Murder by crossbow? Rapping dogs? Love at first sandwich?
Lewis Carroll ain't got nothing on the mind of a 10-year-old.
On Monday afternoon, about a dozen adult actors gather in an auditorium at the Chattanooga Public Library, coming together for an initial reading of plays produced by the Muse of Fire Project, a scriptwriting program for preteens. The plays are wildly imaginative and varied, veritable one-act mad libs.
Sitting at the foot of a stage coated with a thick, dull-orange carpet, the nine young playwrights and a handful of their parents listen as the actors' voices breathe life into tales of water nymphs and triumphant athletes, fibbing elephants and magical money trees. Despite only seconds of introductions to the characters, actors speak with dramatic flair, their voices booming out and bouncing off the wood-paneled walls.
This reading is the last chance for Muse of Fire participants to tweak their stories and sign off on them. Once approved, the troupe of adult actors will have two weeks to rehearse their lines, create sets and costumes and compose music to transform the students' often-madcap ideas into actual stage productions.
During the performances, slated for April 4-5, each student will be onstage during his or her play, sitting in what's called the "Playwright's Desk."
As the grown-ups use highlighters to mark their parts and prepare for the reading, some students express mixed emotions about handing off their work -- sometimes the longest project they've ever attempted -- to someone else. Many are giggly and full of nervous energy as the actors flip through their written words for the first time.
"I think there are going to be a couple of mistakes that I will need to fix and, if I hear it before the play, I can fix things I don't want and add in other things," says 10-year-old Eli Honeycutt, whose play centers on an argument between a talking lava lamp named Steve and a teenage lion named Tyron.
"I'm not sure how I'm going to feel ... to see it performed," he adds. "All these Mondays working up to that one moment have made me nervous but excited at the same time."
Regardless of how the final production turns out, the program's founders say the students already have fulfilled Muse of Fire's primary purpose just by completeing a final draft.
"The idea is that we want them to finish and feel successful," says Stevie Ray Dallimore, a professional actor who founded the Muse of Fire Project three years ago with his wife and fellow thespian, Kate Forbes Dallimore.
The project is named for a line spoken by the chorus in Shakespeare's "Henry V": "Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention."
During the weeks that students work on their plays, adult mentors answer questions, but they never impose themselves in the creative process or edit the drafts. The resulting works, while often unpolished, feature a degree of freewheeling creativity that Stevie Ray says is sometimes lacking in more mature playwrights.
"You're looking at this place -- this window -- to this 10- to 12-year-old mindset when kids are still so in touch with their imaginations and play and make-believe," he says. "I love that window because that allows us, as adults, carte blanche to just have fun.
"You go anywhere from the ridiculous to the sublime to the profound. There are deeper levels inside these plays that are very fascinating. They can be very revelatory as well."
In 2010, the Dallimores moved to Chattanooga from New York City, where they participated in the 52nd Street Project, a decades-old after-school program for kids ages 9 to 18 in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. In its 33-year history, plays created by that program have been performed by a legion of volunteer actors, including luminaries such as Lewis Black, Emmy winner Peter Dinklage ("Game of Thrones"), Billy Crudup and Oscar winner Frances McDormand ("Fargo").
The 52nd Street Project served as the inspiration for Muse of Fire, but the Dallimores have tweaked its "playmaking" fundamentals to work with their comparatively limited pool of resources and lack of access to professional actors with mantels adorned by awards.
In another tweak to the 52nd Street Project, which focuses on children from a single neighborhood, the Dallimores actively seek participants from a variety of backgrounds in Chattanooga. The current crop of preteen playwrights includes students from Orchard Knob Elementary and Fairyland Elementary on Lookout Mountain as well as some, like Eli, who are homeschooled.
"We want a mix," Kate Dallimore says. "This city is so divided geographically, racially and economically, and we're trying to get kids from different parts of the city together. Kids who grow up in one area of the city don't have a lot of opportunities to meet kids from other parts of the city."
Eventually, the Dallimores say, they would like to follow in 52nd Street Project's footsteps by tacking on additional programming to serve children who have outgrown the 12-year-old age limit for the playmaking class. And they say it would be nice to have a larger budget to spend on sets and costumes, which often must depict complex scenes and characters using materials cobbled together in a rush.
"One of the biggest surprises is that we can pull the shows off at all," Kate says. "It's two weeks with volunteers trying to pull together sets for things like spaceships and yetis and mermaids.
"Sometimes, I feel like the kids are deliberately challenging us, but we do the best we can on a shoestring."
Wherever they call home, the students' work is almost uniformly off-the-wall, and this session is no exception.
"Sorry," by Chantal Nizigiyimana, 10, is about a young elephant whose inability to fess up to the mess she causes sends her and her parents on a zany adventure.
Ethan Farnam, 12, wrote a deceptively tragic piece -- currently untitled -- about a struggling writer who puts romance on hold to pursue his dreams of big-city success.
"Subway Magnificent," by Jessie Lambert, 10, follows the romantic foibles of a Subway restaurant employee and features impromptu musical numbers and a surprise appearance by a black-masked kidnapper.
"Part of the delight of this theater is that it's not bound by what we think of as reality," Kate says. "The plays are short, and their words and methods of expressing themselves might reflect their age, but what they're writing about is universal.
"Sometimes, I've laughed the hardest I've ever laughed, and sometimes I cry because they don't realize what they've written."
Although they occasionally stumble over the scripts' grammatical meanderings, the actors say they enjoy the opportunity to tackle plays that are anything but conventional.
Local singer/songwriter Clark Williams attended several Muse of Fire productions before deciding to lend his talents to the project as a composer. For the previous session in March 2013, Williams composed two songs, one for a play about a pair of police officers who rode pink scooters and maintained secret identities as a robot and a sports mascot. Naturally, they ended up in a fight.
"It's crazy-kid creativity that's unbridled," Williams says, laughing. "Being acted out by adults fleshes out what's usually a skeletal creation, a really bare-bones expression of a kid's imagination. Every next line is surprising. It's always so energetic and so fun."
Shellyta Chatman became aware of Muse of Fire through a class taught by Hope Alexander, a local actress and friend of Stevie Ray. At the time, the project was just getting off the ground and, despite knowing next to nothing about it, Chatman offered to help out. She was won over by the positive energy exuded by the young playwrights.
Now a Muse of Fire teaching assistant, Chatman has acted in all seven sessions of the project. She continues to perform at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre and with the Shakespeare Chattanooga company, but the unexpected nature of Muse of Fire's productions keeps drawing her back.
"It's so much more fulfilling than some of the plays adults write where it's the same thing over and over again," Chatman says. "Acting for Muse of Fire keeps you on your toes. It forces you to transform into unbelievable characters."
Chatman has donned masks for Muse of Fire productions, including that of a talking seal and a magic mushroom, but her fondest memories are from "Pink Lemonade River" by 12-year-old Rebecca Vandeventer. In it, she played a "gangster, urban zebra," who she laughing describes as "so very street."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...