By Susan Goracke
In 2012, Vibrant Village Foundation awarded PlayWrite Inc.
of Portland a $10,000 grant
to fund several of its workshops. This feature story describes the important work PlayWrite does and the positive impact it has on the young people it serves.
At 27, Maxwell Faulk already is a veteran playwright, poet and stand-up comic. He’s also a Portland Community College honor student with a 4.0 grade point average and a dream to work for either Oregon Public Broadcasting or Saturday Night Live. For now, he’s hoping to earn a scholarship to attend Lewis & Clark or another local four-year college in the fall.
Faulk co-wrote his most recent play, “I Voted for Obama,” in the style of Theater of the Oppressed. The play invites audience members to interact with actors as they explore overt and subtle issues of racism that affect African-American students today.
“The title came from the idea that a lot of people in America think that since we now have an African-American president, racism is something that existed in the past,” Faulk says. In fact, he adds, each of the racist interactions depicted in the play actually happened to black students.
“I Voted for Obama” was presented a half-dozen times in front of several hundred PCC students during February, as part of the PCC Women’s Resource Center’s Illuminations Project.
While the play gave Faulk a chance to stretch his playwriting skills, it was writing his first play, “A Rock and a Hard Place,” in 2005 that became a life-changing experience. Faulk was 19 and had been living on his own for three years, preferring to spend nights couch-surfing at friends’ homes rather than live with his own dysfunctional family.
“Both my parents were drug addicts. My father was an alcoholic, and both were abusive,” Faulk explains matter-of-factly. “I was 16 when my parents divorced and my father moved out. My older brother turned our home into a meth den. That’s when I moved out of the house.”
Faulk was working toward his diploma at Portland Night School in the basement of Grant High School when he got the chance to participate in a program called PlayWrite, which was offering playwriting workshops for teens living “on the edge.”
“I’ve always considered myself a writer,” he says. “From the time I was in grade school, I always got positive responses from writing.”
But the PlayWrite Program turned out to be more than just putting pen to paper and coming up with an interesting story. It required Faulk and other students to work one-on-one with specially trained theater professionals who helped them examine their own deep and gut-wrenching insecurities in order to develop their play’s non-human characters that interact with each other like humans.
“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” featured a 15,000-year-old boulder named Roland and a manatee named Hugo.
“They’re on their way someplace on a shoreline, and they begin to share their secret issues with each other,” Faulk explains. “Hugo had struggled with weight issues. He was suicidal and was afraid. Roland was afraid of success.” Faulk describes the play he came up with as funny, but sad. At the end, the two characters reach a resolution and decide to join each other on their journey.
Once it was written, Faulk’s play, along with other workshop participants’ efforts, were performed before a live audience with professional actors playing the parts.
“I put a lot of my own fears and flaws into those two characters,” Faulk remembers. “Before PlayWrite, I had never been in a place where those levels of truth were required of me — or even encouraged. It was almost like therapy. Because of my upbringing, I had gotten really good at protecting myself, not letting other people see the real me. Having these two characters on stage talking about my issues felt really good. It was illuminating.”
Article about Maxwell's play featured in the Oregonian in 2005
Helping teens successfully cope with the tough life they’ve been dealt is among PlayWrite Inc.’s goals. Executive Director Bruce Livingston helped start the nonprofit group back in 2003. The Haven Project, who Livingston worked for at the time, contracted with a theater professional to bring his framework to Portland, from which the PlayWrite model later emerged.
“We deal with kids who have been bullied, ostracized or who have economic insecurity,” Livingston says, adding that some are homeless and some have mental illness. “These are kids at the edge. They’re not part of the mainstream.”
A third of the 600 teens PlayWrite works with over the past 10 years have been in locked treatment facilities. Physically and emotionally abused, they have committed crimes that got them into trouble with the law. Some teens have been severely sexually abused and are either pregnant or already have had children. This year PlayWrite will work with approximately 75 youth for the first time and another 12-15 who will be involved in follow-on programming, like the Tuesday Writers Group of which Maxwell is a member.
“We believe that through the process of creating dramatic art, of creating a narrative, it changes the way their brains are wired,” says Livingston, who points to research done on people who spend time writing about emotionally significant incidents in their lives. “People who have experienced trauma usually have a difficult time creating a narrative about that trauma. We think that the process of doing the writing in the workshop helps these teens unscramble events and reassemble them into a narrative so that they can begin to heal.”
To graduate from a workshop, teens must commit to spending 30 hours with a writing coach to produce an original play. The work is often emotionally draining, but in many cases, has become a turning point in the lives of these young people.
In 2011-12, a research project was designed and carried out by three scientists at the University of Oregon and OHSU: Rosemary Bernstein, Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon, Jennifer Ablow, PhD., Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, and Joel Nigg, PhD., Director, Division of Psychology and Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Behavioral Neuroscience at OHSU. The study showed that PlayWrite workshop graduates improved their ability to manage anger and were less hyperactive.
Livingston considers Maxwell Faulk to be among a number of PlayWrite “success stories.”
After graduating from PlayWrite’s workshop eight years ago, Faulk has continued to attend weekly PlayWrite writing workshops and is a member of the organization’s graduate council. He enjoys doing stand-up comedy and his poetry has been published in several literary magazines. Today, Faulk describes himself as “funny, intelligent and capable.”
“I want to positively impact the planet while I’m here,” Faulk says.