Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 2003

We may try to protect our children, but they’re as affected by the daily news as the rest of us. Witness this year’s winners of the 19th annual statewide Plays by Young Writers competition, all of whom hail from San Diego.

One play (“Forty Miles from Tel Aviv,” by 18 year-old Brandon Alter) is about a Palestinian suicide bomber. Another (“How They See It,” by 16 year-old Tyler Moselle of University City High School) concerns second and third graders trying to make sense of the disappearance of a classmate.

This comes as no surprise to Playwrights Project executive director Deborah Salzer. “Through our productions and in-school programs,” she says, “we open the door to examining the world onstage. Often, it’s world events, however, that plant the seed that blossoms into a script. We can open the door, but the imagination is fed by events whirling around these students — locally and globally.”

Even in the younger division, current events — both local and global — are on the minds of student-writers. “Kidnapped!” by 13 year-old Mikaela Aziz, from Bonita Vista Middle School, is a media satire that scrutinizes truth in broadcasting. “Not Enough Time,” by 11 year-old Tanner Dufford of Pacific View Elementary School in Encinitas, is about a father who is too busy working to spend time with his son.

Although his play takes place in the West Bank, Brandon Alter, a native San Diegan, maintains that it isn’t political. “It was written mainly from an emotional, versus a political or historical standpoint,” says the articulate freshman at the University of Judaism in L.A. “The idea of a suicide bomber was intriguing to me. I kept thinking about this very interesting moment — just before going off to perform this act.”

In the one-act play, a loving couple is having a conversation. The man unexpectedly has a day off from work, and his wife suggests they go out to enjoy the newfound time together. Suddenly, he gets a call and prepares for an act of violence.

“These are likable, admirable people,” says Salzer. “His involvement in violence surprises his wife and us. The play has a lyrical, poetic tone, with a spiritual repetition and rhythm to the dialogue. Brandon, who’s Jewish, says he had prayer in mind. One of our Palestinian consultants was reminded of an Islamic ballad.”

“We’ve been fed so much information in the news,” Alter explains. “We often look at the suicide bomber as a stereotype. I wanted to give him humanity, to get out of the black-and-white, good-and-evil mode. I wanted to give him a reason and a voice. He’s not fanatical or illogical. His greatest motive is hopelessness; this is the last possible thing he can do to make a statement heard. I tried to be respectful. I was just going on my own artistic whim.”

Once the play was chosen as a winner (out of 282 statewide submissions), the Playwrights Project solicited input from the community, including two members of a Palestinian/Jewish group that has been meeting to explore peace for several years, and a political scientist at SDSU, recommended by the campus Lipinsky Institute for Jewish Studies.

“This is phenomenal,” says Alter, who has a long history with the Playwrights Project. In 1983, at age 8, and again at age 10, he performed in a Young Playwrights production. “I’ve never been on this side of the curtain, with all these intelligent, passionate people. It’s really thrilling to see characters I created come to life. I don’t know how to express the wonder.”

Though he’d written backyard scenes, “mini-scripts” and “vignettes” for his Rancho Santa Fe family since he was 7 or 8 years old, and he did some creative writing at the Bishops School, the Idyllwild Arts Academy and during a summer musical theater workshop at Carnegie Mellon University, this is Alter’s first fully realized play.    

“I want to stir up discussion,” the young playwright admits. “The last thing I want is to knowingly offend anyone. I think the most important thing is for the audience to get a different perspective, to be able to empathize with a character they’re hesitant to get to know. To come away with a different understanding of the situation.”

[The 19th annual Plays by Young Writers 2003 will be performed at the Bishops School in La Jolla Nov. 21-23 and at the Lyceum in Horton Plaza Dec. 4-6; 619-239-8222; ].

©2003 Patté Productions Inc.