What We Value: The Young Playwrights’ Workshop

I started working with the after-school Young Playwrights’ Workshop last spring. Our students inspired me. (It was not surprising – our students inspire me constantly.) Here was a group of people that were so supportive of one another, so courageous with their art form, so happy to share their thoughts and dreams. Basically, they were a functioning ensemble. It worked.

I wanted to understand how it worked. I’m sure everyone has, at some point in their lives, tried to work together with nine or ten other people and failed. So what was the Workshop doing differently? What was their secret?

I asked them, and here’s what they said:

“We may not all have the same opinions on certain subjects, but the key ingredient that holds us together is respect.”

“We agree on not making fun of people.”

“I love hearing a different approach to the same topic! It’s so wonderful to see something in someone else’s point of view.”

I continued to mull over these responses during the summer. The students were right on about their success. But could it be replicated? I was scared and excited to take over leading the Workshop in the fall. What if this dynamic had been a fluke? What if we couldn’t make it work without the seniors who had gone on to college? What if, what if, what if.

What was needed was a way to inspire the new Workshop the same way last year’s students inspired me. We needed to name what was important, and to agree on what we were working towards. As excited as everyone was about the product (the performance in June), it was just as important to have a rewarding process. How did the Workshop want to get where it was going?

Again, all I had to do was ask. I borrowed from Michael Rohd’s excellent book Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue, leading the new and returning students in a values clarification exercise. I read various statements and asked the students to move to a different spot in the room, depending on whether they agreed, disagreed, or were unsure. I found out where there was consensus and where there was discord. For example, I read: “I am here to make friends.” There were different opinions in the group. Some students disagreed, saying that they preferred to focus on achieving the goal of performance. Others spoke to their experience in the workforce, saying that you don’t have to be best friends with someone to get a job done. On the other hand, some students expressed that friendships can help with collaboration – when you know someone well you can communicate easily. The point of the exercise is not to debate each statement, just to understand the different points of view that are present in the room. (In that way the exercise fit in with the reflections of last year’s ensemble.)

I also asked students to write towards this question of values individually. I ended up with a wealth of raw material to draw from, and only needed to give it shape. The ensemble unanimously approved these values on October 19. These are the values that the Workshop will strive to live out this year:

  • Respect: We are a team. We treat every member of the team with respect, and we embrace each other’s differences. It is never okay to make fun of someone’s idea.
  • Collaboration: We work together by making a thread. We each add a little piece of fiber and in the end we get this rope. We are all linked together by this passion that brings us understanding and abundant knowledge about each other and our world.
  • Freedom of Expression: We want this program to be a place where a person can freely express their opinions. All ideas are important. All ideas are considered.
  • Evolution: We are here to grow as writers and actors.
  • Commitment: We depend on each other as a team. We each take pride in our own work and the work of the whole group. We always try our best.
  • Impact: We want people to be inspired by our work. We will create theater that is relevant to our community, and will make people think.
  • Fun: This is not school, and it shouldn’t feel like school. We are here to have fun!

The values are posted on the walls of the studio for everyone to see. I asked the students to sign contracts, agreeing to uphold these values, and to hold each other to them as well. And that includes me! I hope that if I become boring, someone will just raise their hand and point to “Fun.” That’ll teach me.

If you want to join the Workshop, click here. We’d love to have you.

Nicole
Program Manager

YPT Kicks Off Our Fifteenth Birthday Season

After working at Young Playwrights’ Theater for about two weeks, I attended the New Writer’s Now! Kick-Off Party last Tuesday evening – my first YPT event! As the new Development Assistant, I’ve jumped right into updating contacts in the database, putting together mailings and trying to learn the names of everyone and everything, from staff, to board members, to important programs. So it was a nice change of pace to attend the New Writers Now! Kick-Off and see a first-hand example of one of these projects, and even match a few faces to the names I’ve seen in our giant database.

The party was small and intimate, with everyone sitting around tables in the YPT studio space chatting and, in my case, meeting new people. The variety of attendees really represented all different parts of the YPT family. I met students, friends and family of students, local actors, staff and even board members and supporters. As we sat around snacking on treats (including our artistically arranged cracker and cheese plates) I was able to talk to some of the students that YPT works with, and I had a great conversation about social media and DC-area theater with a board member and a long-time supporter of YPT. At larger organizations, funders and board members can often seem inaccessible and intimidating to a new staff member, so it was great how friendly and approachable everyone at the Kick-Off Party was, and how enthusiastic they were about the new season. The event also included teaser scenes from a few upcoming YPT student works, and as someone who has never seen a YPT reading before, I was very impressed by the quality of the work. It’s events like these that help us get through the occasional long day of data entry or stuffing envelopes, and I’m eager to see the full plays in the coming months!

Overall, I think the New Writers Now! Kick-Off Party summed up my impression of YPT so far: a small company with a family-like feel, yet made up of a wide variety of people drawn together by their enthusiasm for the arts and their support for the unique work that YPT does. I’m amazed by the impressive number of students that we reach (especially considering our small core staff) and I’m beyond thrilled to have joined the YPT team. I’m looking forward to meeting more people and seeing some great new theater in the upcoming season!

Click here to see photos from the New Writers Now! Kick-Off Party.

Alison
Development Assistant

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