Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Local Playwright Honored

By Jennifer Leigh

Dana Langston was searching for scholarships late last year when she came across an application for the VSA Playwright Discovery Competition. On a whim, the 17-year-old decided to submit the one and only screenplay she had “just lying around.”

It came as a shock when she found out that her play, “Silent Thank Yous” was one of the seven selected plays to be recognized at the Kennedy Center during the annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in April.

“I quite frankly forgot about the contest,” said Dana. “I was still in bed, checking social media when I saw the email. I started freaking out…it was just amazing.”

Langston has been writing most of her young life, starting with a novel she wrote in seventh grade based on a fictional history of a classmate. From there, she published six more books.

“Silent Thank Yous” was originally supposed to be a novel until she noticed the story was driven more by dialogue, Dana said. The story follows two people who suffer from mental illness; one is a veteran with PTSD. It was an easy story to write, she said, as she suffers from anxiety and depression.

“It’s basically my life,” said Dana. “It felt good to be truthful about mental illness…TV and movies don’t always do that.”

According to a press release from the Kennedy Center, the VSA Playwright Discovery Competition is an annual competition that invites middle and high school students with disabilities to examine the disability experience and express their views through the art of scriptwriting. The program was begun in 1984 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and has continued annually since.

There was a total of 67 applicants from all over the country. Stephanie Litvak, Director of Program Development within the Kennedy Center Education Division explained that three external adjudicators read all of the submitted works and made recommendations based on a list of criteria including story development, pacing, compelling and believable characters, story structure and how the topic of disability was incorporated.

VSA, the international organization on arts and disability, was founded more than 35 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to provide arts and education opportunities for people with disabilities and increase access to the arts for all.

The Kennedy Center is a memorial to President Kennedy to carry forward his “commitment to civil and human rights and his personal commitment to people with disabilities,” said Betty Siegel, Director of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center. The VSA Playwright Discovery Competition perfectly aligns with the philosophy of the center.
“The Kennedy Center is committed to, as part of the mission set by Congress when the Center was first established, to support arts education and to ensure the inclusion of people of all ages with disabilities,” said Siegel. “The work that we do in the Playwright Discovery Program is aligned with the Center in providing powerful arts education to support diversity and inclusion, academic achievement, as well as experiences and opportunities that support young people who are the future performers, writers, directors, etc. and are pursuing creative careers.”
Each year, 7 million people of all ages and abilities participate in VSA programs, in every aspect of the arts—from visual arts, performing arts, to the literary arts, according to the Kennedy Center website.

It’s important to include the voices of those who may struggle to be heard, that’s why the VSA Playwright Discovery Competition is so important because it provides a “safe place” for young writers to share their perspectives and experiences, Sigel said.

“In a society that values social justice, human rights, representation, and voices from everyone in our respective communities, it is imperative to bring forward the stories of people who are overlooked and frequently invisible and unheard,” she added. “By empowering and engaging young people with disabilities in the arts, we provide a path that is intuitively diverse, providing multiple means of engagement that allow each young person’s strengths to be leveraged for their success.”

While the competition did not award any money, it did send Dana and her mom to Washington, D.C. for the last few days of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival where selections from the plays were performed by professional stage actors. Dana even got to be a part of the production process by working with professional playwrights and directors to refine the script and further develop playwriting skills. The experience was “incredible,” she said.

“I couldn’t have asked for better actors,” she said. “One of the actors, Michael Willis, is a veteran of Vietnam. He was playing the vet in my play. He was so intense and so perfect. It was so good I actually started crying.”

After graduating from West Florida of Advanced Technology, Dana will attend School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study painting and drawing. But after this experience, she said she may want to pursue a career in the theatrical arts. There’s definitely an instant gratification from seeing an audience applaud your work.

“To see people interact with [the play] is amazing,” Dana said. “It’s better than I could ask for.”
Dana credits her parents for being supportive in her creative endeavors.

“I am incredibly lucky,” she said. “They definitely encourage me. They remember countless nights of me not sleeping just to get to the end of a book.”

Some of Dana’s inspiration to create comes from wanting to help others. That’s why she founded Defective Dynamic, an organization that helps those with mental illness. The website provides basic information, advice motivation for those who suffer from mental illness. Dana said she hopes “Silent Thank Yous” will also help others who suffer.

“They’re not alone,” she said. “Nothing is permanent, there’s always help out there. I don’t want anyone to feel what I felt…I want them to know they can work toward recovery.”