Renowned playwright Brian Guehring holding workshops at Park City High School
Dr. John Newman, founder of the nonprofit group Playwrights in Our Schools, has been bringing professional theatre writers to learning facilities across the nation for 10 years.
The first time was back in 2002, while he was a drama teacher at Highland High School in Salt Lake City.
"I started doing some new play-development work with a major playwright and I got an Olympic Spirit grant and was able to bring in Sandra Fenichel Asher (writer of "The Wolf and It’s Shadow" and "Too Many Frogs")," Newman told The Park Record. "We developed one of her plays, which was a sci-fi version of the story of Joan of Arc."
Asher came to Utah that winter for a staged reading and a workshop that explored and fleshed out the play, and then returned for the spring premiere.
"The students had this wonderful experience with Sandy in seeing how a play develops," Newman said. "It was great for my student playwrights, because they could see how it works with a professional writer.
"After we wrapped, Sandy and I talked over dinner and she said the program was too good to keep to ourselves," said Newman, who is also a professor of theatre at Utah Valley University and director of the Noorda Regional Theatre Center for Children and Youth in Orem. "So, we went after a grant from the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America to create some residencies around the country. We were able to have award-winning playwrights go to different schools for three-day residencies to do similar things we did at Highland."
This year, Playwrights in Our Schools has chosen two Utah schools for readings and workshops. One is the Meridian School in Orem and the other is Park City High School.
Award-wining writer Brian Guehring, education director and playwright in residence of the Omaha Theater Company, will bring his play "The Misfits" to Park City High School this week.
The play is about name calling and bullying in schools.
"I’ve known Brian for a while and have seen him in action," Newman said. "He has a proven track record."
The action Newman mentioned refers to how well Guehring works with students.
"The students read the scripts in a readers’ theatre setting and the playwright will make changes during the readings," Newman said. "The playwright will also do classroom visits, where the students will get a chance to share their scripts with him."
For the past four years, Playwrights in Our Schools been sponsored by Broadway Across America, which has brought touring musicals such as "Les Miserables," "Rent" and "Mary Poppins" to Utah.
"We were in need of some support and they approached us," Newman said. "This year, we’ve been able to do two residencies and put out a call for the award-winning, top writers in the field to send in their scripts.
D’Arcy Benincosa, PCHS’s drama teacher, said she couldn’t contain her excitement when she heard the school was selected for the program.
"When I first started working here, I scoured the internet for every type of possibility in the dramatic world that I could bring to Park City High School," Benincosa said. "I know they’ve had a struggle with the drama department the past few years, and I wanted to bring the joy of theatrical arts back to the school.
"This was something I came across and loved the idea," she said. "I filled out an extensive application back in October, and we are lucky to be chosen as one of the recipients."
Benincosa’s goal for programs such as Playwrights in Our Schools, is to give her students as many real-life theatrical experiences as possible.
"It’s such a joy to see them work with other people than just myself," she said. "I want them to work with people who are actually making a living, and are successful in the theatre world.
"Professional theatre is hard, because there are many people who will try to dash your dreams, but I think with enough hard work and realistic expectations, you can find work," she said. "Right now am trying to show my students how lucky they are and trying to get them excited to write their own plays."
Benincosa also wants her students to know that there is more to theatre than just acting.
"To let the students see people who work in theatre is valuable for me, plus, for them to participate in a workshop with a professional is something I wish I had when I was in high school," she said. "A lot of that gets lost in the every-day world of reality TV and Facebook."
This week, Guehring has talked with students about the writing and editing process, and about adapting a book into a theatrical work.
"He also talked about dramatization and dialogue and casting and character development as well," Benincosa said.
The culmination of Guehring’s visit is the live reading of "The Misfits."
"After school on Tuesday, we’ll cast the play for the readings that will be held Thursday," Benincosa said. "After the reading, we will host a question-and-answer session with Brian. I’m hoping a lot of people, including parents, will show up."
Playwrights in Our Schools and the Park City High School drama department will present a free reading of Brian Guehring’s "The Misfits, what will be followed by a question-and-answer session on Thursday, March 8, 7 p.m., in the Park City High School black box theatre, 1750 Kearns Blvd. Admission is free, although donations will be accepted.
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