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Well-known playwright visits North students

POSTED: October 15, 2013 12:40 a.m.
Crystal Ledford/

Playwright Don Zolidis talks with North Forsyth High School students during a recent workshop at the school.

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When reading lines or trying on costumes for a stage production, young thespians likely don’t think too much about the person who wrote the script they’re performing.

But that was definitely not the case last weekend at North Forsyth High School.

Students in the school’s drama department were invited to attend a workshop led by the playwright who penned their Oct. 4 and 5 main stage production of “The Hamlet Thrill-ma-Geddon.”

Don Zolidis — a playwright from Austin, Texas, who has had 54 plays published, many of which are geared toward teenagers — made his visit to the school on the morning of Oct. 5 to lead a workshop with the high-schoolers.

He also conducted a later workshop with students from North’s feeder schools — North, Liberty and Little Mill middle schools — before catching the high school’s production of his play Saturday afternoon.

Rayne Crivelli, a junior at North, said she learned a lot from the Zolidis’ visit.  

“I was really interested in what he had to say because I know he’s a very famous playwright and I’m very interested in the theater arts,” she said.

As part of the workshop, the students got to chat with Zolidis about his career path and art of writing plays.

“He freely answered any questions the kids had,” said Mary Hayes Ernst, the drama instructor at North. “He had some great ideas for them about how to start playwriting workshops and clubs. I think the kids walked away with a lot of real-world knowledge that I couldn’t have given them any other way.”

They also got to conduct a reading of one of the Zolidis’ plays titled “The Staggering Heartbreak of Jasmine Merriwether.”

Crivella read for the show’s lead character.

“The play that he picked was the perfect role for me and it was fun to get to read through it and see his reactions to how we were all playing the characters since he wrote it,” she said.

“It was funny because I didn’t play [the character] at all the way he said he had in mind for her to act … but it was a comedy and everyone still laughed.”

Crivelli’s classmate, Hannah Manikowski, said she plans to pursue a bachelor’s of fine arts in acting when she goes to college, so meeting a professional from the theater world was a great opportunity.

“It’s really refreshing to see that there are people who can make a living in some aspect of theater,” she said.

She added that Zolidis’ personality made him easy to talk to and learn from.

“A highlight was just how relatable and down-to-earth he was,” she said. “He was just a real person who we could talk to and who was interested in hearing from us and seeing our show and receiving our feedback. He offered us validation, which was really nice.”

The visit was part of a two-week trip Zolidis undertook, traveling to different schools across the Southeast with students who are producing his plays.

Ernst, the North drama instructor, said Zolidis contacted her about the visit after learning the school had paid royalties to perform “Thrill-ma-Geddon.”

“He emailed me and said, ‘Hey, I see you’re doing my show and I’m doing a tour of some workshops … and I would really love to see the show and do a workshop with your kids,’” Ernst said. “I just thought it was a great opportunity.

“I mean, how often does the playwright contact you and say he’d love to see your production?”

Zolidis said the stop at North was one of 11 over the two weeks. He decided to take the trip this year after beginning work full time as a writer. In years past, he had been a college instructor as well as an author.

“Schools would ask me to come in, but I had no time to do it,” he said. “This year, since I’m not teaching anymore, I reached out and had a lot of schools in the South particularly write me back and say they would love to have me come, but they didn’t have enough money to fly me in and put me up in a hotel.

“So I came up with the idea of a road trip where I would go from place to place and school to school, that way it wouldn’t cost quite so much for the schools and it’s a fun thing for me.”

He said he made stops in Austin and Houston, Texas, before traveling east to Baton Rouge, La., Jackson, Miss., Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., and Atlanta. Other stops were also planned for schools in North Carolina, Tennessee and Missouri.

The local stop meant a lot Zolidis as it was the first time he had seen “The Hamlet Thrill-ma-Geddon” performed.

“It was really exciting for me to see something that I’d written but never actually seen performed before … because I like to see how schools interpret the shows and how they’re received by an audience,” he said.

Ernst said the playwright gave the production a big thumbs-up afterward.

“He said I had a good sense of what he was going for and that made me feel good as a director,” she said, adding that the playwright also enjoyed some of the liberties the students took with the script.

“In a comedy like this, the kids are going to come up with things they think are funny and they’ll riff off the material. He really loved some of the things the kids had improvised and inserted, and said he would like to add some of those things in [the script] for future productions at other schools.”

Ernst said she was grateful Zolidis visited.

“It was one of those sorts of magical things that just kind of happened almost overnight,” she said. “I was just really grateful as an educator to be able to bring this person into the classroom and give the students this opportunity to connect with someone who really is out there doing this for a living.”

 

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