Teenage playwrights get into the act at Eugene O'Neill Center in Waterford

Lillian Meredith, center, of New York, prepares backstage Sunday at the O'Neill Center in Waterford for her performance as "Phoebe" in "Ben Loved Phoebe, Ben Hates Tea." Joshua Dill, right, of New Haven, who portrays "Ben," studies his lines. At left is Sara Steven, the director of "Aftermath."
Lillian Meredith, center, of New York, prepares backstage Sunday at the O'Neill Center in Waterford for her performance as "Phoebe" in "Ben Loved Phoebe, Ben Hates Tea." Joshua Dill, right, of New Haven, who portrays "Ben," studies his lines. At left is Sara Steven, the director of "Aftermath." Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Waterford - It isn't every day that young students get to see their work performed by trained actors.

Family and friends of a group of local teenage playwrights packed the Rose Barn Theater at Eugene O'Neill Theater Center Sunday to watch National Theater Institute alumni perform five plays written by Connecticut middle and high school students.

The performance was the culminating activity in three days of intensive workshops that 21 students participated in as part of the ninth annual Young Playwrights Festival.

"There's so much to learn. It was really amazing to see the process of seeing a play put together," said Lauren Rusk, 13, an eighth-grader at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London.

Rusk participated last year as a guest playwright, which means she submitted a play and attended the festival but did not see her play performed. She entered again this year and her play, "The Perfect Mistake," about a genetically engineered human with a critical flaw, was featured in the lineup.

Festival Producer Sophia Chapadjiev said the program has been deliberately expanding the number of guest playwrights it admits over the years. This year, there were 16 students who attended the festival as guests; last year, there were 12, according to Chapadjiev.

"It's kind of creating a repeating interest," said Chapadjiev.

Center Executive Director Preston Whiteway said the program is focused on local students, though students from other parts of the state and country may also submit plays. This year's selected plays included four by New London County students and one by a high school student from Hartford.

He said the purpose of the program, which is free to participants and includes free performances, is to give back to the community by sharing the theater's resources.

"We're known internationally for being a haven for new work and developing new talent," he said.

This year's plays ranged in theme from high school melodrama to science fiction thriller.

The evening opened with "The Adventures of Millennial High School Students," by Clark Lane Middle School eighth-grader Jake Romano, 14. In the comedy, a British reality TV show host produces a series about a group of American high school students preparing for prom.

The audience laughed throughout the play as the host provided earnest commentary about the petty trials the characters faced.

"Will Justin ask out Whitney?" he soberly asked the audience.

Playwright Jiehae Park, of New York City, has participated in the festival as a mentor to the young playwrights for the past three years. Park's play, "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo,'' won the Leah Ryan Prize and Princess Grace Award last year.

She said jokingly that her motivations for coming were "purely selfish," and that she only came to learn from the 12- to 18-year-old participants.

"It's incredibly meaningful to meet these young writers at such an early age and to see how much talent they have," she said.

t.townsend@theday.com

Leslie Erin Roth, left, as
Leslie Erin Roth, left, as "Whitney" and Vanessa Rose Rivera as "TeQuisha," cast members in "The Adventures of Millennial High School Students," perform Sunday at the ninth annual Young Playwrights Festival in the Dina Merrill Theater of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo
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