Madeline Hendricks: It Matters

When I was seven years old, I auditioned for my first musical at a local children’s theatre program. I was shocked to find that not only did I get into the musical, I got a solo too! The show was called “The People Garden” and it was about a classroom full of elementary school-aged students. I was playing the part of the little girl who always got left out at recess.

I will never forget the first rehearsal. It was just my director, Jill, and me. We were working on my song. Jill kept telling me to sing it over and over again, and every time I just got more and more frustrated. I wasn’t singing the notes right and I kept forgetting the words and I knew the tempo was all wrong. Jill kept insisting that the music didn’t matter; she just wanted me to act. I remember thinking, “What are you talking about? I’m singing. Isn’t that enough?” Suddenly I realized what made those fancy Broadway actors so special. They act and sing at the same time! At that moment, I promised myself I would forget about the music and just focus on the acting.

I remember looking at the clock and seeing that Jill and I only had five minutes left in our rehearsal together. I had one last chance to act and sing at the same time. I took a deep breath, looked at Jill, and sat down where I was supposed to start the song. Jill smiled and winked at me, encouraging me that I could do this. I felt like the world was hanging on my shoulders. Once the music started, I looked out towards the house and opened my mouth to sing. I thought about the character and how she honestly felt like nobody at school cared about her. I thought about the other kids and how cruel they were to her for no particular reason. I remember messing up a few words and notes, but I didn’t care. I was someone else at that moment. I was my character.

When the song ended, I took a deep breath and then looked up at Jill. Before I knew it, she was picking me up and spinning me around, screaming, “You did it! That was it!” I felt like I conquered the world.

This breakthrough moment I had with my director was not life-changing because it made me a better actor—after all, I was only seven. It was life-changing because it taught me a life lesson: if you believe in yourself and focus on the present moment, you will be successful. Since my seven-year-old breakthrough experience, I’ve found that most rules in theatre directly apply to life. For example, always support your fellow actors. Or, actually listen to what your stage partner is saying to you, otherwise you will anticipate rather than live in the moment. These theatrical rules apply to life because the arts and life are intimately connected. Without arts programs, kids would not learn how to build the confidence to express themselves creatively. Arts programs have the potential to change people’s lives at any age—why not start young?

When I volunteered with YPT this past year in Ms. Jone’s fourth grade classroom at Watkins Elementary School, I personally noticed the spark that I once had as a seven-year-old in the eyes of the young, budding playwrights. As a volunteer for YPT, I’ve been able to see how good arts programs shape and form children’s views on life. I think most of us are jealous of children because they have the liberty of always jumping into situations with open arms; they have not yet learned the need to protect themselves or not to trust someone. Arts programs are necessary for children because children are open and ready to explore their creative thoughts. And they have brilliant thoughts! I have loved every moment of volunteering with YPT, and I have no doubt that this program has changed the lives of many young students.

Click here to learn more.

In high school, Madeline got to meet Elton John after her play won the Fidelity FutureStage Playwriting contest.

Madeline Hendricks
YPT Volunteer

Duncan, Rhee, Bobb and Weingarten Debate How to Do the Right Thing

Last week’s Meet the Press featured an all-star education panel, featuring Secretary Arne Duncan, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, and Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools Robert Bobb.  Host David Gregory brought these leaders to the table to discuss what’s next in education reform, in light of the newly released film Waiting for Superman.  I enjoyed seeing such contentious characters at the same table and hearing their various approaches to reform articulated in context of each other. But something also seemed to be missing.  Something bothered me about the conversation. Maybe it was the absolutism of the language offered, as if no middle ground exists between choosing to fire or help bad teachers get better. Or maybe it was the inherent contradictions, including the Secretary’s support of local reform, but his inability to actively support those reforms on the local level. Maybe I was uncomfortable because true reform is extraordinarily sticky and complicated and it’s difficult to boil down to talking points on a morning talk show.

This week I’ve been going back and forth on what bothered me – and today I finally realized what was missing from that conversation – the students themselves. Every person at the table said it’s “all about the students,” as we’ve heard so often in recent years. They emphasized their dedication to serving students better, and to “doing right by our children.”  And yet on this panel, and the entire show, we never heard from students – on what they think, on what they need, on how they think schools need to improve. As we continue to debate these reforms in the press, and people go back and forth on whether recent reforms are effective, unfair, or even racist, we have yet to hear from the students.  At YPT we give students a platform to speak, to express their hopes and dreams for the future, and share their views with the world – and they never disappoint.  They often reveal something deeply unexpected and illuminating, that expert adults would never be able to uncover.

So I applaud NBC’s efforts to focus on the education debate with their week of “Education Nation.” But I challenge all of us to start asking the hard questions of education reform to the students themselves.  What do they need? How do they think reforms are going and how do they think they’re doing? And what do they think makes a great, effective teacher?  At the end of the day, our students have the most to gain or lose in these reforms. Their lives are the ones that will be most greatly affected. And they know most what happens in schools and what doesn’t – and why.  I bet if we started asking them how to fix schools, they’d tell us loud and clear. And then we’d need to do it.

Producing Artistic Director and CEO

YPT Explores Homelessness in DC

This year Young Playwrights’ Theater is working in partnership with Fannie Mae and their Help the Homeless program to create an original play about the issue of homelessness in the Washington metro area. In the coming weeks, we will be implementing workshops at transitional housing facilities and several public schools to discover the many perspectives, feelings and beliefs surrounding this issue that will find their way into our play. Last night, we conducted our very first workshop at Community of Hope, and we were absolutely blown away by the residents there. We had a group of seven women and their children. The first workshop requires participants to play a role in a made-up drama concerning citizens at a town hall meeting who are deciding whether or not to allow a transitional housing facility to move into their neighborhood. Each person is given a character to play in the fictional community, many of whom disagree with the initiative. Since this was our first workshop, we were unsure if our partners would be willing to voice opposition to a transitional housing facility, but the participants played their roles with vigor and honesty. We had quite a debate for our guided drama, and in the end, the community voted to have the “Good Neighbor Transitional Housing Facility” built in their neighborhood. After the play concluded, we reflected on it and asked the participants to speak openly about the varying opinions of the characters they just enacted. They spoke candidly about the way homeless people are stereotyped and the injustice of writing off the problem as drug abuse, mental illness or apathy. Needless to say we were honored to work with these remarkable women and look forward to the rest of our workshops related to this project.

Please start making plans right now to come see this play at our Express Tour Showcase November 3 through November 6. If the experience of last night is any indication of the depth and sincerity we will meet over the next month of conducting these workshops, then you do not want to miss this showcase!

Associate Artistic Director

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

Tips For Elementary School Teaching Artists

by Nicole Jost

In my experience working with elementary school students, classroom management is a big challenge. I find myself entering the space with lots of enthusiasm and a desire to engage these young students, only to be derailed when I can’t get them to listen to instructions. Unlike classroom teachers, who see their students every weekday, I typically only work with students once a week. So how can teaching artists build effective classroom management strategies with such limited time? And how can we do that without becoming evil (read: not fun) teacher dictators?

I got one great idea from a teaching artist who works with YPT, Meg Greene. In her classrooms she uses a tool called “Star Audience Member.” To get students to buy in to this tool, I first asked them what makes a good audience member. (My students offered suggestions like “listening quietly,” “staying in your seat,” “looking at the person who’s talking,” etc.) These traits became my criteria for picking one Star Audience Member per class. The Star gets their name written up on the board, and I also gave him/her a YPT pen as a small prize.

What I love about this tool is that a) you can use it to encourage students to focus (i.e. “I’m still looking for today’s Star Audience Member!”) and b) because the students themselves identify what makes a good audience, they understand the teaching artist’s choice for the Star. A few times, my students guessed who I was going to pick based on their observations during class. There aren’t many complaints of unfairness because basically, they made the rules.

What other strategies do people suggest?

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.