Playwright Pearl Cleage helps teens write, perform at Alliance Theatre

The students of the Alliance Theatre's Palefsky Collision Project, with playwright Pearl Cleage, director Patrick McColery, choreographer Lauri Stallings, and her dance company, Glo.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sara Keith

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sara Keith

The students of the Alliance Theatre's Palefsky Collision Project, with playwright Pearl Cleage, director Patrick McColery, choreographer Lauri Stallings, and her dance company, Glo.

For most teens, summer means carefree days full or rest and relaxation, but for the 20 theater students who are a part of the Alliance Theatre's 15th annual Palefsky Collision Project, three weeks of their summer is all about hard work.

Each summer, the project for teens assembles a diverse group of high school students to work with a playwright. They create their own production based on themes found in a classic work.

This year, the students studied Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" to explore themes of sustainability and the human impact on the planet.

Best-selling author and playwright Pearl Cleage and director Patrick McColery provide guidance for this year's production. This is the sixth year Cleage, who is also the Alliance Theatre's Mellon playwright in residence, and McColery have worked with the project.

"[The project] is meant to be this thing that they can go through and have all these different experiences and write about them to the best of their ability," McColery said. "They've participated in workshops. They went to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights together. They went to the High Museum and got a tour with their teen docent team. ... We took them on a short hike ... to get them in touch with and to focus their observation on the smallest things around them."

Cleage gave a brief synopsis of Whitman's poem and explained the process she uses to help students develop the content for the production.

"It's a really, really long poem that he started in 1855, and then he worked on it his whole life. It's really about him seeing the wonder of the world in a single blade of grass," Cleage said. "Whiteman talks about the natural world and about people as a part of the natural world — how they can get along with each other and interact with each other."

Each day, Cleage gives the participants a writing prompt. She collects what they write. At the end of the two weeks, she said, "I sift through it and see where the things fit together and put it together in a script.

"What I do is see what the flow of their ideas are and let them present as themselves because we don't create characters. When they do it, it's them speaking as themselves," she said.

McColery calls what Cleage does "extraordinary. We're so lucky to have her on this project."

McColery said Cleage reads everything the students write and then pieces it together.

"[It's] masterfully woven by Ms. Cleage," he said.

Susanna Atkinson, a rising senior at Atlanta International School, said her experience with the Alliance Theatre project has helped her in many ways.

"It's helped me a lot as an artist; it's helped me figure out what I want to do. But also as a person, it's allowed me to think about things in a new way. It's really changed my perspective. Before I started this, I thought that if I were to do theater I would be an actress. But this has kind of made me like writing and being behind the scenes," she said.

Anthony Campbell said participating in the project "has truly been a life-changing experience."

"It's like no other workshop or youth group I've ever been in," he said. "It molds you not only as an artist, but also as a human individual. It really does change your life.

"As our stage manager said, 'The whole goal is to foster 20 kids that will change the world and the future.' I take that personally, and I hold that close to my heart. That encourages me and motivates me to have a voice and be active in the community."

The students will give free performances of the play they create at the end of the project. The shows will be 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 29, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30, on the Hertz stage at the Alliance Theatre.

Does your kid want to be an actor? Check out these Atlanta resources for parents of budding stars.