I was thrilled to learn that the 2012/13 season for Creative Stages Youth Theatre will include the return of “Signs of Sara,” a work by artistic director Jim Gradillas and Michelle Marie that tackles the topic of teen depression. Considering how frequently teen depression occurs, it’s remarkably absent from public discourse these days. “Signs of Sara” imagines Sara’s journey into depression and her attempts to escape it — with an imaginative “pit of depression” set.
Gradillas says he’s written some 30+ plays, and recalls that “Life as Joby” (about the mind of a young alcoholic) was produced first — back in 1994. Gradillas recalls going to Northern Arizona University “to be an actor,” but did more teaching than performing after returning to the Valley. Gradillas recalls getting his start at a youth theater in Mesa. “I began writing,” he adds, “because I saw that there weren’t lots of strong parts for kids.”
Gradillas also recalls writing summer camp productions for a local youth theater, and wanted all 60 or so kids to “have decent part instead of being just a tree or a rock.” He’s especially fond of fairy tales, because they’re so character driven. Often he starts with an existing story, adapting it to make it his own. “I try to find characters I’d want to play,” says Gradillas.
The playwright says he’s especially proud of the “Snow White” and”Cinderella” adaptations he’s written — and shares that CSYT’s 2012/13 season will include his own adaptations of “Road to Oz” (from the book by L. Frank Baum) and “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (from the Washington Irving tale).
Though he’s written mostly comedy, Gradillas says he “looks forward to writing more dramas” like this season’s “The Color of Me” created with writing partner Michelle Marie. The pair will co-direct Marie’s “In There Somewhere” for CSYT’s 2012/13 season. The play follows the life of Lily as “she confronts herself and her past confronts her.”
Gradillas also enjoys helping young playwrights develop their work. The “3rd Annual 10 Minute Play Fest” takes place at Creative Stages March 1 and 2, 2013. Participating students “get a chance to write and direct their own mini-plays” — with best of show awards announced at the close of day two.
When an out-of-state theater company performed “Signs of Sara,” says Gradillas, “they didn’t understand my script.” Seems their ensemble “had different words plastered to their bodies” in lieu of using the “pit” concept Gradillas felt was pivotal to the piece. Hence his preference for directing his own work.
The playwriting day starts at about 3am for Gradillas, who says that’s the only way he can carve two to three hours out of busy days. When ideas come during non-writing hours, Gradillas “jots them down or says them into a phone.” Once he’s outlined the sequence of a play, Gradillas works on character development. “I want all of the characters and roles to be well developed,” he says.
Gradillas says he’s always dreamed of doing “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — a book he recalls reading during 4th grade (he read the whole “Chronicles of Narnia” series as a child). He’d also love to adapt the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
“I try to read a lot of youth theater plays,” says Gradillas, “but I’m picky about them.” His favorites include Susan Zeder’s “Wiley And The Hairy Man” and “The Emerald Circle” by Max Bush. “I’d love to do Dr. Seuss if it wasn’t restricted,” says Gradillas. Also “Sendak and Silverstein.”
His advice for young playwrights is simple. “Write something every day, even if it’s just jotting down or typing out ideas and characters.” And remember his trick of saying ideas and dialogue into the phone (assuming your phone records such things). “The easy part is dialogue for me,” says Gradillas. “The hard part for me is explaining in direction what happens at each point.” He readily admits to “not having detailed stage direction” for his works, since he’s the once who usually produces them.
Folks who want to see Creative Stages Youth Theatre in action can enjoy the musical “Happy Days” featuring music and lyrics by Paul Williams with book by Garry Marshall through May 19. CSYT’s 2012/13 offerings not noted above include “Santa Claus! The Play,” “Beauty and the Beast: A New Original Adaptation,” “Corney and Bright: The Super Psychedelic Sixties Spectacular” and a trio of musicals yet to be announced. Stay tuned.
Note: Click here for information on CSYT summer theater camps, and here for information on a Washington, D.C. production of “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.” Click here to learn more about MIKID (a local resource for families whose children or teens are living with mental illness) and here to learn more about Teen Lifeline (a local suicide prevention resource).
Coming up: Theater toolbox tackles bigotry, Spotlight on women playwrights, Let it “Rain”