Remarkable scripts from talented young writers

A private-eye parody -- with Shakespearean overtones. A fantasy trip through the dictionary. A twist on a Greek myth. A comedy about computer-dating. If these sound like catchy and imaginative story ideas, wait till you actually hear them performed on the radio. They are exhilarating evidence of what highly talented young people can accomplish. The authors -- ranging in age from seven to 16 -- are winners of the Eighth Annual Henny Penny Playwriting Contest, and their works will be performed live on public radio stations at 10 a.m. eastern standard time on Saturday, April 12 (check local listings). Accompanying music commissioned specially for the program will also be performed live.

The one-hour show, distributed by National Public Radio, is part of the Children's Radio Theatre, an oasis of original programming in the generally neglected field of radio for young people. ``Henny Penny'' won a Peabody Award its first year out and has picked up several other prizes since then.

It's easy to understand why. Besides being written with often-startling skill, the four plays are culturally aware and sometimes poetic. Take ``A Play Extempore,'' by 16-year-old Anne Barthel, which manages to satirize both detective yarns and parts of the Bard's ``Henry IV.'' Miss Barthel must have listened to replays of old radio-TV series -- or recent parodies of them -- to be able to spoof that genre so effectively (her savvy script calls for a ``blond airhead voice'' among other things). Yet even without a long memory of the literary targets involved, young people (and adults) will appreciate the play's clever lines. But the richly allusive script is still more enjoyable when one gets the connections.

Marisa Kantor is only 13, but her ``Word Traveler'' is a beautifully executed work that unleashes the listener's imagination in the best tradition of the radio art -- a bit the way the radio series ``Let's Pretend'' did a few decades ago. Young Geri finds herself -- well, kind of falling into a dictionary, like Lewis Carroll's Alice into the hole, and discovering that as she runs through the alphabet, the words she meets take on a palpable reality. It's an amazingly wise work for someone Marisa's age -- funny, ingenious, and at one point lyric.

Even younger is the five-person team that wrote ``Mercury, the Fastest Kid in Town,'' another classical tale adroitly retold. Four of these authors -- Joshua Miller, Alleeza Kersey, Evelyn Gilmore, Toby Andersen, and Kimberly Walker -- are eight years old, and Darrell Peters is only seven. But the impressive result of their collective effort is a hilariously free-wheeling version of the Mercury myth which interweaves ancient and modern references -- including one of the gods suggesting Mercury could deliver flowers. The show may find it hard to match the evocative directions for sound effects like ``Splishy, splashy, sounds, bumpety-bumps,'' but listeners are bound to have fun.

``Syntax Error,'' by 15-year-old Cecily Anne Schoen, is a fluffy, fast-paced comedy about switched computer-date registration slips. It captures the teen-age pace in bouncy dialogue written with a keen awareness of just how much the characters need to say for listeners to get the point. And in the kooky person of Fiona, the author shows a budding sense of characterization -- perhaps the hardest element for these young authors to master, especially in such short scripts.

``Where do you get authors like these?'' I asked one of ``Henny Penny's'' founders and producers, Doris Indyke, in a telephone conversation.

``These are gifted children you're talking about,'' she points out. ``We got 2,000 entries to the playwriting contest. Most of it was stuff that you might expect. The stuff that wins is not typical. It's startlingly good.

``There's a very cynical sort of view in the world that children couldn't possibly be interested in anything written by other children,'' she notes. ``And admittedly little kids are not going to get a work like `A Play Extempore,' but I think children who get turned on by radio are interested in all of it -- the adult-written material and the child-written material.''

In ``A Play Extempore'' Anne Barthel imitates styles in general, according to Ms. Indyke. ``She said she does take-offs in her writing of Woody Allen, and Bob and Ray. And she's obviously interested in radio.''

Although ``Henny Penny'' makes marvelous listening, getting a show like this on the air is no easy task, despite its quality and appeal.

``It's a very difficult thing to compete with television and commercial radio, first of all,'' Ms. Indyke says. ``People have certainly tried, and there are some stations that have a very strong interest in children's programming. But people who do something about it are like lone warriors in the world. I think there's a trend against spoken-word radio of any kind. There is a bias even within the public-radio community that drama of any kind is going to turn listeners off. So I don't know what the future is. A while back I thought it looked very bright. In some ways it's always promising, but there are so many obstacles.''

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