A Superhero Play by a Superhero Student

Dakota Wenberg is not sure what she wants to be when she grows up. She’s thinking she’ll either be a playwright or an astronaut (or maybe both), but she knows she still has a few years to decide.

Dakota is an eighth grade student at Swanson Middle School, and one of the fifteen talented young writers who will be featured in YPT’s 2011 New Play Festival.

I was thrilled when YPT’s Program Manager Nicole Jost invited me to serve as Dakota’s dramaturge and help her revise and develop her play for production. I remembered reading Dakota’s play, A Jewel of a Date, when I participated in YPT’s New Play Festival Reading Committee in January. Each Reading Committee member was responsible for reading and commenting on dozens of student-written plays from YPT’s In-School Playwriting Program, but Dakota’s play stood out for me. I was so impressed by her imaginative characters and her quick, witty dialogue. I remember sitting in my kitchen laughing, reading Dakota’s opening monologue out loud to my husband, and telling him, “YPT has to produce this play.”

A Jewel of a Date is an unconventional superhero story. The play’s protagonist is Superman’s daughter, Supergirl (also known as Liz). Throughout the play, Liz struggles to balance her life as a teenage girl navigating the new and uncertain territories of dating and high school, with her life as a tough, crime-fighting superhero. As Liz says in her opening monologue, “Girl stuff is hard, superhero stuff is super. So girl superhero stuff is SUPER HARD.” The play is often hilarious, sometimes poignant and always thoroughly entertaining.

I loved working with Dakota to develop her story. Dakota is a busy student. Last month, she was the stage manager for her school’s production of Beauty and Beast. She has swim practice every Tuesday. She sings in an after-school chorus at school and a youth choir at her church. But she still managed to come to each of our dramaturgy meetings completely prepared (with a laptop, multiple copies of her play and all of her YPT paperwork completed and signed) and excited to engage in an enthusiastic, focused dialogue about her play.

Dakota turned in the final draft of her play last week. Over the next month, she will have several opportunities to sit in on New Play Festival rehearsals and give the director and actors feedback as they bring her words to life. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks.

Development Director

David’s Lunch with Michelle Rhee

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Michelle Rhee. It was a rare opportunity – 60 minutes of one-on-one conversation with the Chancellor of DC Public Schools, one of the most famous and controversial figures in education today – and a long-term advocate for YPT. My hope was to share with her the latest developments at YPT and to hear her vision for the next steps in the school system. I wasn’t disappointed. I was immediately impressed by her candor, her humor and the clear inspiration she derives from DC students. I shared with her the clear data from our latest, innovative evaluations of student growth in our programs, showing how much students’ critical and creative thinking develop through our process. You can see these results for high school and elementary school on our website. She was impressed – and reiterated that she wished more nonprofits had this kind of data to back up their programs. We discussed how YPT has worked for years with people like Dr. Barry Oreck to develop evaluations that allow us to capture lightning in a bottle – and truly see the impact of our work on student learning.

We talked about the planned arts magnet middle school, and had an in-depth discussion about how the arts community could play a bigger role in helping the school system become the national model we all want it to be. As I said to the DC School Board three years ago when testifying on behalf of the Arts Standards we at YPT helped to write, I believe the school system doesn’t need to spend millions of dollars reinventing the wheel in creating arts programs. Instead, we should find ways to streamline communications between nonprofits and DCPS and pursue funding streams to support the amazing artists and organizations already working with DC Public School students, as we expand and fully integrate our services. With our theatre community now only second to New York City in the nation, Young Playwrights’ Theater and the rest of the community are ready to provide all DC students with high quality arts education experiences. With a true partnership between nonprofits and schools, we could bring professional artists into every classroom and quickly establish a national model for arts integration throughout DCPS – if only the system and our nonprofit community could work more directly, and more clearly, together, as I told the Chancellor.

I also brought up the question of how we as a community can go beyond test scores to gauge and better serve students’ development. We talked about engaging parents more in their students’ education and how the system can better serve parents, families and communities overall. I pledged my interest and support for her efforts in developing a stronger arts education model throughout DC Public Schools and she pledged her continued support of YPT. By the end of the hour we knew each other better, she knew YPT better – and we left the lunch excited to find new ways YPT and DCPS can collaborate. When you come to our upcoming performances or programs, don’t be surprised if you see her there, cheering our students on. Ultimately we both want the same thing – to ensure that DC students receive the world-class education they so richly deserve. Isn’t that really the goal?

Producing Artistic Director and CEO

Arts Education Conference Coming in June!

by Gabby Randle

Hey there Arts Educators,

Here is an amazing opportunity to sharpen your teaching artist skills and hang out with other like minded education leaders from around the country.

Check out the Americans for the Arts Half Century Summit’s Arts Education Pre Conference (June 24). The full summit is June 25-27, but there are two days of Pre Conference devoted to several fields including arts education.

With a focus on sustainable, student-centered arts education this pre conference is designed to facilitate collaboration between arts education professionals. This will be an action oriented forum that aims at appealing to our top decision makers to move arts education into a place of priority in education funding and research. The goal is to have participants leave with the ability to develop support for arts education in their own communities.

Check out an interview with keynote speaker Derrick Ashong and respond to the Green Paper on arts education available on ARTSblog.

Scholarships are still available!


Have any of you attended Americans for the Arts’ annual conference before? How was it?