the fall of 2020.

"Theater is like the kitchen table of the community," Janis said. "Though our doors may be shuttered for now, we hope that by continuing programs like Young Playwrights, we will be planting the seeds for the future when we can all be together again. We are proud to support our amazing teachers and nurture their creative and passionate young learners."

This year's teaching artist, Heidi Armbruster, is a New York City-based theater artist dedicated to creating new work and discovering new approaches to classical literature and theater. Armbruster is a founding member and co-curator of Dorset Theatre Festival's Women Artists Writing, a group dedicated to cultivating the emergence of diverse theatrical voices. Armbruster's play "Mrs. Christie" received its world premiere at Dorset Theatre Festival in the summer of 2019. Her other plays, including "Dairyland," "Murder Girl," "Every Good Girl Deserves Fun (and other misremembered things)," "Where the I Divides" and "Purgatory" have been produced and developed at prestigious theaters across the country, including SPACE on Ryder Farm, Primary Stages, Kansas City Rep and Red Bull Theater's Short Play Festival.

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As an actress, Armbruster has extensive New York and regional theater credits, including "Time Stands Still" on Broadway and Lincoln Center's production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Disgraced." She was awarded a Drama League Nomination for her work in the Keen Company's revival of "Tea and Sympathy" and has many TV and film credits including The Blacklist, Blue Bloods, 30 Rock, SVU, House of Cards and her role as Michelle on Darren Star's TV Land hit Younger.

"This time is uniquely suited to introspection and imagination — which are the building blocks of storytelling and play making. Creating right now allows me to connect with myself on a deeper level," said Armbruster. "In the classroom experiences that I have had thus far — the experience of making something together, even in an online format — has created a sense of community, and that has been exciting and healing."

This year's program offers brief virtual lessons taught by Armbruster, with writing prompts and assignments available for download. Armbruster hopes that by making the program available online, she provides an interactive course in playwriting for students without creating additional lesson-planning for educators. Instructors may schedule a session for a whole class or individual sessions for specific students. "Teachers can also simply use the videos I've already posted in their own lesson plans as they wish," she said.

"I can adapt my lessons for any classroom situation or any number of students. I can tailor it to the work that students are doing in the classroom — or do something entirely independent."

Armbruster most recently began working with students at The Hiland Hall School in Bennington, where teacher Brennan Cofiell is already seeing the positive impact. "The girls have been so excited each week and are really loving the program," Cofiell said in an email to Armbruster. "It has been such an awesome experience for them in this weird time of School-at-Home." Cofiell explained that the introduction to the form of playwriting has also led students to explore different writing styles on their own.

The first four virtual classes are available online through Dorset Theatre Festival's website (dorsettheatrefestival.org/young-playwrights-program) and official YouTube channel (youtube.com/channel/UCP51y6oRPhnbwXs3Za3JlOQ), with more to come soon. Classes and play submissions can continue throughout the summer. Educators interested in participating should contact Armbruster at heidiyp@dorsettheatrefestival.org.

The Jean E. Miller Young Playwrights Competition is funded in part by support from the Glenn N. Howatt Foundation. For more information, visit dorsettheatrefestival.org.


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