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.

Program Assistant

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.

Producing Artistic Director and CEO