Sunday, December 11, 2022

"A Christmas Carol" Writing Contest (2022)

Actor Lynn Robert Berg greets and awards a
writing contest school winner on stage
at the Mimi Ohio Theatre.
Since 1989, Great Lakes Theater has produced a writing contest for sixth, seventh and eighth grade students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, in association with the annual production of Gerald Freedman’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

This past season was my tenth year shepherding the program, which involves engaging English Language Arts teachers throughout the district to participate in the program, contracting the readers who will choose the most original and creative works from the written entries, and making arrangements for all participating students to attend one of two free student matinees of the production.

The past two holidays seasons have been disheartening, to say the least, as there was no stage production of A Christmas Carol in 2020 (though GLT did produce an excellent radio adaptation that year) and while the show went on in 2021, the fact that vaccinations were not yet available to students twelve and younger made student matinees untenable.

The writing contest continued, however. But with remote instruction and without the promise of matinees for students, participation was depressed, which is entirely understandable. For me, however, it was one more of a raft of disappointments during a very difficult period.

In order to revive interest in the contest this year, GLT offered writing workshops to any teachers interested in receiving them. This past fall I conducted twenty such hour-long workshops at schools across the city. While exhausting (and taxing on my voice) it was very inspiring to be able to make a direct connection with so many students – in person – and to engage them in the craft of creative writing.

Here’s the thing; I always wanted to write. When I was a child, I wrote. But my efforts were ever promoted. They were never fostered. Not by my parents, my efforts were outright derided by my brothers’ friends. There was always someone to tell me what I was doing wrong, no one took me aside to show me how to do it right. It took me a long time before I realized it was something I could do. Someone I could be.

In these workshops, there wasn’t a lot of time to cover structure, apart from the basics. What we did was brainstorm, create characters with motivations inspired by themes present in Dickens’ work. When a student offered up a character, I would ask questions about who they were, and where they were, and what they – the character – wanted. And then I asked them to write about that for a few minutes, then we would go further.

When all the entries were submitted, and six grand prize winners were chosen from over a thousand written entries, five of the six had participated in one of these writing workshops. But so many of the stories were so well written this year, whether they had received a workshop or not. Stories about love and acceptance, and grief and anger, about loss and doubt but also confidence and hope.

These kids, my kids, all of our kids, have been through so much these past years, and there is all this talk about how they are behind, in their education and in their socialization. But reading these stories, and hearing their voices as they reacted to a live performance at those student matinees of A Christmas Carol, I see so many strong, resilient, and thoughtful young people.

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