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Young writers' stories take the spotlight

DESMET, Idaho -- Eight one-act plays by middle school students from the
Coeur d'Alene Tribal School recently sprang to life on several stages in
the Northwest when Hollywood actors read their works to rapt audiences.

The readings were offered at seven showings, including three on the Coeur
d'Alene Indian Reservation; two at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene,
Idaho; the University of Idaho in Moscow; and the Museum of American
Culture in Spokane, Wash.

"It was a tremendous experience," Artistic Director Tom Kellogg said. "I
believe it changed all of us."

The young playwrights and actors were brought together by Native Voices at
the Autry, a Los Angeles-based project that introduces new theatrical works
by American Indians. The Coeur d'Alene program, called "Me-ym-ym: She/he is
going to tell stories," was modeled after the Young Native American
Playwrights project produced by the Autry in conjunction with the Southern
California Indian Center. Aspiring young American Indian writers are
matched with professional Native actors who help students develop plays for
the stage.

The actors who participated are Thirza Defoe, Ojibwe/Oneida; Elena Finney,
Mescalero Apache/Tarascan; Princess Lucaj, Gwich'in Athabascan; Kalani
Queypo, Hawaiian/Blackfeet; Andrew Roa, Shasta/Aztec; and DeLanna Studi,
Cherokee.

This is the first time the Autry has taken its show on the road.

It was quite a leap from Los Angeles to the tiny community of DeSmet, with
a tribal school of about 60 students, in rural north Idaho.

Jeanne Givens, who works at the school and sits on the Native Voices
advisory board, agreed with Kellogg about the effort's positive outcome.

"This was one of the few things I know of that really impacted our
students," she said. "They were emotionally moved by telling their stories,
[which were] well crafted and polished and performed by professionals
before an appreciative audience."

The dramatic results were accomplished in two short weeks through intensive
writing workshops Kellogg developed to coax stories from the pens of young
people. They are advised to write from the heart about something important
to them, and each student is paired with a mentor who helps them understand
the basics of script development.

"On the first day we start with animal characters," Kellogg said.

The students are encouraged, through a series of exercises, to see the
world through the eyes of their characters. Then they develop a conflict or
crisis from them to resolve.

Sally Eames-Harlan was one of the mentors from the University of Idaho who
helped with "Me-ym-ym." She was struck by how the students, mostly shy and
a bit withdrawn at first, opened up and found their voices.

"It was an amazing process," the actress, who often performs in classical
Greek and Shakespearean plays, said. "I was so proud of the students. Each
one had something they wanted to say."

She worked with 13-year-old Rochelle Fountain, who wrote "Groovy, Kenneth
and Their Greatest Wishes." The play about a brother and sister teddy bear
reveals their greatest wish: that the family spend more time together.

The importance of family, loyalty and perseverance emerged often in the
stories.

In "Bunnies Ain't So Cute After All," Kersey Miller explores perceptions of
physical image against the backdrop of the strong tie between a brother and
sister bunny, one white, one black. The black bunny wants to be white so he
can pursue his dream of being a magician's bunny, so he asks his sister to
get him some hair dye, peroxide -- anything. The sister, not aware of his
professional plans, encourages him to be happy as he is. When she discovers
his dream, she is supportive.

The series of plays also includes "Why Her?" by Ronnie Goddard,
"Something's Missing" by Jay Peone, "Sneaky Sly" by Sophia George, "The
Mermaid and the Horse" by Shyrene Zacherle, "It's About Soul" by Armondo
Garcia and "Tricker Treat" by Patrick Thomas.

The wealth of new skills and possibilities grasped by the students makes
the project worth repeating, Kellogg said. He and his partner, Myra
Donnelley, would like to take the Young Native American Playwrights project
to more rural and urban American Indian communities. That entails
identifying museums, institutes and supporters that will welcome it.

The project only lives and breathes to the extent that the community itself
embraces it, Kellogg said. And the Coeur d'Alene area community embraced it
wholeheartedly, from local universities and Spokane's major museum, to the
tribal council, the staff of the Coeur d'Alene Tribal School, and others
who provided resources and support.

"This is an opportunity for us all to focus on our young people, and we get
to hear their stories," Kellogg said. "I want them to understand they can
write freely about anything in their lives and that they understand their
choices. I encourage them to continue to look into their lives, and look
for choices."