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Annual Pegasus fest lets teen playwrights’ voices be heard

Lauren Trifunovich (from left) Lincoln Park High School Alexus Williams Whitney Young Magnet High School Clare McKitterick Lane Tech High

Lauren Trifunovich (from left) of Lincoln Park High School, Alexus Williams of Whitney Young Magnet High School and Clare McKitterick of Lane Tech High School have plays in the Young Playwrights Festival. | Michael R. Schmidt-For Sun-Times Media

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Young Playwrights Festival, to Jan. 25, Pegasus Players at National Pastime Theater, Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence. $15-$25. (773) 878-8864;

Updated: January 9, 2014 11:19AM

During her senior year at Whitney Young High School, Alexus Williams took a creative writing class that offered an unsolicited challenge — write a play. Now as a freshman at Grinnell College, she looks back and admits she took on the assignment simply “to get a [good] grade in the class.”

Fast forward to January 2014, and Williams has accomplished much more than a simple grade. Her play “Senioritis” is one of three chosen for Pegasus Players annual Young Playwrights Festival, which also includes Lauren Trifunovich’s “The Diner” and Clare McKitterick’s “Fears for Fairy Tales.”

According to Pegasus artistic director Ilesa Duncan, the longtime goal of the festival, now in its 27th year, is “to promote the next generation of theater artists and provide real-life production experience to Chicago youth as emerging writers for the stage.”

The playwriting process begins in the classroom and is guided by teachers. It gives teens an outlet for their distinctive voice; a way to express what is on their minds. The winning students receive $500, a full month-long production of their scripts, and a professional playwriting mentor to work with them during pre-production.

More than 500 entries were submitted for this year’s festival; theatre professionals who volunteer their time do the initial assessment and evaluations. After three rounds, a final 20 plays are selected out of which three are chosen.

“The judges had a tough time, because so many of the scripts were great,” Duncan says. “In the end, the themes, character development and play structure of these three plays impressed them. Each explores in some way how things aren’t always what they appear to be.”

Williams says a school trip to see the student plays at the 2013 festival ignited her imagination. “Those plays were really inspiring,” Williams, 19, recalls. “I typed the idea for my play into my phone on the bus ride home.”

“Senioritis” follows a 17-year-old fashionista who gets tricked into spending time with her grandfather and his cronies at a nursing home. Along the way, she learns about herself and the false nature of appearances.

McKitterick, a 17-year-old senior at Lane Tech High School, had written short stories but never a play. “Fears for Fairy Tales” is a comedy about five misunderstood fairy tale characters who reluctantly participate in group therapy. She discovered it’s “difficult trying to tell a story through dialogue and stage directions.” But she found she liked “being focused and putting a lot of effort into the play.”

Writing has long been an outlet for 18-year-old Trifunovich, a senior at Lincoln Park High School. When it came to the new challenge of playwriting she says, “I just sat down and started writing.”

In “The Diner,” set in 1960s small-town America, a woman has left Chicago and relocated so her family can help raise her daughter. She’s closing up at Frank’s Diner when a mysterious man appears seeking refuge from the cold and rain.

Trifunovich says the entire Young Playwrights experience, from beginning to end, has been “amazing and crazy.”

“Seeing people so passionate about acting and reading my words is something I’ve never experienced before,” Trifunovich says. “I can’t put into words how excited I am to see my play on stage in front of an audience.”

Duncan, who has worked with the festival for many years, never tires of seeing the students transform into young playwrights.

“I continue to be inspired when I see that light, that shift in the students from the first reading to the first rehearsal to the first performance of their work,” Duncan says. “It’s important because so many of them tell us how life-changing the experience is for them.”

A character in a previous winning play complained, “Nobody listens to me,” she adds. “This is the cry of many teens. Pegasus wants to keep the Young Playwright’s Festival alive because we want to make sure someone is listening.”

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