Dwight/Edgewood Project Makes Theater Magic

Lucy Gellman | June 28th, 2023

Dwight/Edgewood Project Makes Theater Magic

Dwight/Edgewood Project  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  Yale Cabaret  |  Yale School of Drama  |  Barnard Environmental Science & Technology School

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comfort ifeoma katchy (in antlers) and Ida Cuttler in Zhanée Goins' The Prank. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Jack hates clowns, but has to learn to trust one to get to another dimension. Princess Zahara thinks she’s got everything under control, until she has to slay a monster and falls in love with a prince disguised as a peasant. Beatrice the Bunny just wants to prank her friend Daphne the Deer one last time, with no idea what she’s about to encounter in a drafty, dark old woodshed. 

No one questions these alternate universes, these improbable friendships, the explosion of play that runs through every plot twist and turn of phrase. Which is the point.  

It’s all par for the course—and then some—at the Dwight/Edgewood Project, held earlier this month at the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park St. A collaboration between the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale (DGSD) and Barnard Environmental Studies & Technology Magnet School, the project pairs DGSD graduate students with Barnard fifth through seventh graders to write, rehearse, stage, and fully produce short plays. 

This year, eight students from Barnard participated, working with an artistic team of almost two dozen grad students. They include Ny’Asia Cloud, Naomi Forbes, Zhanée Goins, Ramaya Lewin, Isaac Oliver, Joshua Togbah, Ahmed Turay, and Ky’Moni White. In the process, they produced one of the best and most honest performances Yale has mounted all year.

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Top: Barnard sixth grader Isaac Oliver, fourth year playwriting student Danielle Stagger, and Barnard sixth grader Ahmed Turay. Bottom: Zhanée Goins and Ida Cuttler during tech week earlier this month. 

“It’s been a process, and they’re all rockstars,” said Emalie Mayo, who has coordinated the project since 2014. “For four weeks, they’re basically building their playwright’s toolbox. Then we jump into tech rehearsals … it’s one play at a time, one playwright at a time.”  

This year, that has taken many different forms, including a dark and edgy kind of magic that bloomed into fantasy, romance, interdimensional truth-telling, and unexpected animal parenthood before the project’s culminating performances. For the first time since 2019, the group was also able to return to one of its pre-pandemic rituals: a writing retreat in nature, during which scripts get hammered out. 

In the years before Covid-19, students and staff visited a sleep-away camp for a full weekend. When it returned last year, Yale’s Covid policies made it impossible to travel at all. This year, the group traveled to Killam's Point, a conference center in Branford, over two days in early June. 

For many of the students, it has been a transformative month. Zhanée, a sixth grader at Barnard, said the project was a chance to think about everything that could go wrong—and right—with a good prank and two friends who have seen each other through thick and thin. Originally, she was inspired by a friend from Barnard, with whom she’s dreamed of going on a summer trip.  

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From left to right: playwright and teaching artist a.k. payne, fourth year playwriting student Danielle Stagger, and comfort ifeoma katchy. katchy mentored Isaac Oliver.

“So basically it’s two best friends and they go on a summer vacation, and there’s a prank that goes too far,” she said on a recent Wednesday, sitting in the Cabaret’s courtyard with her peers as tech rehearsals ran in the theater below. When she heard about the Dwight/Edgewood Project from DGSD students who visited her school earlier this year, she knew she wanted to try it out. As she wrote, she folded poetry that she was learning in class into the script, experimenting with form and wording.  

“I don’t know! I just wanted to do it,” she said, adding that she now wants to be a director when she gets older. “I was excited to do it. I feel happy.”

“It’s been really fun,” chimed in DGSD student Ida Cuttler, Zhanée’s mentor on the project. “We’re having a great time. I feel like it’s been really cool to follow their [students’] creativity and the way that the stories are told.”  

In the finished script, friends Beatrice (Cuttler) and Daphne (comfort ifeoma katchy) take a weekend in the countryside, at a quaint cottage with a creepy woodshed. This seems like the last trip they’ll take together for some time: Daphne is an avid knitter and aspiring fashion designer (she’s also a deer, because whoever said a deer could not go into high fashion was not in the sixth grade) and Beatrice, who is a bunny, wants to be a travel nurse.  

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Top: Production Stage Manager Hannah Louise Jones during tech week. Bottom: comfort ifeoma katchy (in antlers) and Ida Cuttler in Zhanée Goins' The Prank.   

Ever the prankster, Beatrice slips into the woodshed, hiding a tape of fearsome bear sounds that can play to give Daphne one final, fearsome surprise before the two go their separate ways. But when they hear a collection of sounds that they don’t recognize, it turns into an expedition that tests the bonds of their friendship—and ends in the care of a furry and wide-eyed abandoned bear cub that Beatrice adopts on the spot.

As she wrote, Zhanée thought decades into the future: Beatrice and Daphne are both in their early 20s, with career goals that don’t feel so wild or far-fetched at all. Their discovery of a bear cub, their acute and then dissipating fear—that’s the thing that makes it sweet and dystopic all at once. Meanwhile, the trust they must have in each other doesn’t feel so far from New Haven at all.   

For many of the students, their scripts also became places where they could work through—and imagine beyond—an education still touched by the social and emotional impacts of Covid-19 and remote learning. In 2021, New Haven was one of the last school districts in the state to return to in-person learning, a decision that has since shown up in higher chronic absenteeism, more reported behavioral health issues, and low math and reading scores that the district is now scrambling to repair.  

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Esperanza Rosales as Princess Zahara in Naomi Forbes' Forbidden Love Story.

In several scripts, that carried over to the stage in small and large ways, from a king’s admission of his own depression to a dimension where breathing is just a little bit easier. It was in the spontaneity and surprise of touch—and a kingdom dedicated entirely to technology—in Forbidden Love Story, written by Barnard seventh grader Naomi Forbes. 

It was in the need to build a graveyard for the dead fish populating Jackie’s Circus, and the delicacy of trust in The Prank. During the project’s final performance of Ny’Asia Cloud’s Under Your Heart, it was also in the humor, mess and normalcy of teenage love triangles, which appear to have outlasted the pandemic.      

As tech week barreled toward opening night earlier this month, it was also in the excitement that buzzed and hummed through the theater, from its intimate black box to an outdoor courtyard where students snacked on fruit and cookies in the afternoon heat. As she bounced around the space, fifth grader Ky’Moni White said she couldn’t wait to see her show, Leah and Sunny’s Power, brought to life. 

The play, inspired by dolphins she saw on a family trip to Florida (“they’re just so cute!” she exclaimed), tells the story of a mother (Ida Cuttler) and daughter (Giovanna Drummond) dolphin who are separated after a difference of opinion, and have to find their way back to each other. 

“It’s so fun to write a play!” she said, beaming as fifth grader Ny’Asia Cloud sat down next to her to listen. “You have different characters, props, costumes—” she paused dramatically— “And most of all, sound effects!” 

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Top: Ky'Moni White. Bottom: Giovanna Drummond (in clown suit).  

Inside the Cabaret’s black box theater, her enthusiasm carried over to tech for Jackie’s Circus, written by Joshua Togbah and directed by Rebecca Flemister. On stage, the circus was in full swing—and a young, anxious Jack (Hannah Gellman, who was also Joshua’s mentor) was just about ready to burn it all down, so uncomfortable he was squirming in place. From somewhere over the stage, a crowd roared, and a clown (Drummond) entered, smiling from ear to ear. 

“Lights 116 to 373, go,” whispered production stage manager Hannah Jones into her headset. As if a spell had been cast, the lights shifted overhead, and the show rolled forward.

Within moments, Gellman and Drummond were beneath a glowing blue spotlight, about to be teleported to another dimension. Joshua, seated next to Jones, looked on approvingly. In the world of the show, it didn’t seem strange at all.     

At some point, Ky’Moni settled in the back row, nearly vibrating with excitement as she watched it all unfold. When Omid Akbari’s projections changed on the screen, transporting the audience from a circus tent to the depths of the ocean, she sat up straight in her chair to make sure she didn’t miss a thing. When aquatic sound cues bubbled over the system, she let them take her far under the sea. With the crew’s blessing, she ultimately stayed as actors cycled out, and Naomi’s Forbidden Love Story came to life. 

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Malik James in Forbidden Love Story.

Upstairs, students drifted in and out of a second-floor classroom, working on their bios before they went to print. Inside the theater, it felt like another universe entirely, where actors Esperanza Rosales and Malik James were no longer themselves, but royalty on the cusp of a great and unexpected adventure. 

As a deep, buttery voiceover (props to sound designer Xi Lin) introduced a world upturned by three walled kingdoms, Naomi watched wide-eyed from the back of the theater, taking in every detail. On stage, Princess Zahara (Rosales, who was also her mentor) and Prince Alexander (James, disguised as a peasant because why not) met by chance, as Zahara drew her sword at the sight of a monster who had killed her friend. When Alexander helped her vanquish the beast, she looked at him as if he had appeared out of thin air. 

“What just happened?” Rosales asked aloud, and it was enough to draw a few giggles from the back of the theater.  "What is this feeling?!"

As the two circled each other on the stage, hatching a plan to save two kingdoms, they drew out Naomi’s sense of humor (“Saved you?! I thought you didn’t need help!” Alexander near-crooned at one point, with just enough deadpan) and a knack for world-building beyond her years. Every so often during tech rehearsal, she called out to the actors, as if she was reaching for something in that universe, rather than this one.    

“I always wanted to make a play,” she said three days later, as the show opened to a full house. As Zahara and Alexander took the stage ready to slay dragons, uncover duplicitous stepparents, and fall in love, her dream became reality.

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Top: Samanta Cubias, producing director for this year's Dwight/Edgewood Project. Bottom: Esperanza Rosales and Grayson Richmond in Under Your Heart, by fifth grader Ny'Asia Cloud and directed by Doaa Ouf. 

For both Mayo and Producing Director Samanta Cubias, that’s part of the hope for the program, which has run for nearly three decades. For them, Dwight/Edgewood is a place where no vision is too weird, too juvenile, too out-of-the-box to execute. Instead, students’ words often remind the grown ups in the room why they fell in love with theater in the first place.  

“We’ve put so much care and intention toward creating a place of respect," Cubias said during tech rehearsals, praising students as they got to opening night. She remembered the joy she felt watching Joshua see the teleportation sequence (props to lighting designer Colleen Rooney), done in red and blue light, for the first time. “We’re showing up for production staff, actors and designers as much as playwrights.”