Great Lakes Theater Celebrates 30 Years of Student Storytelling

2018 A Christmas Carol Writing Contest Winners [courtesy: Great Lakes Theater]
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Lynn Robert Berg, Laura Welsh Berg and David Hansen read the 2018 winning stories:

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is not just a well-known holiday story, but a tradition for students of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District as well. 

For 30 years, Great Lakes Theater has invited schools to matinees so students can see Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Marley's Ghost onstage, and each season a group of students joins in on the storytelling through a writing contest.

In 1989, Amanda Metzner-Mowrer was a middle school student at Whitney M. Young Junior High School and was one of the first winners of the Great Lakes Theater Festival's "A Christmas Carol Writing Contest."

Amanda Metzner congratualted by Mayor-elect Michael White at 1989 awards dinner with fellow winner Anita Turk. [photo: Steve Mastroianni]

"I remember entering and being really excited when I won, because we got to come downtown and we saw the play. I do remember meeting the mayor," Metzner-Mowrer said.

Since Great Lakes debuted its production, it has sponsored a writing contest where middle schoolers write their own stories inspired by the themes of Dickens' classic. ideastream caught up with several of the winners from the inaugural competition. 

Kristy Helton Minnillo represented Charles Mooney Intermediate School in 1989 with her winning story.

Kristy Helton Minnillo

"Keeping in line with the themes of the 'Christmas Carol,' I didn't really want to stray too far from that, and I just sat down without any idea of where I was heading and I wrote the first sentence," Helton Minnillo said. 

Jesse Lumsden Piscitello was a 7th grader at the Cleveland School of the Arts when she won.  In 1989, her teacher Jonathan Fairman inspired Jesse to write as much as she could.

Jesse Lumsden Piscitello

"He was so kind, and he knew so many things that were going on around Cleveland and he would always suggest, 'Oh you should apply for this, you should do this,' which is how I found out about  the contest. He said, 'You should write a story for this,'" Lumsden Piscitello said.

Today she's a teacher living in Brooklyn, NY who's taught English in middle school. 

Jesse Lumsden Piscitello working with a student. [courtesy: Jesse Lumsden Piscitello]

When she re-read her winning story from 30 years ago recently, she recognized some good writing habits in her 7th-grade self.

"When you're telling a story there's different ways to tell stories, so it's interesting and ideally as well written as possible.  You know using descriptions and dialogue and thoughts and feelings... A fair amount of the story is told through dialogue, which impressed me," she said laughing.

Since 2013, David Hansen has managed the writing contest for Great Lakes Theater.

David Hansen (left) with 2018 winning students [courtesy: Great Lakes Theater]

"When you look at a program like this, which has been around for so many years, you find that it really does have a very powerful effect on people.  You have no idea what might be achieved when a young person has the opportunity to express themself and gets recognized," Hansen said.

In 2018 there were 54 winning stories from 29 participating CMSD schools, with six grand-prize winners.

After student matinees the winners from the schools in the audience are acknowledged onstage at the Ohio Theater in Playhouse Square.

It's a wonderful memory for Amanda Metzner-Mowrer who now works as a nurse practicioner at the Cleveland Clinic.

Amanda Metzner-Mowrer

"The Cleveland students are down here seeing the play again.  That was something that we got to do as students, which we always enjoyed coming down to see the play," she said.

Jesse Lumsden Piscitello remembers winning as a special moment that motivated her during her years as a student.

"Even if you don't win, to try something new or pursue an interest and find the things you love and maybe find things that you feel good at, that really I feel like help[s] shape people positively and help[s] them take risks in the future," she said.

For Kristy Helton Minnillo, who's a fifth-grade teacher in Cleveland Heights, the stories written by more recent student winners have impressed her by covering issues like racism, depression and substance abuse.

"I was just floored.  I listened to it and I was like, 'wow!' That is just some next level thinking and presenting of voice and writing.  I was so pleased to hear those pieces and that students are still doing that and doing it well," she said.

Great Lakes Theater 2018 A Christmas Carol Writing Contest award presentation at the Ohio Theater. [courtesy: Great Lakes Theater]

The 2018 winning stories of the Great Lakes Theater "A Christmas Carol" Writing Contest can be heard online Tuesday December 11 on 90.3 ideastream's Facebook Page.  Two of the stars of the Great Lakes "A Christmas Carol" production, husband and wife Lynn and Laura Berg, read the six winning stories starting at 2 p.m.

Read the stories of the 2018 grand-prize winners

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