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Students from Beekmantown and Saranac Lake gathered at Pendragon Theatre this month for a playwrighting festival, led by      Executive Artistic Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham (right).  Photo: David Zwierankin
Students from Beekmantown and Saranac Lake gathered at Pendragon Theatre this month for a playwrighting festival, led by Executive Artistic Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham (right). Photo: David Zwierankin

Saranac Lake's Pendragon Theatre taps next generation of playwrights

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High school writers gathered in Saranac Lake this month to learn more about theater and writing plays. Pendragon Theatre hosted a day of playing with words and acting as part of its newly revived Young Playwrights Festival.

More than 30 young writers from across the region entered their original one-act plays that were judged by a panel of experts. Two plays were given public performances. It's part of Pendragon's mission to help foster the next generation of theatre artists.

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Reported by

Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

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The Scene: Pendragon Theater in Saranac Lake. Time: early April. The characters: about 15 high school drama students from Saranac Lake and Beekmantown. The action: teen playwrights creating a short skit set in an elevator. Pendragon Theater Executive Artistic Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham is leading a workshop on scripts, characters and actors, all ingredients in a play. "Now the reason you're in an elevator is so that you're stuck. You can't leave. You have to talk," she tells the students.

Beekmantown senior Amber Baker, left, and her classmates work on a playwriting assignment during a workshop at Pendragon Theatre.  Photo:  David Zwierankin
Beekmantown senior Amber Baker, left, and her classmates work on a playwriting assignment during a workshop at Pendragon Theatre. Photo: David Zwierankin
Two North Country teens got the chance to see their one-act plays performed on stage at Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake this month. Witter Swanson, a student at Saranac Lake High School, received a full production of his play "Elmer." The runner-up, Amber Baker, a student at Beekmantown, received a reading of her play "The Esteemed Institute." They were the winners of this year's Young Playwrights contest at Pendragon.

Karen Lordi-Kirkham has worked with teen playwrights at other theatres and this isn't the first time Pendragon has fostered young writers. But she's passionate about the next generation of young writers. "In schools usually they don't have time to teach playwriting, so this is a great way for them to find a way to express themselves. The plays were got for the festival were really a range, from the comic to the more serious, some set in different places with many characters. I was impressed actually by the different voices that were out there. And then, getting young people through the door. To me, that's so critical."

About 30 students from across the region entered their plays in the contest. Witter Swanson's winning one-act centers on Elmer, who is tasked to write an adventure book by his publisher. Swanson, a freshman at Saranac Lake High School, describes his main character as a "nerdy and geeky" man who goes on an adventure before writing about it. For him, the challenge was figuring out just the right way to end his play. "Like 11 o'clock at night, the night before it was due!" he laughs. "So I had to finish it and so I slapped on an ending, but it wasn't actually a really great ending, and it really came out when they first read it, too. So, I went back and put in a new ending, which made more sense."

Saranac Lake teen playwright Witter Swanson on the set for his play "Elmer" at Pendragon.  Photo:  Karen Lordi-Kirkham
Saranac Lake teen playwright Witter Swanson on the set for his play "Elmer" at Pendragon. Photo: Karen Lordi-Kirkham
Swanson's winning one-act play was directed and performed by a team of professional actors, directors and tech experts at Pendragon. A group of actors also gave a public reading of Amber Baker's play "The Esteemed Institute." Amber is a senior at Beekmantown High School. She's written a lot of prose, even a novel, but this was her first play. "And I actually like for format better, because I could move it along faster," she says. "I was afraid, because I do a lot of description, that I wouldn't be able to write a play because it's mostly dialogue and action. But I found that I really liked that aspect. Not putting in a lot of description made it really move." Baker was impressed during a rehearsal by the cast of Pendragon actors. "It was fantastic. In their voices, I could see, imagine, my characters come out. It was great!"

Each play entered in the contest was read by a panel of professional writers and directors, including Fred Balzac, of Jay. He's written, directed and produced theatrical productions around the Adirondacks. He's hoping the Young Playwrights program helps give students a voice to express themselves through writing. "Any attempt at playwriting is great and should be encouraged," he said after a panel discussion with the students. "I've been interested in writing since junior high school. And this could be a great source of new material for the theatre. I go to the theatre a lot, and you see a lot of gray hair, for whatever reason. So, any opportunity to introduce young people to the theatre is really welcomed."

Saranac Lake playwright Karen Lewis helped judge this year's contest and offered writing tips to the students during a panel discussion. Lewis knows the theater world well. She's worked as an actor, director and producer in dinner theaters and summer stock. She's an award winning television writer and her plays have been performed at Pendragon and the Depot Theater in Westport. She says the program teaches students to express themselves clearly and creatively through the art of playwriting. "If kids want to write, if anybody wants to write, they should read all the plays they can, go to the theatre as much as they can, and become familiar with the form. It helps so much. I just think people should be able to write what they want to write, no matter how crazy it is, or where it's set. I'm just glad that Pendragon did this this year. It makes me happy. It's a win-win for everybody!"

Executive Artistic Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham says Pendragon hopes to kick off next year's Young Playwrights Festival earlier in the season, with a workshop in the fall or winter.

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