David Speaks on the Role of the Arts in Students’ Lives – Why We Do What We Do

This year I and YPT were honored to receive the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation’s Exponent Award for visionary leadership. On Monday, June 7th, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, we received the award during a fun and compelling ceremony that highlighted the importance of the work of nonprofits in our community. I am so grateful to the Meyer Foundation, for the award, but also for the simple opportunity to share a few thoughts about why we do what we do. I’ve had several requests since that evening to post or share my remarks in some way, so here they are. I hope you’ll in some way connect with how we at YPT feel about the arts in students’ lives.

Monday, June 7, 2010
“Thank you so much. I’m so grateful to Julie, Rick, Carmen, Amy, the board of directors and everyone at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, to have their amazing support in my life and the life of Young Playwrights’ Theater. As those of us running organizations know all too well, the proof is in the people. And the Meyer Foundation is filled with true partners, true advocates and true friends to us in the nonprofit sector. I’ve dedicated my life to helping students express themselves and engage the world around them. Because I believe as much as we need to eat, sleep and clothe ourselves to be human, we need to express ourselves. We need to be able to share with our neighbors and the rest of the world what’s bothering us, how others can help us and what we fear or dream of for our future. And that beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, students need to be able to think for themselves. They need to be able to imagine, envision, and explain. They need to understand – not just know, but to understand what they’re learning and why. They need to be able to stand up, put their ideas forward and defend them. And they need to be able to inspire and be inspired.

I know that as I reflect on important moments in my life when I truly learned something, most of them didn’t happen sitting silently at a desk. Most of them were experiences, conversations, dialogues with other people that taught me something I didn’t know and stirred something inside me I didn’t know I had. And in this age of Facebook, Twitter and texting there’s an even greater understanding that comes from being in a room face to face, explaining with our whole selves what we mean, and learning about the world from direct experience and dialogue with our fellow human beings.

So as we’re ensuring that critical needs are met in these challenging times, and that students can do well on the latest standardized tests, I think we need to consider not only what will get us through the night, through the next month or next couple of years, but also what we want to be, what we want to look like and what we want to represent when we get through it.  What kind of society do we want to have? How will students compete in the global arena of ideas if they have none to share? And how can we envision our future if we’re not able to dream?

At Young Playwrights’ Theater we give students the tools they need to engage the world.  And in turn they share their dreams, their fears, their hopes and their visions for the future.  Every student writes a play. Every student hears their play performed by professional actors in the classroom. We share the students’ work with their community through readings, festivals and tours and we pay the students for the opportunity to produce their plays. The students introduce their work and speak about why they wrote what they wrote; they drive rehearsals and recognize their own power in the process. Truancy rates drop when we’re in the classroom. Homework completion soars with our assignments.  We see with our assessments that students’ critical and creative thinking improve dramatically during the program. And teachers, students and parents tell us how much the program has meant to them. Because for many of our students, it’s the first time someone has asked them what they think. It’s their first time to really engage in class.  It’s their first time to tell their stories.  And it’s their first time to realize their own true potential – a revelation of who they are, and who they could be.

Tonight, this honor helps me and all of us at YPT know that what we do matters – that having a vision, and thinking outside the box, makes a difference; that we have partners who believe in our mission; and that service toward a greater good is possible, even today. And that’s a huge gift. I want to thank my fellow recipients, who bring hope, love and strength to so many; thank you to my amazing staff at Young Playwrights’ Theater, Patrick Torres, Brigitte Moore, Elizabeth Andrews, who inspire me every day with their dedication, their passion and their generosity; to our wonderful board of directors and our amazing chair Brian Kennedy; thank you to the greatest Founder a successor could wish for, Karen Zacarias, and of course to our students, for their dedication, their inspiration and their awe-inspiring work; and to my family –  my parents, my sister, my beautiful wife Alex, my son Henry and my two-week old daughter Della for their love and grace in my life. I am grateful to do this work and I am so very grateful to be here tonight.  Thank you very, very much.”

Click here to see more info on the award and the video compilation of the evening, produced by the Meyer Foundation.

Hope to see you soon!

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO

YPT Collaborates with Life Pieces to Masterpieces to Tell the Story of Historic Woodlawn Cemetery

Over the past three weeks, I’ve had the immense pleasure to work with the young men of Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM) on one of our current special projects, a new play we’re creating with the Ward 7 community about historic Woodlawn Cemetery.  As soon as I knew we’d be working in Ward 7, my home neighborhood, I knew LPTM would be a great partner for it.  LPTM is an extraordinary mentorship program for young men in Ward 7.  They give young men life and art skills that allow them to embrace their past and present and prepare for their future.  The young men explore leadership, responsibility, community and create paintings based on their own life stories.  Our group, the Legacy class, mostly consisting of 11 year old young men, began working with me about two and a half weeks ago on workshops exploring Woodlawn Cemetery, its history and the history of those interred at Woodlawn.  We explored how the site relates to our neighborhood and how learning about some of the extraordinary people buried at Woodlawn can help all of us better understand our history and prepare for our future.  For example, Senator Blanche Bruce, born a slave who ultimately became the first African American to serve a full term in the US Senate, is buried there.  Congressman Langston, first African American Congressman from Virginia and first civilian dean of Howard University Law School, is buried there.  As well as thousands of extraordinary women who were scholars, artists, educators and homemakers — a total of almost 36,000 people, many in unmarked graves, having been moved from previous sites throughout the city.

After we explored the history and the young men took a tour of the cemetery, we began sketching.  They sketched about 15 pictures and then chose 7 of those to paint.  First their teachers set up huge blank canvasses on the wall.  Each young man was given three primary colors and tasked with creating their own rich textures and colors and painting the canvasses freely, resulting in about 12 different colors of canvas.  Once these were dry the next day, the students figured out what figures or shapes they needed to create to convey their sketch onto canvas.  They then picked from the larges canvases they’d painted and drew the shapes on the back, then cutting these shapes out of the canvases.  Then they painted other canvases as backdrops for their paintings and, once they were dry, laid out the figures, symbols and landmarks from Woodlawn they’d created onto the backdrop.  They then sewed these patterns and shapes onto the canvas and stretched the canvases onto wooden frames.

The seven resulting paintings, all inspired by Woodlawn, will serve as the backdrop and setting for our readings of the play we’re creating with the community.  Plus, these young men have created poems and monologues about their insights and inspirations from Woodlawn, all of which will be added into the stew of the play, mixing their voices into a tapestry of voices about Woodlawn that will not only share our history but also our community.   The resulting paintings are extraordinary and inspired — I can’t wait for you to see them and meet these young men at the readings we’ll hold on September 11th at Harman Hall downtown, and at Woodlawn Cemetery, as part of a huge volunteer and service celebration at the site.  I hope you’ll come see us and join in our community!

 

You can learn more about YPT’s Woodlawn Cemetery project on YPT’s website.

You can learn more about Life Pieces to Masterpieces here.

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO

A Message from YPT’s Producing Artistic Director and CEO

This season, as we celebrate our 15th Birthday, we’re inviting you to enter our work in a whole new way, to gain your insights into the work by sharing our own and asking you to engage with us. In the coming weeks and months all of us in the company and on staff will be posting entries about the work that we’re doing, from programs and specials projects to development and production. We hope you’ll enjoy this bird’s eye view of how we do what we do and that it’ll inspire you to join us in helping to give students the tools they need to engage the world. Visit often to catch up on what’s been happening and stay connected with what’s next.   Welcome to our community, our family, our company. We hope to see you again soon.

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO

Can Glee Save Arts Education?

James Sims of the Huffington Post thinks so! He makes a great argument for it in his recent article. Here’s an excerpt. To read the full article click here.

With increasing educational budget cuts sweeping the nation, arts education is often one of the first programs to get slashed. Just as Glee was airing on Fox Tuesday night, the community of Fowlerville, Michigan announced it would be cutting band and art programs due to budget reductions.

In steps Glee.

“I actually heard from a guy who worked I think in the public school system somewhere in Washington state and he was like yes, we’re having tons of problems,” Brennan said. “He was like the one thing no one is touching now is Glee Club, which is such a fascinating blow back from this show.”

Why Theatre? Jenn Book Haselswerdt Testifies

Jenn Book Haselswerdt is the Education Coordinator at Imagination Stage. I had intended to interview her for our series about theater educators and what inspires them. Before I could get around to it she posted an amazing piece on her blog testifying to the power of arts education.

Why Theatre?
by Jenn Book Haselswerdt

A new play opened at work a couple of weeks ago, and it’s astounding. That really is the perfect word for it, I think. I’ve seen it three times already, and always come out humming the music (we’re a veritable chorus up in the admin offices). It’s challenging, thrilling, sophisticated, sad, and funny. The set is gorgeous. The performances are fantastic. And yet, we’re getting complaints from adults.

The complaints seem to stem from the “challenging” and “sad” aspects of the show. In my opinion, the play gives parents a great opportunity to talk to their children about serious subjects…if they ask or get upset. And when I spoke to the playwright, she made a statement I agree with to an incredible level: why pander to children, and talk down to them, instead of writing for them as if they were people (which they are!), and, in the process, also entertaining their parents? The script’s references to Marx and the proletariat (in a funny way, I promise) are some of my favorite moments in the play. I don’t believe in talking down to students, nor in presenting them with a world that is sunshine and rainbows at all times (although I do believe plays can certainly be light and airy!). Like our Artistic Director says, the only thing theatre for young audiences has to do that might be different from theatre for adults is always present a sense of hope. And this play has that in spades.

So, why theatre? Why the arts?

I believe in the power of the arts to change the world, to educate, to change the way people think. My life is theatre for young audiences and youth theatre, and I make my living by educating students–and their teachers–through the arts. Good theatre for young audiences is there to educate as well as entertain, to facilitate conversations between children and their parents and caregivers, to expand their view of the world in which they live. And so, I recognize the education can go beyond the classroom, and into the world.

This was also what I took away from the Human Rights Art Festival this weekend. I only went to a handful of events–certainly fewer than I had meant to–but they certainly got me thinking. My favorite event was the panel on the use of the arts for social transformation. I listened to a group of artists talk about their activism through theatre, the double meaning of the word “act” (to act politically and act on stage), the profitability of activist theatre, and whether this type of theatre ultimately means more to the artists or to the audiences. One of my favorite points was that the goal doesn’t necessarily have to be for an entire audience to rise from their seats and begin to protest or donate money or what-have-you. An artist has to realize that everyone in the audience is walking their own steps in their own individual processes, and all one can hope for is that every audience member winds up one step further. Brilliant. This is, indeed, what I want from the arts. I also appreciated the outlook that these plays are not about messages; they’re about stories. There is no message in a story.

I visited the visual arts installation next, and found myself particularly taken by the works of art railing against domestic violence. I’m not a visual artist in the least, myself, and it’s always fascinating for me to see what others can do with the media in front of them.

I do believe in the power of the arts to entertain, but I think artists have a responsibility to educate their audiences–adults as well as children–and to do it well. I hope I can contribute to that.

Click here to link to Jenn’s blog ThirtyFlirtyFab

The Need for Arts Education

by David Andrew Snider

Recently I talked with a board member from Theatre Communications Group (TCG), of which YPT is a member.   The TCG board was reaching out to all its members to find out what’s happening in our organizations and how TCG can better support us.  At the end of the conversation came the big question:  “Besides fundraising,” (which is assumed right now) “what’s your biggest challenge today?”  “Ensuring our relevance,” I said immediately.  “What do you mean?”

It’s a critical time for arts education and for live theatre in general.   While so many people spend more and more of their time in the virtual world, our work can be more important than ever.  To keep us connected, to keep us talking, to keep us alive to one another.  When push comes to shove and we’re talking about cuts to school budgets for books, to shelter, food and clothing providers, so many people today, even in nonprofits, will say “well, it’s not like the arts are a human service.”  To which I say, and said to the DC City Council last summer “The arts are a human service.  They are a human service.”  As much as we need to eat, sleep and clothe ourselves to be human, we need to express ourselves.  We need to be able to share with our neighbors and the rest of the world what’s bothering us, how others can help us and what we fear or dream of for our future.  When we cut off self-expression, when we deny the inherent need to communicate and be heard, we see the frustration and violence that results.  We see the school shootings, the fights in the hallway, the teen suicide.  We see how social media has again sparked in all of us the itch to be known, to see and be seen, to always be in touch.  So as we’re ensuring that critical needs are met in these challenging times, I think we need to consider not only what will get us through the night, through the next month or next couple of years, but also what we want to be, look like and represent when we get through it.  What kind of society do we want to have?  How do we know what people need if they can’t tell us?  And how can we envision our future if we’re not able to dream?

Theater Education Failed America

by Elizabeth Andrews

In “How We Failed Theater” Jerome Weeks’ great response to Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America,” Mr. Weeks makes the case that theater education (or the lack thereof) is a major factor in the decline of the American theater. He speaks of his wife’s struggles to teach theater to students at a public high school, and the numerous watered down school assembly performances that youth are routinely subjected to.  The best part of this post is that Daisey and Sara Weeks respond in the comments. Sara’s writing about why theater teacher perservere struck a chord with me:

“The spectrum of [my students’] life experience and arts experience is wide and narrow at the same time. My frustrations are often with my own sense of failure… I can never do enough to bridge this gap. In my heart I know Theater saves people. On good days, it saves me and my little Thespians, Drama Queens and aspiring Techies.” – Sara Weeks

To read Jerome Weeks’ Article click here.