This Saturday, Natina Gilbert's play, "Vanilla Cream Cone," will be unveiled to a live audience at Portland Center Stage. It's the second play she's ever written. And she wrote it in 10 days. And she's only 16.
Gilbert, who attends Lincoln High School, is one of four Portland-area high school students selected to participate in the Promising Playwrights program at JAW (short for Just Add Water West), a nationally known annual festival hosted by Portland Center Stage (PCS). The festival invites a select handful of playwrights for 10 days of intense community workshopping that culminates in a staged public reading.
Along with Gilbert, Gabriella Luther, 18, and London Bauman-Loughran, 17, both of David Douglas High School, and Jake Biscuut, 18, of Cleveland High School were also chosen as Promising Playwrights. They were selected from more than 150 participants in the 6-week PCS playwriting and residency program, Visions & Voices.
With the aid of professional playwright Matt Zrebski, Gilbert, Luther, Bauman-Loughran and Biscuut have composed 5-7 minute plays that will be performed as "curtain-raisers" during the public JAW readings on July 28 and 29.
After up to six revisions, daily deadlines and individual conferences, the students' plays were launched into staged rehearsals with actors.
Jake Biscuut participated in Visions & Voices last year, but did not qualify for its culminating showcase — a prerequisite for the JAW festival — citing his lack of 'openness' as the culprit. "This year, that changed a lot and maybe it's because I'm a different sort of person. I'm able to delve more deeply into what I want to talk about," Biscuut says.
While Zrebski prioritized talent in the selection process, he also sought writers open to learning and growing, and who could take criticism in stride. "There's a sort of humility I look for," he says.
"This is a really high-end opportunity. It's about making them better writers and exposing them to professional theater. I want them to be hungry," Zrebski adds.
For most Promising Playwrights, this is their first commissioned assignment. The students receive a stipend and a professional credit as a playwright, as well as the chance to rub elbows with frontrunners in the industry.
Go See It!
Portland Center Stage's JAW Festival
128 Northwest 11th Avenue, Portland
Natina Gilbert—Lincoln High School
Vanilla Cream Cone opening for The Bachelors
Saturday, July 28 at 4 pm
Jake Biscuut—Cleveland High School
A Year Later opening for San Diego
Saturday, July 28 at 8 pm
London Bauman-Loughran—David Douglas High School
Always Greener opening for The People’s Republic of Portland
Sunday, July 29 at 4 pm
Gabriella Luther—David Douglas High School
Opening for The Few
Sunday, July 29 at 8 pm
"It's intimidating being in a room with professional actors and playwrights that have done all kinds of stuff — but they're all really friendly and you get over it," says London Bauman-Loughran.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, the students must rise to the professional expectations of the workshop.
"The most challenging part is the strict deadlines," Bauman-Loughran says. "Just knowing that it's a professional giving you a deadline, it just feels like there's more pressure than a high school teacher giving it to you."
In the end, Zrebski feels the students rose to the occasion, exploring subjects that he describes as "extremely provocative" and "mature." The plays range from the absurdist to romantic, tackling scenarios like a power struggle over ice cream at a 1950s diner, to the death and meaning of one's inner child.
Such content, Zrebski explains, reminds audiences of the challenges of living in our times. "We encourage [the students] to write what matters to them and really to explore the questions that they are asking, particularly about where they're at in their lives and their generation," he says.
"JAW is supposed to be about taking risks, allowing playwrights to explore and rewrite and try things that may or may not work," Zrebski adds. "I’m very proud of these students for honoring that. Each of them has taken a step forward in their writing. That takes a lot of courage."
Note: Playwright Matt Zrebski will be featured on Oregon Art Beat next season.