An Insider’s Peek at Playmaking
"Adventurous theater in Astoria"

-- The New York Times

An Insider’s Peek at Playmaking

Each year students from Horace Greeley Intermediate School (IS 10) participate in an after school program where they learn to write their own plays from Playmaking instructor Susan Willerman. These young playwrights then see their original works brought to life by professional actors and directors in a evening of staged readings. Each young playwright sees their work performed for the very first time while sitting in a big “Writer’s Chair” onstage. It’s great fun and inspiring to see these kids find a new way to express themselves creatively. Playwriting Assistant to Susan, Crystal Skillman shares with us a little bit of what’s been going on in the room! 


As a playwright getting to assist Susan teaching Playmaking to these extraordinary young students, I’m witness to what I can only describe as “magic in the room.”  I’m quite lucky that as I assist, I get to observe how these creations take place! And I’m lucky to share some of that with you today. Playmaking has a very cool, unique process that truly leads to organic dramatic storytelling, and most importantly to these unique young minds and souls expressing their feelings through imagination! In a way, the magic of playmaking is a wonderful dance between being on our feet, and writing.

Photo credit : Crystal Skillman

Photo credit : Crystal Skillman

Writing fun??! Oh yes! With Susan, each student learns not only how to create fun characters (an animal character, object character, nature character and then finally a human!) and capture their character ideas on the page in wonderful character profiles.

Imagine if you got to create in your head what animal you’d like to be – “to live with for a while”, as Susan would express. How would you wake up? Get your food? Where do you live? The students get to act this all out in the room.

While there are many steps to the process that are magical, one of the greatest is how Susan leads the students through stepping into the room as their character. There they answer questions from the other characters. The character of a diary is suddenly answering questions like “what is your happiest moment” or “do you have any family?” Each profile and each of these improvs digs deeper into the wishes, fears and secrets of their characters. When they enter to answer questions from the other characters – be they lightbulbs, birds, or leaves – as the students gain confidence, you can really feel their light, their feathers or how they begin to sway in the wind.

After these initial interviews, we continue being on our feet for improvising scenes that deepen the students relationships of their characters and teaches them how to build conflict in a scene, being strong about a character’s need and how to “raise the stakes.” In these, we also see strong choices being made and students growing confident to make those choices.

The improvs, which are designed from suggestions from the students, and carefully lead by Susan, really get us inspired! One improv this year saw a dying tree asking a a water lily, quite content with her water supply for help, a ghost of a solider’s best friend confronted him about leaving him behind, and lava seeking help, and a possible growing friendship, from a solitary rock. We see how through this experience, students may be using aspects of their own lives or feelings.


Photo credit : Crystal Skillman

Photo credit : Crystal Skillman

After these few weeks of discovery, including writing exercises where a writer imagines their character waking up and details their day, and improvs like “Clean up your room”, the students begin writing two character plays. Suddenly from a student’s imagination and heart a pitbull is able to express his fears to a solider, mentioned above, a young girl going off to the woods looking for food finds a sneaky baby panda with its own secret supply, or a turtle who seeks to protect their habitat!

In these photos featured here, Susan works with her Playmaking students as they begin to write. After creating character profiles, and learning the format of playwriting, as well as creating conflict by taking action in improvs, the students are beginning to write the first few pages of their new two character play.

Here they read with their partner. We listen and Susan leads us in constructive feedback where we express any feelings the scenes bring up in us the audience, and any possible confusion, that can be clarified or further explored.

But for the real magic? Over twelve sessions these seven students will emerge with a finishing ten minute play and share these extraordinary plays with the community in a presentation with, in my opinion, some of the finest actors and directors working today. But that final presentation is just one part of the experience. To get even a glimpse of it in the room, with seven hard working talented young writers, and Susan, a herself, makes for one lucky assistant. We hope you’ll join us on Feb. 13th at 6 PM at I.S. 10 in Queens for a wonderful, magical hour of fun. After all YOU are the final ingredient for a magical night – you’re our audience!

Playmaking is based on the work for children created by Daniel Judah Sklar and on his book “Playmaking”. Sklar is also a member of APAC’s Advisory Board.


  1. Grace Pettijohn
    Feb 04, 2014

    Wow this sounds like so much fun! I’m going to try to come!

  2. Flavia Williams
    Feb 04, 2014

    Would love to attend; however I do have a commitment for Thursday evenings. But have fun and enjoy the play.

  3. Jack Becker
    Feb 11, 2014

    I would love to come and see the finished plays. Unfortunately I live way off in West Texas! We are all about Cowboys, cows, horses, buffalo, wind and dust. How about a play about a cowboy or cowgirl and his or her favorite horse? I’s come to NYC for that!

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