Piti Theatre Company’s youth mentoring program in third season

  • Jyn Rankin works on her podcast as part of the Valley Playwright Mentoring program. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BART RANKIN

For the Recorder
Published: 11/24/2021 3:00:28 PM

The Valley Playwright Mentoring program from Shelburne Falls’ Piti Theatre Co. began its third season this month, providing Franklin County teens with a supportive community to practice, script and perform stories based upon their own lives. The after-school program is open for teens ages 13 and older and offers participants a stipend at the end of its six-month run time.

Valley Playwright Mentoring is the first of the theater company’s programs meant specifically for teens, according to Program Director Jonathan Mirin. The idea for Valley Playwright Mentoring was born from Mirin’s time working at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, where he was involved in a teen theater program called Playwright Mentoring Project.

“It was doing the kind of work that I’m interested in, which is basically creating original theater where the teens are generating the material,” Mirin said. “They’re more the playwrights and the creators of content.”

Barrington Stage gave Mirin its blessing to use its program model, with the hope he would give more teens access to theater-based support. Mirin’s Valley Playwright Mentoring program began in fall 2019, though the COVID-19 pandemic immediately followed and the program moved online.

The online forum, however, does not hinder the program, according to Mirin and his students. For an hour and a half every week for six months, teens meet online to discuss and rehearse. Meetings begin with a personal check-in, followed by improv and other theater games that can be played online.

Mirin and the program’s peer mentor, Laura Josephs, teach participants how to write scenes, and in the last two months of the program, let them decide what original scenes they want to finalize into podcasts. The program then switches from Zoom-based to audio-based through audio software called Cleanfeed, and is eventually sound engineered to completion.

“Our main point is that they have a forum to express themselves and their ideas,” Mirin explained. “It can still work virtually.”

Mirin wants the program to give teens a safe space to check in and “take hard experiences and make art out of them.” He aims to create community among teens, as they develop a sense of how scenes are structured and how improv works. By using their daily experiences and interactions to create scenes, role play and work through conflict, Mirin believes the sense of community developed is essential, especially during COVID-19 isolation.

“It’s not just about creating a podcast, it’s also about giving the teens a space to try out different strategies and different ways to resolve conflicts,” Mirin said.

That community has become a (virtual) reality. Mohawk Trail Regional School junior Emery King has been a part of Valley Playwright Mentoring for two years — this upcoming season will be his third.

“This has kind of been my home away from home with theater. And I just get to meet people like me who just like theater and don’t really have another place to really express themselves on the stage,” King said.

Valley Playwright Mentoring has been a highlight of King’s life during the pandemic. “We use real stories from our lives and then we turn them into something that we can share with a lot of people,” King said.

King has not just found a support system, but learned a lot of technical skills over the past two years. Learning how to make his voice more dramatic over a recording, since the teens have no physical stage to work with, has been a skill King thinks is very valuable.

“People can’t see how you’re acting or how you look or how your body’s moving,” King explained. “So you kind of have to do all of that with your voice, and that is something that a lot of us have had to adapt to.”

Unlike King, Valley Playwright Mentoring Season 2.0 was 15-year-old Jyn Rankin’s first experience with the program. Rankin has been doing theater since she was 6 years old and found the program to be an outlet during the pandemic.

“We would just come there, and we would talk about how our days had been and cool things in our lives and the world, and not so cool things in our lives and the world. And that would turn into plays,” Rankin recalled. Writing, editing, rehearsing and recording scenes are involved in every six-month period.

King and Rankin were both panelists in Valley Playwright Mentoring’s Season 2.0 Zoom event on Oct. 24. The event was the culmination of their six-month session, featuring scene introductions and discussion of their experiences making and recording scenes to virtual audience members.

Other actor/playwrights who can be heard on Podcasts 2.0 include Heath’s Abigail Hawk-Wickline, Colrain’s Rylee Hager and Greenfield’s Laura Josephs — who is also the program’s peer mentor.

Rehearsals for Valley Playwright Mentoring Season 3 started Nov. 15 on Zoom, but teens can join later if space is available. Podcast scenes from Seasons 1 and 2 are available on its webpage: ptco.org/training/vpm/.

The program has been made possible in part by funding from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, Mass Humanities, Art Angels, Mass Cultural Council, New England Foundation for the Arts, the Markham-Nathan Foundation and the Horace Moses Charitable Trust.


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