Carnivores Ponder Life’s Meaning

Lucy Gellman PhotoWhat are a shark’s most existential questions, and how can a particularly emotional lion help answer them?

In what universe can a quarter-dissolved marshmallow and a tutu-boasting hippo become problem-solving buddies and crusaders for environmental justice?

If a gummy bear and lamp-bound genie meet on a tropical island, will either of them get their wishes?

These questions — and many more — are raised and answered in this year’s Dwight/Edgewood Project (D/EP), a collaboration between the Yale School of Drama (YSD) and Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School. From mid-May to mid-June, eight Barnard middle schoolers have been paired with individual YSD mentors, learning about the craft of playwriting before writing a one-act play themselves.

Titled “DE(e)P Connections - Think About It!” this year’s final performances will take place this Friday, June 16, and Saturday June 17 at the Off Broadway Theater off York Street.

The first night features one-acts by Diana Perez, Chris Highsmith, Kayla Smith, and Janaeia Morrison. The second includes work by students Ella Santanelli, Isaac Ocampo, Lindsey Troy, and Jacob Chandler. Both begin at 7 p.m., and both are free and open to the public. 

Now in its 23rd year, the program has taken several forms, said Project Coordinator Emalie Mayo. But it has always remained faithful to a mission of fostering young playwrights, some of whom may be having a hard time in school, and or aren’t specifically literarily or theatrically oriented. For the first two weeks of the program this year, students worked with their mentors and a team of directors to get a crash course on theater: what it is, what it can be, how a play gets written, and how the students can have a role in it.

Then the students headed out for a camping trip in Griswold, Conn. That, in the land where cell phone service no longer exists, is where the plays happened. There is a little bit of magic out in rural Connecticut, said Producing Director Al Heartley and Mayo: a young, wild kind of creativity shot up and took root for a few days. Ideas bubbled from students to their mentors to their pages and back to the students again, taking flight with plot twists and edits to narrative structure.

Then students returned to New Haven, and ironed the plays into being with mentor-actors, directors Sebastian Arboleda and Anna Crivelli, and a creative team of sound and set designers to add flair to the productions. 

“I think we’ve always known from day one that this is for the playwrights,” said Heartley after a final dress rehearsal on Thursday afternoon. “It’s in our charter. We say, ‘this is your space.’”

At the end of four weeks, the result is a series of eight one-act plays that are not only heartwarming, but also explosive in their creativity and candor. They are funny and serious, raucous and reverent, not without an oh-so-light touch of potty humor, and deeply inventive. In Highsmith’s “The Bond Between Family,” a mourning father and son — oh, they’re also fish — use rap bars, card games, and one true show of rebellion to mend their relationship with each other. It’s like a hardcore Finding Nemo.

In another, a star who has fallen out of his own orbit befriends a glittery, anthropomorphized bowtie, and the two learn how to be mutually beneficial to each other after years of loneliness. A jellyfish somehow spins her own adversity into a story of self-acceptance and approval. A gummy bear learns more than you ever thought a gummy bear could.

Thanks to sets, sound design, and flashy (sometimes ridiculous) costumes, the productions are professional from start to finish.

And you’re not just rooting for the plays — you’re rooting for their young authors, who look on as actors take places and dive into the scripts. Their scripts. When Leslie the super gifted (and aquatically adept) coyote teaches Cupcake the pterodactyl to fly, you fly right there with her. When a tutu-wearing hippo threatens a marshmallow with death by eating, you cower with the marshmallow, and cheer it on as it sticks a literal landing later in the show. 

In one of the project’s most existential and moving works, “The Wishing Shark” by Isaac Ocampo, a land-braving, weathered shark (Patrick Madden) begs a lion to stop seeking eternal life — something the shark has unintentionally gained — only to have the lion help him find a way to die. It’s a reflection on existence, compassion, and palliative care that is extraordinary, for a middle school student and otherwise.

As Thursday’s rehearsal ended and students gathered for a final closing circle, Ocampo motioned to speak, holding up two cardboard cutouts that read “shout” and “out.”

“Thank you for helping us find that special spot,” he said.

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