As today's teens go, Todd is no different than the majority of his peers. He's a smart, curious, caring young guy with a decent home life—except maybe for the seedy pal who relentlessly cultivates Todd's pesky wild side. “It's not stealing; it's lifting,” Henry growls about his plot to score the latest techno gadget from the boys' workplace. The rub is that this time, Todd's a willing recruit, and the upshot nearly tears his family apart.
That skeletal summary of Annie Weisman Macomber's Lifted might seem off point for a story about Deborah Salzer's decision to shift gears at The Playwrights Project, which she created to promote literacy in the schools through writing and storycraft. But in truth, the kids in Todd and Henry's age group are some of the Project's top clients. And their real-life obstacles weigh in Salzer's choice to relinquish the Project's executive directorship on the eve of her Plays by Young Writers festival.
“I'm taking more of a mentoring role now,” Salzer explained in naming artistic director Maria Glanz and managing director Cecelia Kouma as her successors. “A couple years ago, I realized that the kinds of challenges that were coming up… could best be met by someone with more energy and maybe somebody younger and a little bit more hip in terms of teenagers.”
That's a courageous acknowledgment from an equally industrious figure, who since the Project's 1985 founding increased its annual budget nearly 4,000 percent from the original $13,000. Salzer, 66 and an educator for 40 years, has mentored hundreds of kids through the Project's school programs, which target grades 3 to 12. Plays by Young Writers, her group's signature event the past 22 seasons, features productions of winning scripts from the annual California Young Playwrights Contest; participants are under 19 years old, and past winners include the widely recognized Karen Hartman (Gum) and Jim Knable (Spain).
Behind it all, Salzer explained, lies a concept called authentic learning. She noted the quiet triumphs—skyrocketing test grades, exponential boosts in confidence—that this idea yields. “There's a safety factor,” she said, “in bringing what's familiar in your life to a fictional character. The emphasis is on taking risks, being able to use tactics to get what you want. The language that fits the character reveals that character.”
Weisman Macomber concurs. “In my opinion,” she wrote in the program notes for Lifted, “stories are our real teachers. Lectures lecture and sermons sermonize, but stories draw us in, move us and change us.”
She also walks the talk. As it turns out, Salzer commissioned her to write Lifted, one of the Project pieces that toured area middle and high schools last fall. Not only that: Weisman Macomber's a Project alum. The Del Mar native and Torrey Pines High grad won the writing competition in 1992 and has gone on to some success as an L.A.-based playwright and TV scribe. You might have even seen her Hold Please at The Old Globe Theatre last spring—it's about four secretaries' takes on corporate shenanigans, and the writing's as authentic as you please. Salzer had a vital hand in that, and her new role sets the stage for more of the same. Plays by Young Writers, a festival of winning scripts from the annual California Young Playwrights Contest, runs Jan. 31 to Feb. 10 at The Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $9-$50. 619-544-1000 or 619-239-8222. www.playwrightsproject.org.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.