Themes of betrayal (and renewal) fill the Young Playwrights Festival | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

Themes of betrayal (and renewal) fill the Young Playwrights Festival 

Pegasus Theatre Chicago celebrates 33 years of fostering teen writers.

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click to enlarge Left to right: Angelina Davila, Reba Brennan, and Henry Williams

Left to right: Angelina Davila, Reba Brennan, and Henry Williams

Anthony Robert La Penna

Pegasus Theatre Chicago has weathered some storms over the years. But one thing has remained constant for them nearly since their founding in 1984 as Pegasus Players: their annual celebration of young writers.

Pegasus's 33rd Young Playwrights Festival features three one-act plays, chosen from over 500 submissions from high school students around the city. The YPF program partners with participating schools to provide professional playwriting instruction in tandem with existing drama programs throughout the year. The selected playwrights participate in immersive revision workshops and they also are invited to participate in the audition and rehearsal process.

The three plays this year differ in tone, with Angelina Davila's Public and Private and Reba Brennan's Cobalt both taking a mostly realist approach to family conflict and Henry Williams's Clause 42 providing an absurdist view of the afterlife. But as Pegasus artistic and executive director Ilesa Duncan notes, the common thread is that these young writers are writing about "a sense of betrayal, either personal or systemic."

Davila wrote her play, about teen siblings facing parental disapproval and a pregnancy scare, last year while a senior at Taft High School. Dialogue exercises in class helped her figure out how to shape her characters and "show it through the words, and not just tell it." The YPF experience has also made Davila, who always thought of herself as more of an actor than a writer, determined to do both in the future. On the day we talk, she pulls out a notebook she carries with her everywhere. "I write about every time something happens in my life and I think 'That's good. I'll use that.'"

Brennan's Cobalt, in which a teenage girl runs away to live with a group of similarly displaced youth, began as prose. But she found that theatrical stagecraft enhanced the physical world of the story. "I learned that I loved to include very specific details. I put a lot of details in the lights. I named the play Cobalt because I had a specific lighting effect in mind." The title now evokes the twilight world her marginalized teen characters occupy.

Williams cites Neil Gaiman's American Gods as inspiration, but notes that his critique of religion also comes from "my grandfather, who is a Baptist pastor in Arkansas and has seen some of the harmful effects of religion firsthand." That blending of personal experience with other cultural markers is something Williams believes holds promise for building younger audiences as well as younger writers. "The best way to appeal to any new generation is to break the mold, use new techniques, try new genres that aren't seen in theater too often, and take risks in how you tell these stories."   v

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