HIGH LIFE : GOING FOR THE GOAL : She Wanted to Write for a Big Paper, See Her Play Staged, Publish Novel: She’s 2 Out of 3

Five years ago, Michele Mitchell, then a freshman at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, set three goals she vowed to achieve before turning 19.

“I wanted to have an article published in a prestigious newspaper, have a play produced and have a novel published,” she said. “So far, I’ve accomplished two out of three.”

And she still has 5 months to go before her 19th birthday.

Mitchell, a freshman at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., will soon have her play, “Runner’s High,” produced by the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre in San Diego. She was one of three winners among 91 entrants in a contest sponsored by the California Young Playwrights Project.


“I started writing when I was 5 years old,” she explained. “No one pushed me into it. They would just say, ‘There’s Michele doing her writing.’ When I was 7, I wrote my first novel, and at 12 I taught myself how to type. I cranked out novels like crazy and would send them to publishers, some of them even typed.”

Her first goal was accomplished when she served as her high school’s contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times’ High Life section during her senior year.

A number of Mitchell’s feature stories appeared in High Life, including articles on athletic burn-out and a youth ice hockey team. And her article on the South Coast Repertory’s Young Conservatory acting workshop, which she wrote in play form, appeared as a cover story in The Times’ Orange County Life section.

“In sixth grade, I was cast as Lady Macbeth in a school play, and that got me interested in writing teleplays,” she said. “I submitted them to TV stations until one day CBS sent me a letter explaining that they could not even read my plays until I had a literary agent.”

But that did not discourage her. In fact, she won first place 3 years in a row in the Orange County Fair’s youth literary competition. “They finally kicked me out for dominating the contest,” she said.

Mitchell has another love that she has managed to work into her writing: She was on her high school’s varsity track team for 4 seasons and as a sophomore began running on the cross-country squad.

In fact, it was during the summer between her junior and senior years, at a running camp, that Mitchell began writing “Runner’s High,” a play based on herself, four teammates and two cross-country coaches.

She initially wrote the play as a swan song to her teammates because it was to be their last year together, but she also reflected upon the pressures placed on high school athletes from a number of sources.

“I wrote about running because I can relate to it and, also, I believe there is a lack of sports in the theater,” Mitchell said. “There is so much controversy in high school sports and its pressure on the athletes. Especially in track, as a lot of high-school star athletes burn out in college.

“There’s also a lot of abuse caused by coaches who are too concerned about their statistics to care about the kids. Then there is the pressure that the athletes put on themselves.”

“Runner’s High” is a realistic play with funny twists. It takes place at a prestigious cross-country meet and compares the course of the race to the lives of those involved. Each character has his or her own conflicts and motives for running or coaching.

Paige, a character Mitchell based on herself, is a good runner who never has realized her potential, but as soon as she overcomes that, everything falls into place.

Another runner, Lena, is trying to get into the Air Force Academy, and her best bet is to be accepted as a blue-chip athlete. The character, based on teammate Jennifer Cooke, needs to do very well in this race.

Superstar athlete John, who in real life is John Corrow, also needs to do well in the race to earn a USC scholarship. Henning, who is the theatrical counterpart of Jon Lycett, uses this race to prove his worth and finally get out of John’s shadow.

Missy, a character based on runner Debbie Reynold, got bumped from the junior-varsity to the varsity level at the last minute and needs to prove that she can compete against the better runners.

“I put a lot of physical humor in the play so it would be entertaining,” Mitchell said, referring to a high-five created by Corrow that is more of a body slam.

“We didn’t know about it (the play) until halfway through the season,” said Lycett, a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “At that point, she talked about it a lot!”

“Runner’s High,” to be directed by Walter Bilderback, literary manager of the La Jolla Playhouse, will open at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre next Wednesday and continue through Jan. 22. Mitchell and her teammates hope to attend one of the performances together.

“The play is funny. It brings a lot of memories back,” said Cooke, a freshman at Cal Poly Pomona. “Michele is going to be really great someday. Ever since we were little, it never surprised me when she would tell me that she had won another award.”

Deborah Salzer, founder and director of the California Young Playwrights Project, said: “Michele has a gift for writing dialogue and observing and telling details about characters and situations.”

Mitchell is currently majoring in journalism at Northwestern, where she is the only female sports reporter for the Daily Northwestern and a runner for the university’s cross-country team.

She credits running for teaching her discipline. “I don’t think I could have done half as much as I have if I hadn’t run. It made me a strong person mentally.”

If, or, as she says, when she has her novel published--she is revamping one entitled “Once Upon a Year,” which is based on her high school experiences--Mitchell will begin addressing some new goals.

She said she hopes to one day write for Sports Illustrated magazine because “they give their writers time off to do their own projects. . . . I really like that.”

Mitchell said she’s going into journalism because “it’s exciting to cover interesting stories” and because the job opportunities are better in journalism than in other types of writing. But she still plans to write novels and plays.

“I would like to win three Pulitzer prizes--maybe all in the same year--a couple of Nobel Literary prizes and, rushed for time, I’d like to roller skate in to pick up a Tony award for play writing and then be off to cover a story in the Middle East.

“If I don’t have confidence in myself,” she said, “then who will?”