Theatrefolk - The Drama Teacher Resource Company

Playwright Spotlight: Get to Know Kathleen Donnelly

Welcome to "Playwright Spotlight" — your exclusive backstage pass to the creative minds crafting the incredible plays featured in our Theatrefolk catalogue. Discover the magic, quirks, and genius of the playwrights who help bring the stage to life. Let's meet one of these exceptional playwrights who offers the chance for your student performers to shine in their spotlight.

What inspired you to start writing plays specifically for high school & middle school students?

I taught playwriting to middle through high school students for many years at an arts magnet school and with several theatre companies. I also wrote plays on topics of science and biodiversity that toured to K-12 students throughout western Pennsylvania. I've spent a lot of time with this age group. They have their own stories to tell and their own particular interests. I like working with them.

Can you share a bit about your creative process when developing plays that resonate with students?

For me, an idea has to resonate within myself first. If it's not important to me, how can it be important to anyone else, no matter their age? I also write fiction, so when an idea comes to me for any story, it generally comes with a sense of who the audience is and the genre -- those are both essential parts of any story. Then, I have to do the work to shape it accordingly. Writing for a younger audience means I have to be a partner with them and be able to go along for the ride in the same way they will, understanding their concerns, language, environments, influences, etc. And, I have to say, it's still very easy for me to feel like a kid.

Are there any challenges you face when writing for student performers, and how do you overcome them?

I always have to be careful about the complexity of my language. I love Shakespeare, I love Dickens, I studied Latin for five years. I can tolerate a level of complexity that a younger person may struggle with. BUT I also want to be playful with language even when working towards crafting dialogue that rings true.

What themes or messages do you aim to convey through your plays?

I have the goal for everything that I write these days for it to instill the importance of caring and community. No matter if comedy, drama, parody, realism, historical, contemporary -- it all comes down to what we're making of this world and hoping that that is a caring community for one and all.

How do you balance education and fun in your scripts?

For me, education is fun!

Can you share a memorable experience or feedback from a student performance that left an impact on you?

I have SOOOO many from our annual one-act festival of student-written plays and student performances (mentioned below). One that stands out is a play about a young teen coming out to his parents as gay. We produced that play at our middle school and the student audience was, at first, a bit tentative and uncomfortable with the situation. But by the end, they really cared for and understood the character, and were rooting for him. You could feel the wave of emotion running through the theatre. It was amazing. A very powerful experience for us all.

Any advice for teachers or directors looking to choose engaging and age-appropriate plays for their student performers?

As a middle-school creative writing teacher for many years, I struggled finding age appropriate plays! That's probably why I wrote some. I think you have to like the play yourself before you can teach or direct it, so I just had to explore. I started a play-reading group where we'd read a play out loud in a group. That was a fun way to get to know more plays. My students also wrote their own plays and they wrote some pretty darn good ones. We had an annual one-act festival where we produced some plays along with scene work from each student. That was thrilling.

What is your favourite play you've written so far?

I've had a lot of plays produced, but only one play published so far: Upon a Sea of Dreams: A Journey on the Titanic, which I wrote for my students and which is very near to my heart. My favorite produced but unpublished play is a little ditty called "Lucky Day." It's set in a world where every single life activity is accompanied by the chance to win a billion dollars. Silly but prescient.

Anything else you'd like students and/or directors to know about you as a playwright?

I don't think I could have been a playwright without having first been an actor, costumer, prop mistress, stage manage, director, usher -- all those things that gave me the language of theatre. Thank goodness for the opportunities I had as a shy kid to get to work on plays.

Products referenced in this post: Upon A Sea of Dreams: A Journey on the Titanic

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