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Radio's junior playwrights
Unlikely as it seems, not all the kids in the nation are glued constantly to joysticks or wired permanently into rock stations on portable radios. Thousands of them are tuning weekly into Children's Radio Theatre. An innovative series of half-hour plays written by children for children and performed by professional actors on National Public Radio, CRT is programmed for success. "It was conceived to fill a void in a medium that was horribly neglected and underutilized in terms of children's shows," says producer David Thompson. "Once people know about us, what we do can have tremendous mass appeal."
Orchestrated by Joan Bellsey and Doris Indyke, two enterprising producers, along with Thompson, who started on the show as an actor, Children's Radio Theatre began in 1977 on WPFW, a local station in Washington, D.C., and is currently broadcast on more than 100 Public Radio affiliates. "CRT is warm and personal and sprightly, rather than fast and slick," says Thompson. "Children find in us a refuge from TV. We challenge their imaginations. They think of us as a haven they go to every Saturday morning."
To attract original material from sprouting Eugene O'Neills among their listeners, for the last five years the producers have run an annual Henny Penny Playwriting Contest for individuals or groups between the ages of 5 and 17. Entries must be no longer than 15 pages, typed or neatly printed. "We don't want Beauty and the Beast rewritten or sent in verbatim, which sometimes happens," says Thompson. "If a contestant wants to adapt a classical story in an unusual way, we'll consider it, but in the past original material has always won."
Last year a panel of 14 judges, made up of teachers, librarians, actors and the CRT staff, picked four winning scripts from a deluge of more than 1,000 entries. They included The Pill That Almost Saved the World by Christian Freitag, 11, of Valparaiso, Ind., Like Dreamers Do—a Fantasy by John Lane, 14, of Baltimore, Md. and The Highest Peak by Michal Frankel, 14, of Spring Valley, N.Y. Winners and their parents spend a weekend in Washington, where they meet their Congressman and are honored at a brunch, a dinner and an awards ceremony. "We treat them like actual playwrights," says Joan Bellsey. "They come to the studio, meet the actors and participate in an on-air phone-in from the kids in the radio audience. It's a real thrill for them. You can tell their hearts are pounding."
Winners of the 1984 Henny Penny Contest, which closed in December, will be announced in February, and their productions will be broadcast live from Washington's Kennedy Center on April 14 with the authors in attendance. "It can change their lives, if only in a small way," says Bellsey. "It's a real honor for them to know that what they have to say is important."
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