July 9, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Wielding the Parlance of the Tween

So for the month of July I’m living in a little house with four high school-age girls I’ve never met before. Between the ages of 13 and 15. Seriously. There are cosmetics and “hair product” containers bunched on every bathroom surface. (how can the young and beautiful find a use for so many little jars of goo?). Training bras of bright hues hang on the shower heads. It’s a jungle of girlness in endless shades of pink.

I’m at Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite Connecticut boarding school, working in the Summer Arts Conservatory for young drama enthusiasts. My assigned tasks: to conduct a five-week playwriting independent study with a truly charming and sensitive 14-year-old boy for whom negotiation of suddenly (and wildly) elongated limbs is its own part-time job; and writing an original play for 22 tweens to perform. Writing a play in a month for such a specific (and inherently critical!) group is a harried, lightening-speed process, and I am daunted by the stress of producing on demand, but it is good practice and, as the fortune cookie says, “Life for you is a dashing bold adventure.” How true, how true.

What is interesting is this flock of fascinating, shiny young creatures. I admit I am frightened by them, especially when they congregate; but I am also aware of their impending irreversible transformation. These creatures are steeped in a rare and fleeting joint of time that evaporates almost as quickly as it condenses; the irreverent jolts and starts of every new hormone-injected experience will soon be smoothed by age. And although I sense they each feel achingly different, they are moving through that joint of time together. What a remarkable thing to witness. I am riveted by their strange organism-like behavior.

Which means I stare at them a lot (I am sure this makes them terribly uncomfortable) and listen very carefully. And, of course, take notes, which they think is particularly freakish, as I have a tendency to type what they’re saying while maintaining eye contact.

I am especially admiring of their dialect. When they speak they have this gorgeous natural musicality that straddles the “chirping” of children and the throwaway stop-and-start patter of young adults. But no matter how much I try to capture and retain the integrity of that musicality in the early pages of my developing play, the minute these kids have “lines” in front of them, they perform: their language becomes presentational, stilted, a wooden singsong that I expect they’ve been taught is “dramatic reading”.

I am constantly amazed at how hard it is just to speak the written word in one’s own voice. It is nearly impossible for the layperson. There is something about metabolizing printed words into verbal sounds that seems to transform them into a pile of wooden blocks, perfectly spaced, with perfectly sanded edges. The rules of grammar– stop at the period, angle your voice up when you see a question mark– gather a sudden tyranny, especially in young readers, who perhaps have learned these rules more recently. It can be frustrating for a writer of dialogue who’s trying to achieve “natural speech”, which is where I found myself early this week.

And yet– this woodenness, too, contains a certain rigid beauty, and will soon lose its intensity. Some of these kids will soon have a remarkable acuity with language, and those perfectly-sanded edges will be worn. They will move toward “natural” delivery. This in itself is a kind of studied artifice. So my question to myself is this: Can I USE the vinyl-covered, presentational quality with which they read, this particular blocky rhythm that is almost its own style, to inform the play I’m writing for them? Is there a story unique to their time of life that would be served by this sub-dialect? Or will I serve them better as budding theater artists if I write in a way that encourages them to reach toward their natural musicality?

As usual, I imagine the answer is to float for a while, to wade in what a writer friend of mine calls the “pea soup”, the uncertainty, and to try things, make choices. This is what we tell them to do. Throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

I’ll let you know what sticks.