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May 25, 2011

By Clarissa Pharr

Grier Montgomery has had quite an interesting few weeks. Besides the excitement of the looming summer vacation and his upcoming 13th birthday, the seventh grader has just become an award-winning playwright.

This means that amid the usual challenges of homework and junior high, Grier has had to contend with a little bit of spotlight frenzy as a play written for a school assignment at middle school MS 51, the William Alexander School in Park Slope, has just found its way into the hands of a professional theater team.

The play, titled “The Assignment,” was selected from a pool of 115 works submitted to WritopiaLab's 2011 Best Playwrights’ Festival, funded by David Letterman's World Wide Pants production company. It was performed at Manhattan’s June Havoc Theater on May 22nd.

“It's been an amazing, crazy three weeks!” begins Grier, who lives in Carroll Gardens, shaking his head as if in disbelief on a recent afternoon on Court Street, where he caught up with Patch to discuss his recent success.

No stranger to the creative arts—his father is an actor and his mother is herself a writer—Grier nonetheless never saw himself winning prizes for his work.

“When I got home from school and my mom shouted 'You're being produced!' I was shocked! I thought some genius in Connecticut was going to win it.”

The 12 year old is charismatic and well spoken, and openly admits to pre-show jitters and the surreal circumstances of having a school project that quite literally took on a life of its own. In fact, perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment of this process was the opening night of May 22nd, when the young playwright sat in the front row of the June Havoc Theater.

“I was shivering and shaking in my seat. I'm a big perfectionist, a big tweaker—but it was so amazing. The producer and actors took my idea straight out of my head—it was exactly how I imagined it.”

One could hardly say that the new-found legacy has gone to his head, and he is quick to point out influences and inspiration where credit is due—particularly John McEneny, his MS 51 theater teacher.

“I have to say I owe so much to Mr. McEneny. He totally pushed me, and totally inspired me to take this further than I ever thought it would go.”

As for the piece itself, Grier describes it as somewhat autobiographical. “It's about a boy who's about 12 years old, like me, who is pretty smart but doesn't try very hard, like me. And in writing class he writes an awful play about dodge ball – which I actually did.” After being mocked by fellow classmates, the boy is given a final chance to redeem himself in the class, describing an argument he overhears between his parents—and “The Assignment” is born.

The play soon departs from real life with some very dark turns. Murder and scandal make for a gripping plot, and Grier again credits his teachers for allowing him to explore the sinister side of theater. “My writing teacher Ms. [Felicia] O'Hara, she’s great. She let me go where I wanted to go. She allows us to use language we want to use, and she doesn't repress [the students].”

The piece is effectively a play within a play, where perspectives shift between a boy experiencing serious troubles at home, and watching real life circumstances come to life through a homework assignment. The sophisticated use of the power of perspective lenses, how we cope with emotional troubles, and the changing capacity of the creative arts to alter our own sense of reality are strong themes throughout “The Assignment,” and it is no wonder that the work caught the eyes of WritopiaLab's contest judges.

On how writing has influenced his life so far, Grier admits that he was not always enthusiastic. “I didn't really discover writing stuff until this year—I always grouped it together with school.” And now? “Now writing almost seems like the whole of my's made me look at the world differently. You can fill up thousands of pages about anything—it’s crazy. I feel like I should always have a pen and pad on me, because anything can be an idea. I've learned that if you look into yourself – if you really look, you can find something you are really good at, something you already have.””

The middle schooler reflected on the challenges of writing—dread of deadlines, fear of audiences not understanding, or approving, of his work. But still, he plans to stick with writing for a little while—including an upcoming summer WritopiaLab workshop he plans to attend.

As for the future, Grier Montgomery hopes to one day be “a successful person in theater—wherever I can fit. Moving equipment, editing—anything to do with the with arts.”

It looks like he is well on his way.

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