Probationer Wins Young Playwright Contest

Writing mentor Deborah Salzer (left) works with playwright Kimberly Bell on "A Broken Promise" which will open Feb. 2. Photo courtesy of Playwrights Project.
January 23, 2013 | 10:24am

She has been in and out of Juvenile Hall since she was 13 years old. Most recently, she served a two-year sentence in the Youthful Offender Unit (YOU) for juveniles convicted of serious crimes.

But it was there, doing what started out as “just an assignment,” that 18-year-old Kimberly Bell discovered her gift as a writer. She created a story with characters loosely based on people in her own life, turned it into a play and after a lot of encouragement entered it into a contest and won.

The one-act play “A Broken Promise” will open on Feb. 2 at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza as part of the Plays by Young Writers festival. The festival features six plays selected from 149 entries from students across the state.

Bell’s play is about a young woman named Rosie who is in love with her gangster boyfriend, but has thoughts of finding a better life and going to college. Then suddenly Rosie finds out she is pregnant and now the stakes are really high.

“Do I regret going to juvenile hall? Yes but I learned something about myself I didn’t know was there,” said Bell.  “I’m a writer. I write poetry and I write plays.”

Bell always liked to write poetry but she had never written a play. She struggles with reading and grammar but it was her reading specialist Susan Burris at the Sarah Anthony School in Juvenile Hall who first convinced her to write a play and then acted as her cheerleader through the long process that followed.

The playwriting program fits the goals of the YOU program which brings in outside experts who might resonate with even the most hardcore girls or boys and inspire them to do something positive.

“Writing is a good way to express yourself and to get things out that you can’t tell other people and it can turn into something big,” Bell said. “It’s been a great experience.”

Before this project, Bell never imagined she could use her experiences as a troubled youth to tell others what her life was like.

The Playwrights Project is a non-profit organization that promotes theater arts, hosts the contest and produces the festival. The organization uses grants from local companies to reach out with playwriting programs to young people in foster care, various schools and Juvenile Hall.

Bell said she started writing the play last summer. In October, she was notified that her play was a finalist, and she began working with a writing mentor from Playwrights Project to polish up her play before it opens to the public.

Cecelia Kouma, Playwrights Project Executive Director, said Playwrights Project has worked at Juvenile Hall for two years now and judges were thrilled with Bell’s submission. Bell’s play was selected because it had excellent dialogue, honest characters and a clear storyline, she said.

Kouma said the playwriting program is a great outlet for young people who have had challenges in their lives because it allows them to create fictional characters and try out alternative solutions for overcoming conflict in their lives. It also allows them to control the world of the play and perhaps start to feel they have an opportunity to control their own lives.

“Plays are about people who want something and so they make choices. But an individual choice does not define us. So if a character makes a poor choice, they can do things to make things better and that’s an important lesson for these kids too,” said Kouma.

Deborah Salzer, the project founder, is a writing mentor and worked closely with Bell in refining her play.

“She was eager to expand and deepen her own ideas,” Salzer said. “She is writing about a world  she knows, the characters are fictional but the environment is familiar and therefore she could see the world through (her main character) Rosie’s eyes. And Rosie gains confidence and strength and a degree of independence and that is really what we all hope for Kimberly.”

 “I think Kimberly gained writing skills. She learned to take time to weigh words before writing and look deeply into the motivations of characters and to say things as specifically as possible rather than leaning on generalities. She learned to show us through dialogue and action what characters were thinking and feeling rather than just assuming people would get it,” said Salzer.  “We took apart her play and put it back together and that’s not a comfortable thing to do sometimes.”

Bell said she worked with Salzer while she was still in custody and they even cast the roles before she was released. After Bell was released, she attended rehearsals and table reads and she couldn’t have been more pleased with the actors chosen for the roles.

“It was live, it was really live. It seemed like they brought life to my words … it was exciting,” Bell said.

She is especially fond of her strong-minded lead character Rosie saying, “She’s someone I would hope to be.” And in one sense, she is doing that. She plans to attend classes at San Diego City College this spring.

She recently saw a run-through rehearsal and she said the actress playing Rosie fit the character so perfectly, it made her cry.

Bell is looking forward to seeing the play on opening night. She plans to take her boyfriend, her twin sister and her father that night and then bring the rest of her family and friends on other nights.

“I’m just ready to see it,” she said. “I’m the most proud of myself.”

See festival schedule and purchase tickets. Playwrights Project is also offering a limited number of $10 tickets to the Sunday, Feb. 3 performance of Bell’s play. To order, call (619) 239-8222 or email write@playwrightsproject.org with the code BELL.