Kicking Off YPT’s Sixteenth Season

This past week, on a wet, chilly Monday, YPT welcomed our supporters, students, teachers and community members out of the cold and into GALA Hispanic Theatre for the kick-off of our SIXTEENTH season with New Writers Now!The Fight for Family, featuring three inspiring new student plays exploring issues and relationships within families (check out the event photos on Facebook here).  After a celebratory pre-reception featuring some amazing French mini-desserts (sampling each one was a necessity), the audience was invited into three very different families – a large, close-knit Latino family struggling with a cycle of infidelity, a son who decides to join the military against his parents’ wishes and a young girl working multiple jobs and struggling to raise her sick little brother, while trying to keep up a positive attitude.  The plays were all different, but all tied perfectly into our overarching question for the night: “What would you do for your family?”

During the post-show talkback, the playwrights were asked about the inspiration for their plays. Jessy Deleon said that he wanted to show the impact that infidelity can have on a family from the kid’s perspective; astutely noting that often books, movies and TV shows don’t focus on how infidelity affects other members of the family.  Reyna Rios said that she wanted to write a play that would make people feel uplifted after seeing it; and her play did have an almost fairy tale-like ending, where the kind and hard-working young woman who befriends an elderly woman is left enough money to pay for her brother’s medical expenses, while the spoiled and rude granddaughter is left with nothing.

I was incredibly impressed, as always, by our young playwrights. I especially admire how they took the original assignment – to write a play about anything – and chose to tackle issues that hit close to home for many people, in hopes of inspiring reflection and perhaps even change among their audiences.

I was also viewing this performance from a different light: this past summer, the YPT staff participated in a playwriting challenge where we wrote our own plays and had some of our amazing actors perform them.  It was HARD.  Even as someone who enjoys writing and has taken playwriting courses in the past, the prospect of writing a completely original play and having it read in front of others was daunting and at times incredibly stressful. The experience really hit home how brave our student playwrights are, and watching the plays on Monday night, with our staff activity fresh in my mind, I was filled with admiration. Not only did these playwrights write touching original plays and were courageous enough to share them with an entire audience (including some total strangers), they also each tackled difficult issues in hopes of really impacting their audience.

If Monday night’s performance was any indication, we have a fantastic season ahead of us! Our next performance will be the Express Tour Showcase on Monday, November 14th, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, with the possibility of an even more exciting dessert selection – although it’s going to be hard to top the mini pastries.  Looking forward to seeing you all there!

Development and Producing Associate

Laurie Ascoli: It Matters

When I was in kindergarten, my teacher told my mom that she feared I wasn’t able to distinguish fantasy from reality.  I don’t think I was ever at that point, but I do know that my imagination was completely out of control and didn’t know what to do with itself at school.  At home I could spend hours thinking up soap opera dramas for my Disney action figures to perform, but at school there were few outlets for my hyperactive imagination and so I had to create them for myself.  When we were asked to write ten sentences demonstrating the uses of vocabulary words, I strung them together to create a complete story.  When instructed to write an essay on why we shouldn’t do drugs, I wrote a play.  When other kids played soccer at recess, I sat in the grass and imagined that we were all toys belonging to a giant who controlled our every move.

In third grade, my school started offering an after-school activity program, and drama was one of the options.  I’d always loved acting in class plays, so I signed up.  The end product of the program was going to be a staged version of Rumplestiltskin, and the director decided to cast the lead female role by having us guess numbers between one and twenty.  I guessed the correct number (thirteen) and excitedly began prepping for the role.  When my big moment on stage came and I stood there histrionically wailing after Rumplestiltskin threatened to take my baby, listening to the audience’s laughter, I realized that my imagination now had a place to go.

As I continued performing throughout middle and high school, I felt a palpable sense of relief at having a safe place to go where my creativity was not only accepted, but encouraged and nurtured.  I went to a standard public high school, but we were one of the few fortunate schools to actually have theater classes available as part of our regular schedule as well as an after-school program.  Theater became a place to escape the cliques of girls in my class who only wanted to talk about nail polish and introduced me to other kids who loved and needed art just as much as I did.  While in elementary school theater expanded my already active imagination, in high school it taught me about commitment, responsibility and passion.  (You don’t give up hours to rehearsal every evening and weekend when you’re 16 unless you really, really love what you’re doing.)  More importantly, though, it taught me about myself.  While exploring different characters in a myriad of plays with a team of other students, I began to discover who I was and where I fit into the world.

Of the core group of theater students in my high school, nearly all of us have gone on to have careers in the arts.  We are theater artists, TV producers, filmmakers, stand up comics and musicians.  I can’t imagine that any of us would have found our passions as easily or held onto them as firmly had we not been exposed to the arts at such a crucial and formative age.

Since my graduation, theater classes at my high school have been cut back, but they still exist.  There is a new generation of students finding their voice through the arts and getting ready to declare themselves theater, music and humanities majors. It’s hard for me to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t been introduced to theater when I was.  Would I have followed an entirely different career path?  Would my crazy imagination just have died out at some point?  I’m glad I never had to find out the answers to these questions, and hope that one day arts education will become so standard that no other students will, either.

Click here to learn more.

Laurie performs at the American College Theatre Festival.

Laurie Ascoli
YPT Program Assistant

Holly Taylor Petty: It Matters

Jen’s Story
*Student’s name changed to protect privacy

School can be a difficult place for students who don’t learn in the same way as the majority of their peers. I saw the pain first-hand when Jen, one of my sophomore dance students walked into my classroom. She was not physically handicapped, but I could see that she was so afraid to participate that she could hardly move at all. She would stand there paralyzed. Jen struggled in many of her regular education classes. I knew that school was a miserable experience for her, and I had a hard time knowing how to help her feel comfortable enough to participate. I began to see Jen open up a little bit when I assigned her and a couple of other classmates to work with a severe special needs student. She was so caring and gentle. Through helping someone else discover the art of dance, Jen realized that she had something to offer the world. When I talked to her at the end of the year she was so excited about her plans for registering for more dance classes her junior year. I heard later from her resource specialist that dance had made all the difference for Jen’s confidence. I saw first-hand how the arts helped Jen recognize that she had worth and that is more rewarding than all of the perfect test scores I graded combined.

Click here to learn how you can help keep the arts in DC schools.

Holly Taylor Petty with Her Daughter

Holly Taylor Petty
YPT Community Member

Holly Taylor Petty focused her arts education on dance and violin. She earned a BA in Dance Education and is a certified Suzuki violin instructor. Holly taught dance I, dance II and dance company at Payson High School in Utah until last year, when she moved to Washington DC. She became a mommy 9 months ago and is loving staying at home with her daughter, while teaching private violin lessons part-time, as well as taking dance lessons. She is currently involved with a nonprofit organization called Artist Interrupted, which helps female artists balance the performing arts with everyday family demands.

Liza Harbison: It Matters

I grew up on the arts. I drew, sang, danced ballet (as much as one can at five years old), made a miniature world out of clay, played piano, and even attended theater camp. In my tween years, however, popularity was the most important art form of all. Everything my parents liked—and I grew up on—was uncool. I had to rebel. And by that, I mean I had to shun theater and devote my life to 98 Degrees. These were the years of trying in vain to fit in by only liking what my peers liked. (Obviously if I was destined to be one of the cool mainstream kids, I would have chosen NSYNC or Backstreet Boys, but part of me still wanted to go against the grain.)

At fifteen, I started questioning my conformist ways, and the arts helped me decide who I wanted to be independently of others. It was the students who were passionate about the arts who seemed to have a knack for this self-discovery stuff. They were not caught up in the social hierarchy and had no interest in anyone telling them they should be.

Soon, I discovered photography and understood why those artsy kids felt so comfortable with themselves: art changes how you see the world. I still compose photos in my field of vision all the time. Through my lens, I can take the most beautiful parts of the world and hold onto them. I can photograph something horrible or unjust and bring attention to it. Photography also created a confidence in this newly defined sense of self. I knew that I had this passion and that was all that mattered. What else might I have an undiscovered affinity for? There was no longer time to waste on what other people were telling me to want.

I started volunteering at a local theater, became the crazy liberal girl on campus, and generally continued to develop an unusual set of interests throughout my high school years. Of course it was important that I unearthed a passion for photography and graphic design because otherwise I would still be jumping from internship to internship trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But it was what the arts did for me personally, not professionally, that mattered most.

Click here to learn more.

A Young Liza with Her Face Painted

Liza Harbison
YPT Communications and Graphic Design Assistant

Ian Real: It Matters

My name is Ian Real. In my life I have traveled a lot from place to place, and the last place I lived was down south in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That is where I grew a passion for acting. Now, I moved from Argentina to here in DC  in early January, and I thought that one thing I  probably wouldn’t get to do is act . See, I am very nervous and it often takes me a long time in order to feel one with a particular group of people, and especially act in front of them. But I feel that the major thing that YPT’s Young Playwrights’ Workshop has done for me is to give me a place where I can be myself, not be afraid of failure, and act.

The first time I went to the Workshop, I was greeted. And when they asked us to pair up in groups that day, I had very little trouble finding people who wanted me in their group. It was as if they had taken me in already. When I acted that first day, I was applauded, as was everyone else.

The Workshop relaxed me and gave me confidence, as well as strengthened me as an actor through constructive criticism and acting concepts. See, acting to me isn’t just something I do for fun, or to make people happy, it’s a release. It’s a way to get out of the troubles I may face and become someone else, and that’s what Young Playwrights’ Theater gave me. They gave me a place to relax, and act my troubles, my stress and my anger away into something creative, productive and happy. They took me out of a trap door I thought I had fallen into where acting couldn’t happen, and put me in a brightly lit room where I was greeted, encouraged and happy acting.

Young Playwrights’ Theater is a place to go to if any student ever aspires to be an actor, yet from what I hear, we need help. With the government’s budget going down, funding for arts programs is one of the first things to go, and we need your help. With your money, we can make another student like me have a place they see as encouraging, relaxing and free from harmful criticism you can find elsewhere. With your money, we can make one kid less angry, less stressed and less sad about his life.

With your money, we can introduce a student into a world where they could be whatever they want to be, without scorn or harmful laughter. But we need your funding, your donations, to make this all happen.

Click here to learn more.

Watch Ian and other YPT supporters make the case for arts education.

Ian Real
YPT Student

Raina Fox: It Matters

A Young Raina and Her Sister Alina Play Piano

Ever since I can remember I have loved drawing, painting, sculpting things from play-dough. Any opportunity I had to take an object and make it into something else was for me. I loved digging into my imagination and translating that jumble of images into something tangible.

When I was eight years old, I took an art class at the Portland Museum of Art.  One day, we were asked to paint a real person. A model. I remember this class so vividly – the model sat on a stool with an umbrella, posing seriously as fifteen elementary school children painstakingly drew her.

I felt that I had a different kind of responsibility with this picture. It wasn’t just something I had dreamed up in my imagination, it was a human being that I was representing to the world. I remember drawing and redrawing the handle, not being able to figure out the physics of how it could fit into the center of the umbrella itself. You can see from my drawing that I never did figure that out, but I certainly tried my best.

Part way through the class, we hung all our pictures on the wall and stepped back to admire each other’s work. Then we gave each other constructive criticism to use as we finished our pictures. Someone pointed out that the background was boring, so I added a sun (clearly this would create the appropriate weather condition for umbrella-holding). Someone else noticed that I had forgotten the shadow under the model’s chair. Through other people’s eyes, I was able to see the things I couldn’t, and it made my picture better. In return, I offered my suggestions to help others improve their work.

I was really proud of that picture. The teacher must have thought it was okay too because she asked my mom later if the museum could keep it for their collection of children’s art. Instead of answering, my mom replied, “Why don’t you ask the artist?”

In that moment, I felt I had a HUGE decision to make, and no one could make it for me. Should I let the museum have my picture and risk never seeing it again? Or should I keep it so that my family and I could enjoy it later? I decided that my family would probably enjoy it more than strangers, so I decided to keep it. It has hung on the wall of my parent’s home ever since.

This memory is significant for two reasons. First, it represents the first time I was cognizant of the artistic process as something dynamic: a combination of close observation, trusting and supporting my peers and the confidence to realize I was able to tackle something new.

It was also the first time that I felt like a real artist. Having an adult, someone I respected, value my work, was a huge confidence boost. In addition, being respected enough as an artist to be given control over my work forced me to step into that more mature role.

I see this same growth in the playwrights that YPT works with.  In the classroom, students are given the opportunity to write from their imagination and experience, learn from their peers’ constructive criticism and offer their own perspectives. They learn to communicate not only through words on the page, but to work as a team. And when their words are reflected back to them through adult actors, they are forced to take responsibility for their work. They become playwrights.

Arts education helps students express themselves creatively, but it also teaches patience, teamwork, and responsibility.  These are the values I have carried into my adult life, and they are the ones I want future adults to hold. That is why arts education matters.

Click here to learn how you can help keep the arts alive in DC schools.

And be sure to join YPT tonight at GALA Hispanic Theatre for our final performance of the season!

Raina's Painting

Raina Fox
YPT Community Engagement Associate

Devin Ellis: It Matters

My Story

A love for theater is not the usual path to a career in international conflict management – but it happened to me. Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, I was a long way from the gruesome wars that wracked many parts of the world, but it intrigued me to understand why instability happened and how to respond to it and prepare for it. Hearing about the fall of Mobutu’s government in Zaire and the wars in the Balkans on National Public Radio growing up, ignited my interest in a career in foreign policy. I would eventually decide to move to the DC area for college and eight years later I’m on the other side of a graduate degree in international security policy.

But that’s only half the story. My development as an adolescent and young adult was profoundly shaped by my involvement in theater – both in school, taking college acting classes and helping to produce shows, and during the summers through the improv theater camp I attended religiously from the age of ten until… well, now my friends run it and I am waiting for my own daughter to be old enough to go.

The power of theater – acting, writing, directing, etc. – for young people can’t be overstated. It speaks to almost every aspect of development we go through as human beings. Theater can teach you to express yourself by becoming someone else, to articulate your own vision of what’s right and wrong with the world, to create something meaningful to everyone out of your own most personal experiences, to explore the realm of imagination. By opening windows into all kinds of experiences, it helps us grow as young people – imparting life lessons in a creative instead of stultifying way. In my own case, it helped me understand that I could draw together my impressions, ideas and dreams into a unique narrative which would not only hold people’s interest, but could genuinely affect their attitudes and ideas.

I started writing scenes and then whole productions for my friends, and discovered things I had never know about myself before. I could tell a joke. I was able to look at situations and understand people’s motivation. Theater helped me understand how people interact with each other. That helped me understand politics. It also taught me about narrative and how to make people suspend their disbelief and accept the truth you were showing them, whether it was real or not.

Today I still work in theater, but my plays are for the Brookings Institution and the Agency for International Development, the Department of Homeland Security and Ford Motor Company. I spend about a third of my time in a suit and tie, talking to clients about the value of using simulations to teach about crisis management and negotiation, and test hypotheses about policy questions in international security and instability in the business world. The other two thirds – to the envy of most of my colleagues – I am leaning back in my office, feet propped on my desk, imagining what MIGHT happen in a million different situations, and then turning my ideas and research into a simulation that will help two peoples resolve a conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, or a big company decide on a crisis communications strategy.

And yes, when I recently designed a simulation about how Somali pirates negotiate ransom for their hostages, I couldn’t help but put a little quote at the top of the introduction…

“Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valor, and in the grapple I boarded them. On the instant they got clear of our ship; so I alone became their prisoner.”

~ Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 6

Click here to learn how you can help keep the arts alive in DC schools.

Devin Ellis

Devin Ellis
YPT Community Member

Devin Ellis is a Simulation Developer at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management.