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

Madeline Hendricks: It Matters

When I was seven years old, I auditioned for my first musical at a local children’s theatre program. I was shocked to find that not only did I get into the musical, I got a solo too! The show was called “The People Garden” and it was about a classroom full of elementary school-aged students. I was playing the part of the little girl who always got left out at recess.

I will never forget the first rehearsal. It was just my director, Jill, and me. We were working on my song. Jill kept telling me to sing it over and over again, and every time I just got more and more frustrated. I wasn’t singing the notes right and I kept forgetting the words and I knew the tempo was all wrong. Jill kept insisting that the music didn’t matter; she just wanted me to act. I remember thinking, “What are you talking about? I’m singing. Isn’t that enough?” Suddenly I realized what made those fancy Broadway actors so special. They act and sing at the same time! At that moment, I promised myself I would forget about the music and just focus on the acting.

I remember looking at the clock and seeing that Jill and I only had five minutes left in our rehearsal together. I had one last chance to act and sing at the same time. I took a deep breath, looked at Jill, and sat down where I was supposed to start the song. Jill smiled and winked at me, encouraging me that I could do this. I felt like the world was hanging on my shoulders. Once the music started, I looked out towards the house and opened my mouth to sing. I thought about the character and how she honestly felt like nobody at school cared about her. I thought about the other kids and how cruel they were to her for no particular reason. I remember messing up a few words and notes, but I didn’t care. I was someone else at that moment. I was my character.

When the song ended, I took a deep breath and then looked up at Jill. Before I knew it, she was picking me up and spinning me around, screaming, “You did it! That was it!” I felt like I conquered the world.

This breakthrough moment I had with my director was not life-changing because it made me a better actor—after all, I was only seven. It was life-changing because it taught me a life lesson: if you believe in yourself and focus on the present moment, you will be successful. Since my seven-year-old breakthrough experience, I’ve found that most rules in theatre directly apply to life. For example, always support your fellow actors. Or, actually listen to what your stage partner is saying to you, otherwise you will anticipate rather than live in the moment. These theatrical rules apply to life because the arts and life are intimately connected. Without arts programs, kids would not learn how to build the confidence to express themselves creatively. Arts programs have the potential to change people’s lives at any age—why not start young?

When I volunteered with YPT this past year in Ms. Jone’s fourth grade classroom at Watkins Elementary School, I personally noticed the spark that I once had as a seven-year-old in the eyes of the young, budding playwrights. As a volunteer for YPT, I’ve been able to see how good arts programs shape and form children’s views on life. I think most of us are jealous of children because they have the liberty of always jumping into situations with open arms; they have not yet learned the need to protect themselves or not to trust someone. Arts programs are necessary for children because children are open and ready to explore their creative thoughts. And they have brilliant thoughts! I have loved every moment of volunteering with YPT, and I have no doubt that this program has changed the lives of many young students.

Click here to learn more.

In high school, Madeline got to meet Elton John after her play won the Fidelity FutureStage Playwriting contest.

Madeline Hendricks
YPT Volunteer

Young Playwright Mariana Pavón Sánchez Speaks at National Award Ceremony with Michelle Obama

On October 20, 2010, YPT received a very special fifteenth birthday present. We won the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the highest honor in the nation for a program like ours. YPT Producing Artistic Director and CEO David Snider, and YPT playwright Mariana Pavón Sánchez spent the afternoon at the White House participating in a private ceremony presented by First Lady Michelle Obama.

YPT was one of only 15 winners selected for this honor, from a national pool of more than 400 nominations. Mariana  was the only youth participant chosen to speak at the award ceremony.

You can watch the entire award ceremony (including Mariana’s speech) here, and you can read Mariana’s speech below:

“Hello, my name is Mariana Pavón Sánchez, and I am an 11th grade student with Young Playwrights’ Theater, or YPT. Just over a year ago I began studying with YPT, as part of my English as a second language class. YPT helped me know that I can express myself through writing – and that what I have to say matters. I wasn’t sure I could do it at first, but then I realized I could write a play about my own life, so I wrote a play called Mariana’s Wish, about my mother and how much I miss her. The YPT teaching artists helped me find my inspiration, shape my ideas on the page and revise my play until it was exactly what I wanted to say.

I was so excited when my play was chosen to be produced in YPT’s citywide New Play Festival. Seeing my play performed by professional actors was an amazing experience – but seeing and hearing the audience’s reaction to my story was even better. They laughed and cried – and I realized the power of my words. My advice to other students: don’t be afraid to express yourself through writing, even if it is something small. It’s important.

I was a very shy student, afraid to speak out. And here I am addressing the First Lady of the United States – and it’s all thanks to Young Playwrights’ Theater, to the arts and the humanities and to the power of my own ideas.

Now I would like to read you the beginning of my play, Mariana’s Wish. It is about my missing my mother in another country, and my father who won’t let me go to see her. I start the play from my point of view, angry because I don’t understand why he won’t let me go. But then I also wrote from his point of view –he is just worried about me. At the end of play we understand each other, and he lets me go. This is the beginning:

‘I came to this country last year. First I wanted to come to learn English. Mi Mami didn’t come with me because her visa expired in 2007, and she and my grandfather are both sick, so she can’t travel. Now I want to go back to Nicaragua to visit, because I miss mi Mami. I miss talking to her every night. I want to taste her vaho that she cooks really well. We used to go outside to El Mirador de Catarina, where we spent hours walking and talking. We talked about boys. She also gave me advice about how I have to act with them. Another thing that I miss is when we talked about what I want to do for my future. I want to do those things with mi Mami again. I want to spend Christmas with mi Mami, mi hermano, mi familia and mis amigos; they are the most important people in my life. I’ve asked my Dad three times before if I can go to Nicaragua but he doesn’t really take me seriously. So this morning before he leaves for work, I’ll talk to him and he’ll have to listen to me.’

Thank you so much!”

You can read more about YPT’s National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award here.

Mariana Pavón Sánchez
Young Playwright

Tips For Elementary School Teaching Artists

by Nicole Jost

In my experience working with elementary school students, classroom management is a big challenge. I find myself entering the space with lots of enthusiasm and a desire to engage these young students, only to be derailed when I can’t get them to listen to instructions. Unlike classroom teachers, who see their students every weekday, I typically only work with students once a week. So how can teaching artists build effective classroom management strategies with such limited time? And how can we do that without becoming evil (read: not fun) teacher dictators?

I got one great idea from a teaching artist who works with YPT, Meg Greene. In her classrooms she uses a tool called “Star Audience Member.” To get students to buy in to this tool, I first asked them what makes a good audience member. (My students offered suggestions like “listening quietly,” “staying in your seat,” “looking at the person who’s talking,” etc.) These traits became my criteria for picking one Star Audience Member per class. The Star gets their name written up on the board, and I also gave him/her a YPT pen as a small prize.

What I love about this tool is that a) you can use it to encourage students to focus (i.e. “I’m still looking for today’s Star Audience Member!”) and b) because the students themselves identify what makes a good audience, they understand the teaching artist’s choice for the Star. A few times, my students guessed who I was going to pick based on their observations during class. There aren’t many complaints of unfairness because basically, they made the rules.

What other strategies do people suggest?