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From Juvenile Hall To The Stage: A Young Playwright’s Journey

Above: Kimberly Bell, 19, wrote her play "A Broken Promise" in juvenile hall. It was one of the winning scripts in the California Young Playwrights Contest.

Aired 2/1/13 on KPBS News.

As any seasoned playwright will tell you, writing a play is hard enough. Getting it to the stage is a real feat. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone spoke with a young woman who wrote a play while serving time in juvenile hall. Now that play will be staged at the Lyceum Theater.

On the chilly January evening when we met, Kimberly Bell had just finished her first day of classes at San Diego City College. Her nails were painted a bright coral and her arm hurt from carrying her donated laptop. But Bell wasn’t complaining. The first day of college was especially meaningful for her. "This morning when I woke up, I said, I’m a part of this world. It was like a new air and new cars going by me. I really felt it," explained Bell.

A lot has changed in Bell’s life in the last couple of months. At the end of November she was released from juvenile hall where she’d been serving time - almost constantly - for five years. "I started going to juvenile hall when I was 13," said Bell, now 19. "Just for wrong decision making, being around the wrong crowd, not making decisions on my own."

Bell and Deborah Salzer work on developing Bell's play. Each of the winning scripts get assigned a dramaturg to help ready it for a full production. Salzer is the founder of the Playwrights Project and served as its executive director for 24 years.

This weekend Bell will experience another milestone. A play she wrote – the first play she’s ever written - will be performed on stage at the Lyceum Theatre. Bell started working on it in juvenile hall a year ago, writing it all out in longhand first. She then entered her play into a contest sponsored by the Playwrights Project, an organization that mentors young playwrights. Deborah Salzar founded the organization 28 years ago. "Most of the kids who submit to the contest have taken a playwriting residency with us and/or they have fallen in love with theater in their schools," explained Salzer. "They’ve auditioned, they’ve worked backstage, or they’ve done Junior Theater. Or their parents have taken them to see things."

Bell has "journals and journals" of her poetry. She's saved all of them.

Bell’s circumstances were obviously different. She got her GED in juvenile hall. She’d never even seen a play before. But of the 150 plays submitted to the statewide contest, hers was one of the winners. Soon after her win was announced, the contest organizers arranged for Bell to get out of juvenile hall for an evening to see a play at the 10th Avenue Theatre. "It was a really small theater, but inside when the play happened, it got a lot bigger," Bell said.

Bell’s been writing for as long as she can remember. She has journals and journals of poetry. She often gets up at midnight because she's thought of something she wants to write down. "When I feel something...I’m writing," said Bell.

Bell’s play is called "A Broken Promise." It's about a girl named Rosie who wants to go to college and make a better life for herself. But that means leaving her neighborhood and the gangster boyfriend she loves. The stakes get higher when Rosie gets pregnant. The play isn't autobiographical, but Bell says she grew up around girls whose lives took a similar turn.

I seen them grow up into these abusive relationships and they end up pregnant at a young age and they can’t take care of their baby. They’re just struggling. You can see it in their eyes that they want change. You can feel it from them. But the person they’re in a relationship with holds them back.

Bell wanted to make Rosie different, more like the girls she knows who have bravely moved beyond their circumstances.

In October, Deborah Salzar started helping Bell develop "A Broken Promise," serving as her dramaturg. The two worked together three days a week for three months, sometimes for hours at a time. "When we first started working together, she just pounded me with homework." remembered Bell. "And I wanted to give up. I’m serious I did. But I didn’t because she kept cheering me on."

There have been other cheerleaders along the way and they've made a difference. "It’s sad to say but I learned a lot in juvenile hall that I don’t think my mom or my dad would have taught me," said Bell. "There were a couple of officers that I got really close to and they would talk to me and teach me how to be a young lady. Or they would tell me how smart I am."

Since her release, Bell lives in a halfway house. The family she grew up with in Southeast San Diego is splintered. Bell is going to take her boyfriend, twin sister and an aunt to the opening of "A Broken Promise" on Saturday night. It’s a dream come true. But Bell also has other dreams. She says she just wants to be happy and not worry. She says she doesn't really dream about material things "because they come and go." Bell paused and added one other dream: "just making my family happy and bringing them back together."

The Plays By Young Writers series runs through February 9th at the Lyceum Theatre in downtown San Diego. Opening night is Saturday, February 2nd at 7:30. It will include productions of four winning scripts, including Kimberly Bell's "A Broken Promise."

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