It's hard to know where and when the stage bug begins, but we do know that there has to be a place and an organizing force to allow those with a flair for playwriting, acting and directing, costuming, and set design to explore and nurture their gifts. For the 27th time, Dobama Theatre did just that for students from grade school to high school, when it presented the Marilyn Bianchi Kids' Playwriting Festival, which concluded its weekend run last Sunday.
By mounting 10 full productions of the winning students' work, using both adult and child actors, the festival shines a deserving spotlight on the thoughts, fears, and hopes of the most silent sector of our population: our children. Yeah, sure, they don't seem all that mute when they're complaining about having to turn off Tony Hawk's Underground to do homework, but we rarely have an opportunity to listen to what young people are really thinking. And it can be quite a treat.
For example, second-grader Miranda Radesic from Albion Elementary was working out the eternal dragon-princess issues in her brief play The Dragon Hero. An even younger playwright, Jake Adelstein, from the first-grade class at Dorothy Lewis Elementary, related in The Magic Pencil how distressing it could be if your pencil could walk, talk, and had a malevolent streak to boot (hint: That Eberhard-Faber #2 might eat your lunch).
Clearly, one of the real rushes for these young writers is in seeing their words come to glorious life onstage. Fourth-grader Ashley Jacin from Albion must have gotten goose bumps when he saw the lizards from his work Brother vs. Brother start crawling around, thanks to experienced actors (and splendid reptiles) Kirk Brown and Jimmy Woody.
Of course, there were some heavier topics: Fifth-grader Madeline Tingle from Kensington Intermediate touched on slavery and the urge for freedom in her tender Escape; and Emily Riter, a seventh-grader at North Royalton Middle School, dealt with the relationship complications caused by a workaholic father. And a new definition of heroism was discovered by A.J. D'Angelo, a Valley Vista fourth-grader. Other winners included Lauren Hasek (seventh grade at North Royalton Middle School), Lena Meslat (ninth grade at Westlake High), and Matt Herzfeld (11th grade at Shaker Heights High).
It seems obvious that this creatively inspired festival will continue even if, this year, it happened to be the final production at Dobama's home on Coventry. For almost 40 years, the small, often noisy, and occasionally leak-prone basement space was where culturally edgy and politically daring theatrical fare found a showing. Many of the finest talents in Cleveland theater performed within the four weight-bearing pillars that defined Dobama's stage. Those columns, along with the two founding pillars Don and Marilyn Bianchi, are all gone now from the theater scene. But for anyone who has ever acted or directed there, worked backstage or attended out front, Dobama's subterranean site will forever exert a powerful pull. Such is the destiny of a space where so many dreams -- kids' and adults'-- came vibrantly alive.