Thirty years ago, legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim might have sensed that the pool of up-and-coming playwrights was a bit lacking and founded Young Playwrights Inc. Based in New York, the program’s mission is to foster and mentor promising writers 18 and under. For the second year in a row, an Overland Park, Kan. teenager has made the cut. His play will be given a professional staged reading in January 2012 at New York's Cherry Lane Theatre.
Each year, the organization hosts a nationwide playwriting competition and among this year's group of ten is 19-year-old Zachary Weaver of Overland Park, Kan. who was writing and helping to mount plays at both the Coterie Theatre and the Kansas City Fringe Festival before he could get his driver's license.
Weaver Finds his Voice at The Coterie
The Coterie's artistic director Jeff Church recalls how, through the theater's outreach programs and playwriting seminars for area youth, he became impressed with Weaver's point of view.
"Zach surfaced to the top because he has a unique voice, and there's a nice theatricality in his writing," Church says. "That is to say, they're not kitchen sink reality plays, but usually set in unusual locales, like the writer's mind or the side of a highway, or inside a clock maker's nightmare scenario - crazy stuff like that.
"Television usually has a numbing effect on young writer's mind, so I would get a lot of sitcom set ups and Zach never fell into that."
Weaver Expands his Audience
Around the same time Weaver's play "Roadkill" was staged at the Young Playwrights Roundtable, the Coterie's yearly festival of plays by young writers, he began submitting scripts to Young Playwrights Inc. His hope was to be one of a handful of youth invited to New York every year to see their work come to fruition. He won a slot on last year's program and, in January, his second play for the group, called “Loganheim the Clock Smasher,” is on the bill.
Young Playwrights' Amanda Junco, who will direct Weaver's piece, says that she concurs with Church about what made Weaver's writing stand out.
"We love him. This is our second time working with him and we're excited to have him back," Junco says.
"Sometimes it's just the 'it' factor," she adds. "You just have a sense that a play is really complete and it's going somewhere and has something really focused that it's trying to do. Typically, the winning plays are the most cohesive, and that's what Zach did."
Outside the Regular Classroom
Though the Coterie does most of its outreach work in area schools, it has also established a good relationship with a collective group of youth who are homeschooled, as Weaver was. He says, surprisingly, that his mother, who was his home-school teacher, wasn't particularly invested in the arts.
"I would have to say the interest in the arts, especially theater, was my own initiative," Weaver says. "My mom doesn't know how I can get on a stage and speak out loud. She's a very reserved person.
"I mean, she taught me other things, like gardening and love of animals and cooking, things like this, but the arts was very much my own doing, my seeking out something exciting to do."
Amanda Junco says his winning play last year addressed homeschooling with both comedy and irony.
"It was really clever in the way he approached the stereotypic idea of what homeschooled kids are. They're anti-social; they may not be quote unquote normal. And he played right into that, given the fact that he was homeschooled, which we did not know at the time.
"You have (with Weaver's play) a very mature, tongue-in-cheek way with your subject," she says. "He played into the stereotypes instead of trying to correct them."
I asked Weaver if theater was his primary focus or if he was more of a Renaissance man of many talents.
"I have a lot of interests but playwriting is what I want to do," he says. "I have hundreds of ideas – many ideas at one time. So it’s a matter of learning how to focus on one play, but there are hundreds of them."
Weaver should find inspiration in one former winner of the Young Playwrights competition, Carter Bays, who is currently a writer and producer on the hit series “How I Met Your Mother.”
This year's winners of the Young Playwrights Inc. competition will be staged at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York January 10 - 12, 2012.