Insights from YPT’s Summer Intern

Throughout my primary schooling, I was fortunate enough to have always been a student of the theater. In senior year of high school, I participated in Young Playwrights’ Theater’s In-School Playwriting Program. At the time, I was thrilled to have a creative release built into a school curriculum which was getting old. I was asked to use my voice and be heard in a way that boosted my confidence and excitement for college. Now that I have graduated high school, I cannot help but be concerned with my new role as a student of life; “the real world,” as they call it. The inspiration I’d harnessed with YPT quickly turned from creative momentum to pressure. The question in the forefront of my brain changed from, “What can I do?” to “What will I do?!” As a YPT student I’d learned that playwriting could be a therapeutic tool for expression and communication, but how could my love for theater translate back to the community?

I came to YPT, and they allowed me in yet again, but this time, as an intern. My summer spent with YPT has taught me how theater breeches the confines of the stage and expands to the office, and how the office can extend to the community.

Possibly the greatest reward of working with YPT is that I have gained a more thorough understanding of why theater works with education. Through reading YPT’s curricula and implementing them with youth at summer camps, I have been able to make the connection between the art I love and its educational function. I recall that as a YPT student, I was asked to take responsibility for my voice, to find inspiration and put it to work for me. That training has been put to use in so many ways, even in writing this blog post. Its value, however, is now much better understood since I have also experienced teaching this skill.

YPT gave me the opportunity to work alongside professional teaching artists to implement the curriculum we’d been working on at a summer camp workshop for five to seven year olds. At first the course was all fun and games. The simple drama-oriented games we played were catalysts for releasing energy, and also focusing it. In playing games such as “Kitty Wants a Corner” or “Doctor’s Office,” the class was forced to listen to each other and communicate as directly as possible, given the game’s rules.  Imaginations went wild during these games, and it was our job to give the students tools to put that imagination to work. When we got to creating characters and their enemies, the private lives of students began to peek through the short monologues they were writing. It was incredible to watch these young minds recreate the young lives they were living through the incarnations of a horse who hated people, or a princess who could kiss butterflies, or a pencil who hated the eraser.

In our short hour-long workshops we would explore our physical expression and bodily limits through games, and then we would breech those limits with pen on paper. I helped students sound out the spelling of words and figure out how to speak the thoughts of their characters. The effect of this hands-on learning was strikingly vivid with students so young. The idea of taking on another’s role or voice was radical to them, but as they picked up on it, I could see them really feeling for these characters and articulating more depth into the character’s own psyche.

When we moved on to writing dialogues, it became clear that this class was about more than artistic expression. We were guiding these kids through conflict resolution, and teaching the value of diction and clarity when communicating. We were witnessing the power of imagination, and then offering the tools to give that power a purpose. I would read out a line from a student’s script and the response was either an explosion of new ideas, or an awe-inspired stare. We were giving these students their own words, breathing life into them, and revealing the great influence of language and their power over it.

Back in the office, I would plug away at taking inventory and organizing YPT’s resources, and work with the YPT crew to create their own ongoing, living work of art. In the classroom, my job was to offer the gift of education that would keep on giving— in the students’ social and academic lives. In the office, YPT staff were doing the same. The job of the playwright is to envision all the aspects and needs of a performance. The job of YPT is to envision all the needs of every player—be they the teaching artist, the professional actors, the students, or the community—and then to provide it in order to facilitate the ongoing creation of art and sociality.

The variety of work I have been able to do over this short summer is a testament to the type of organization this is, and the type of people who work here, and further, to the nature of the theater arts. My creative energies have been put to use doing housekeeping of props, keeping in touch with YPT contributors and alumni, working the curriculum hands-on with kids, as well as behind the scenes doing research, and just bearing witness to all the things that go into this world. The staff never fail to have students in mind as they plan events and productions, reach out to community, develop teaching artists, brainstorm opportunities to continue work with former students, reinvigorate curricula, keep up with celebrities (such as Josh Groban) who support arts education, give time to individual students who just want somebody to read their work, or even invest in educating the summer intern!

These people are lovers of art and education, and theater seems to have the perfect make-up for such a combination. Through the medium of performance, YPT gives students the opportunity to turn real life into art and art into real life, thus revealing the artists to themselves. The staff themselves work like artists, drawing inspiration from the youth and using the local community as a resource to turn ideas into action. I was lucky enough to be one such resource this summer, and now I can see, simply enough, potential, in every interaction and every person.

Sarah Giffin
YPT Summer Intern and Playwright Alumna

Curriculum Writing Is Like Playwriting

At YPT one of the best things we have to offer is this magic moment. It’s the moment when a student’s idea is translated into performance through the work of an actor. We’re kind of obsessed with it. Students frequently make this transition from don’t-look-at-me-I’m-hiding-behind-my-hood to wow-I-created-something-so-amazing-I-rock. Performing student work is our way of showing our students that they are smart, creative, and important, instead of just telling them.

I should know. I’ve had my own magic moment with YPT. When I was in the tenth grade at Wilson High School I wrote The Fear and the Pope, a play about two girl criminals. It was the memory of that amazing performance of my first play that got me hooked. I thought, “This is incredible. I LOVE this.” And later that became, “Everyone deserves this.”

Over the past couple weeks it has been my great pleasure to attend the first YPT workshops at many of our partner schools. It’s a treat for me to see our teaching artists in action. Being in the classroom reminds me why we put so much work into our curriculum (something I’ve written about before).

At Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, I sat in on a class led by YPT teaching artist Rachel Stevens. Rachel is a talented actress as well as a talented teacher, and it was wonderful to see her bring her presence as a performer to this room of fifth graders. She hammed it up, they ate it up. And then she asked them, “What makes a good audience member?” Bam. Magic moment. I went from isn’t-it-nice-being-a-passive-observer to I-recognize-that-question! Because, of course, she’s teaching the YPT curriculum. That question had a journey from paper to classroom, and this was its conclusion.

All of a sudden I could see the journey the whole curriculum had taken: years being tested in the classroom; years being revised, reworked and tweaked; finally being questioned and amended and dreamed about this summer; and now, here it was on its feet. Working! Really well! The students identified “listening”, “clapping at the right time”, and “being quiet” as traits of a good audience member. They set the standards, and Rachel held them to those standards during the lesson.

Curriculum writing is like playwriting. It starts on paper, in theory. It has no life until it’s taken up by someone who can skillfully bring it forward to others. The exchange between that teacher/facilitator/performer and her student audience is its purpose.

I am so proud of my role in creating and shaping YPT’s curriculum. I believe in what we are giving to students. It’s just icing on the cake that it’s also personally rewarding (read: magic).

Nicole
Program Manager