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.

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Laurie performs at the American College Theatre Festival.

Laurie Ascoli
YPT Program Assistant

Elementary School Musical

Every Sunday night when I was growing up, my dad would pick up ice cream sundaes from our local diner and we would eat them together while watching The Simpsons. It was a great tradition, but as I got older I lost interest in the show and moved on to more sophisticated programming like Nick News with Linda Ellerbee. When I heard that this week’s Simpsons episode would feature brilliant folk parody duo Flight of the Conchords, however, I had to tune in.  Little did I know how much the episode would appeal to me: it focuses on artists and arts education, specifically Lisa’s week-long trip to an arts camp.

Lisa is sent to the camp while her brother, Bart, is in Stockholm accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with Krusty the Klown (of course), and she immediately falls in love. In her week at camp, she performs mime and Mame, makes wallets with Stephen Sondheim, and learns that artists “make society see its faults clearer”, “help stamp out oppression and wars”, and “end poverty with music and dance”. “I’ve finally found the place I belong,” Lisa sighs. Soon her week is over, however, and she has to return to school where the bullies ask her about “farts camp” and her teachers tell her she’ll never reach her dreams.

While in my experience, being an artist isn’t quite as unpopular as it is in Springfield, I certainly identify with being the awkward kid in school and then finding a home in the arts; one of the few things I liked about elementary school was my after-school drama program.  And now, as an arts educator with Young Playwrights’ Theater, I get to see this in my classes all the time: kids who are uncomfortable and unsure of themselves finding their footing through drama, writing, music and dance.

While The Simpsons hit the nail on the head with the importance of arts education, what I found most interesting and relatable about the episode was the uncomfortable truths it revealed about working as an artist. When Lisa runs away from home to find her camp counselors in Sprooklyn, Springfield’s most artistic borough, she discovers that life as an artist is not all she dreamed it would be. By day they work at a sandwich shop, stealing tomatoes to get by, while by night they play guitar in a run-down, nearly empty night club. “Are you saying that arts camp was a lie?”  Lisa asks in horror. While her counselor responds sheepishly with, “Well…not the swimming”, I have to disagree.

All of us who work in the arts have that shattering moment when we realize that what we love most in the world offers little comfort or stability, which is why the passion that Lisa discovers at camp is essential to a career in the arts. Even those of us who are fortunate enough to make our living in the arts have struggled and paid our dues with less fulfilling day jobs, but the end result is getting to do work that we love and believe in, and getting to work with others who are equally passionate.

In the end of the episode, Lisa decides to return to Sprooklyn when she is older and less naïve, and even though The Simpsons haven’t aged in 22 years, I hope she does. I know she could find an easier life in a more stable career, but nothing is worth trading the one place you know you belong.

Laurie
Program Assistant

Interview with Katherine Latterner

Theater Educates interviews a different arts educator each month, to get his or her take on our field. This month we talk to Katherine Latterner of Fillmore Arts Center.

What is your current position?

Katherine: I am currently Principal of the Fillmore Arts Center, a District of Columbia Public School.  Fillmore provides the arts education to 12 DCPS elementary schools and serves 2,600 students at two sites.  Artist teachers provide visual arts, music (including strings and band), dance and drama instruction.

How did you become an arts educator?

Katherine: I began studying piano and voice at an early age and began my college career as a music performance major.  I realized that I would not become a concert pianist and switched my major to English.  After college I worked at a non-profit but continued my involvement in music.  When my children were very young, I discovered they had minimal music instruction in school and I began volunteering as a music teacher.  I studied Orff and Kodaly and became a music teacher at Fillmore where I taught music (and creative writing for 14 years).  I obtained a masters in educational leadership and became the Director of Education for the Musical Theater Center, returning to Fillmore as the principal five years ago.

Did you have any mentors in the field? If so, how did they influence you?

Katherine: My family was always involved in music (mother and grandmothers).  My first real mentor was my piano and voice teacher, Lewis Grubb.  We lived in a small town in Delaware, but he had performed in Philadelphia and New York and exposed me to a wealth of literature and experiences (singing with adult groups in Wilmington and Philadelphia).

There is a lot of debate among educators, administrators and policymakers about arts integration vs. art for arts sake. What is your opinion of this debate? Do you favor one side over the other?

Katherine: I think it makes perfect sense to make connections between the arts and other disciplines.  Using the arts to teach numeracy, literacy, social and physical sciences allows children with varying learning styles to more easily access this information and to use both right and left brain modalities.  However, the push has been to have arts education focus in Arts Integration to the exclusion of the arts as important disciplines.  I am a strong proponent of having a high quality arts education for arts sake.

What advice do you give young people who want to make a career in the arts?

Katherine: Pursuing the arts as a career may not be the most financially rewarding choice (except for a very few people), but it is certainly a personally rewarding choice.  If you have a passion for the arts,  you should pursue it.  Examine the multiple ways you can work in the arts (performer, teacher, production, etc.) .

What advice do you give early-career arts educators?

Katherine: Do not neglect the impact of technology on the students of today.  Explore ways you can incorporate technology and please keep your activities interesting and “fun” for your young students.  You job is to foster a love of the arts in your students so they can not only be participants, but also arts audience members and supporters.

Every educator has a different definition of success. Can you tell us about a time when you felt successful as an arts educator?

Katherine: I have had students go on to great commercial success, but it is the everyday successes (the shy child who performs a dance or sings a solo on stage, the class cut-up who really shines as the “king” in the drama performance, the beautiful ceramic bowl made by a child who said he was “no good” in art) that make me feel most successful as an arts educator.