Pendragon Theatre hosts Young Playwrights’ Festival

SARANAC LAKE – When Elmer’s publisher told him to write an adventure book, he was at a loss.

The assignment baffled the writer, who is content being alone and reading such literary hits as “The History of Basket Weaving” and “The Longest Audit, Unabridged.”

“The first thing I did was come up with a character list,” said “Elmer” playwright Witter Swanson. “Then I came up with the most boring person I could.”

That boring person is Elmer, a writer with the off-putting habit of correcting people’s grammar who leaves his comfort zone in pursuit of some excitement to inspire his story. Along the way he meets several characters, including a police officer and a tow truck driver.

Swanson, a ninth-grader at Saranac Lake High School, entered “Elmer” into Pendragon Theatre’s first Young Playwrights’ Festival competition and won first place. The contest was open to students in seventh grade and up. About 30 students from across the region entered their one-act plays in the competition.

Not only was Swanson the competition’s first winner, the play was also the first he has written. The young writer decided to enter the contest about three weeks before the deadline.

Swanson’s prize for winning the contest is to see his one-act comedy performed at Pendragon by three of the theater’s actors: Peggy Orman, Steve DeHond and Jason Amrhein as Elmer.

Since winning, Swanson has been attending rehearsals at Pendragon and guiding the production, which is directed by Pendragon’s executive artistic director, Karen Lordi-Kirkham.

“I’m just there to help interpret the script and help out with costumes,” Swanson said. “It’s really something to see the characters come to life. I think the audience will really enjoy Elmer and his quirks.”

“Elmer” is just one component of Saturday’s Young Playwrights’ Festival at Pendragon Theatre. The competition’s second place winner, a play called “The Esteemed Institute” by Beekmantown High School student Amber Baker, will be read to the audience.

Unlike most contests, each entrant in the Young Playwrights’ Festival will receive a critique from the judges, and even though the event culminates with a performance of the winning play, it is really about education and getting kids involved in theater. Free workshops and drama-related activities will take place throughout the day and will focus on scene writing, improvisation and dialogue.

“I think the feedback here is critical, that you can write a play and then get someone to give you tips and advice,” Lordi-Kirkham said. “We wanted to create the idea that there’s an event and that writing is something they can not only do to express themselves, there’s also a venue where that writing can go, which is the stage. There’s then this collaborative side to it that can be really exciting.”

Lordi-Kirkham confessed that the festival is not entirely new. It first happened in the 1980s and was won by Saranac Lake High School student Meghan Handler. This year’s festival is dedicated to Handler, who died in 1998.

Next year’s festival might be divided into two categories: seventh and eighth grades, and high school students. Lordi-Kirkham said Pendragon might also host a playwriting seminar later this year for students who want to enter the next festival.

“Young kids are the future of the arts,” Lordi-Kirkham said. “You have to educate them on the form and to appreciate it and be good patrons, but also to be involved in it. Kids learn how to do all kinds of writing in school, like creative writing and writing a thesis, but nobody ever teaches kids how to write a play. It’s more about having the characters interact with language.”