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

David Speaks on the Role of the Arts in Students’ Lives – Why We Do What We Do

This year I and YPT were honored to receive the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation’s Exponent Award for visionary leadership. On Monday, June 7th, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, we received the award during a fun and compelling ceremony that highlighted the importance of the work of nonprofits in our community. I am so grateful to the Meyer Foundation, for the award, but also for the simple opportunity to share a few thoughts about why we do what we do. I’ve had several requests since that evening to post or share my remarks in some way, so here they are. I hope you’ll in some way connect with how we at YPT feel about the arts in students’ lives.

Monday, June 7, 2010
“Thank you so much. I’m so grateful to Julie, Rick, Carmen, Amy, the board of directors and everyone at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, to have their amazing support in my life and the life of Young Playwrights’ Theater. As those of us running organizations know all too well, the proof is in the people. And the Meyer Foundation is filled with true partners, true advocates and true friends to us in the nonprofit sector. I’ve dedicated my life to helping students express themselves and engage the world around them. Because I believe as much as we need to eat, sleep and clothe ourselves to be human, we need to express ourselves. We need to be able to share with our neighbors and the rest of the world what’s bothering us, how others can help us and what we fear or dream of for our future. And that beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, students need to be able to think for themselves. They need to be able to imagine, envision, and explain. They need to understand – not just know, but to understand what they’re learning and why. They need to be able to stand up, put their ideas forward and defend them. And they need to be able to inspire and be inspired.

I know that as I reflect on important moments in my life when I truly learned something, most of them didn’t happen sitting silently at a desk. Most of them were experiences, conversations, dialogues with other people that taught me something I didn’t know and stirred something inside me I didn’t know I had. And in this age of Facebook, Twitter and texting there’s an even greater understanding that comes from being in a room face to face, explaining with our whole selves what we mean, and learning about the world from direct experience and dialogue with our fellow human beings.

So as we’re ensuring that critical needs are met in these challenging times, and that students can do well on the latest standardized tests, I think we need to consider not only what will get us through the night, through the next month or next couple of years, but also what we want to be, what we want to look like and what we want to represent when we get through it.  What kind of society do we want to have? How will students compete in the global arena of ideas if they have none to share? And how can we envision our future if we’re not able to dream?

At Young Playwrights’ Theater we give students the tools they need to engage the world.  And in turn they share their dreams, their fears, their hopes and their visions for the future.  Every student writes a play. Every student hears their play performed by professional actors in the classroom. We share the students’ work with their community through readings, festivals and tours and we pay the students for the opportunity to produce their plays. The students introduce their work and speak about why they wrote what they wrote; they drive rehearsals and recognize their own power in the process. Truancy rates drop when we’re in the classroom. Homework completion soars with our assignments.  We see with our assessments that students’ critical and creative thinking improve dramatically during the program. And teachers, students and parents tell us how much the program has meant to them. Because for many of our students, it’s the first time someone has asked them what they think. It’s their first time to really engage in class.  It’s their first time to tell their stories.  And it’s their first time to realize their own true potential – a revelation of who they are, and who they could be.

Tonight, this honor helps me and all of us at YPT know that what we do matters – that having a vision, and thinking outside the box, makes a difference; that we have partners who believe in our mission; and that service toward a greater good is possible, even today. And that’s a huge gift. I want to thank my fellow recipients, who bring hope, love and strength to so many; thank you to my amazing staff at Young Playwrights’ Theater, Patrick Torres, Brigitte Moore, Elizabeth Andrews, who inspire me every day with their dedication, their passion and their generosity; to our wonderful board of directors and our amazing chair Brian Kennedy; thank you to the greatest Founder a successor could wish for, Karen Zacarias, and of course to our students, for their dedication, their inspiration and their awe-inspiring work; and to my family –  my parents, my sister, my beautiful wife Alex, my son Henry and my two-week old daughter Della for their love and grace in my life. I am grateful to do this work and I am so very grateful to be here tonight.  Thank you very, very much.”

Click here to see more info on the award and the video compilation of the evening, produced by the Meyer Foundation.

Hope to see you soon!

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO