“One in the Chamber” Response Plays

OITC 1
(L to R) Noah Chiet, Dwight Tolar, Adrienne Nelson, Liz Osborn and Danielle Bourgeois in One in the Chamber

In late 2014, former YPT Teaching Artist and longtime supporter Adrienne Nelson approached YPT’s Student Advisory Council with a compelling project. She and her team were launching the DC premiere of One in the Chamber, a new play about children and gun violence, and they wanted the Council to get involved.

Stage Fright-503Seeking young people’s perspectives on guns, the Chamber team invited the Council to write response pieces to the play. Four students wrote pieces, and two were selected for a FREE staged reading after the closing performance on Sunday, September 6.

Read excerpts from the four response plays below, then come to Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint on 9/6 for a gripping performance and free staged reading! The play begins at 8pm, the reading at 9:30pm.

RSVP on Facebook for more information!

Featured Plays

Our Crafted Night, by Cameron Byrd

Cameron ByrdWINNAH: Guns are okay and all– But who’d want a gun as a gift. I’d rather have skates or a bike.

ELENA: I didn’t know you knew how to handle a gun.

WINNAH: I don’t. I’m not even allowed to know where it is in the house. But every time my father goes out hunting, he comes back with dead squirrels, rabbits. Once he even brought back a whole deer. I felt horrible at first, just lying there looking pitiful. But once momma cooked it, it was delicious.

ELENA: Well your father’s rules apply here in the palace too, Winnah. No handling of anything that looks like its dangerous.  And the same goes for Anna too, okay? There’s a lot going on these days, and I want you both to stay safe. Promise me.

WINNAH: Okay, I promise.

The Life and Times of Julie Parker, by Anna Vargas

IMG_8080ANDY (ADULT): They say when you die, your life flashes before your eyes.

LIGHTS UP on JULIE (YOUNG) standing neutral in front of a swingset as ANDY (ADULT) continues to speak from the side of the stage, papers in his hand.

ANDY (ADULT): I find that ridiculous. First of all, if your entire life was condensed into a single flash, a single moment, it would go by so fast you won’t be able to register the fact that it was your life before it would be over. So for this to be true, it would have to be select scenes from your life. But what dictates what parts are chosen? The happiest moments? The moments most crucial to your development as a person? The saddest moments? Your first steps? Your first breath? What could be so important to relive right before you forget it all?

Finalist Plays

Red Cabinet, by Paul McCoyer

Paul McCoyerELIZA: Ben.

BEN: What?

ELIZA: Can you play checkers with me?

BEN: Sure, lemme go get the board…

He exits. ELIZA notices the red cabinet.

ELIZA: (Shouting) Ben!

BEN: (Shouting from offstage) What?

ELIZA: (Shouting) What’s in the red cabinet?

BEN: (Shouting from offstage) I dunno, why don’t you open it if you’re so curious?

ELIZA sighs, gets up from the table, and opens the cabinet door. She removes a small handgun from the cabinet with a mixed look of curiosity and awe and takes it back to the table with her. BEN re­enters.

BEN: Couldn’t find the checkers and (Tone changes to a worried one) WOAH where did you get that??

ELIZA: (Nonchalantly) In the red cabinet.

BEN: (Nervously) You know what that is, right, Liz?

ELIZA: Yeah. It’s a gun. It’s cool.

BEN: No, no, it’s not cool, it’s dangerous, and you need to put it down right now.

Dodge, by Will Larrocca

Will Larroca(MICHAEL is at a bar.)

M: Bourbon.

(ASHLEY walks next to him.)

A: A Budweiser please.

(She glares at him.)

M: Do I know you?

A: No.

M: Then do you mind not glaring at me? (ASHLEY still glares at him.) Oh, I get it. You watch the news.

A: Maybe.

M: So I’m going to guess that you know who I am.

A: Yes.

M: I’m gonna take another guess and say that you don’t like me.

A: (Sarcastically) You’re good at this.

M: Thank you. Well, let’s get this over with. What do you want to say to me?

A: I just want to let you know that I think you should be ashamed of yourself.

M: (Sarcastically) Wow, you think I should be ashamed! That really hurts my feelings. Well, I don’t feel ashamed so you can save that one.

A: Really? You don’t feel any guilt?

M: Nope. I mean, I’m sorry that he died, but I’m not ashamed of anything I did.

For more of these powerful, poignant student-written plays, come to the FREE staged reading on Sunday, September 6 at 9:30pm! Click here for tickets. Recommended for ages 13 and up due to adult subject matter.

OITC cast

A New Beginning

Welcome Thembi-67res

Dear YPT family,

Hello! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Thembi Duncan and I am YPT’s new Creative Programs Director. I am overjoyed to meet all of you, and to take on a leadership role in an organization I have loved and admired for so long!

Allow me to tell you a bit about myself: I was born and raised in the DC area, studied Theatre at the University of Maryland and have been dedicated to DC’s young people and performing arts community throughout my artistic career here. I began as an actor, then transitioned into playwriting, teaching and producing—though I still find myself on stage every so often. 🙂 Before coming to YPT, I was the Lead Teaching Artist at Ford’s Theatre, the Producing Artistic Director of the African Continuum Theatre Company and a co-founder of UMD’s Black Theatre Symposium.

YPT Company
YPT actors from long ago!

When I was first getting my start in DC theater, I met an up-and-coming playwright named Karen Zacarías, who told me about a new arts education nonprofit she had founded called Young Playwrights’ Theater. Before she could even finish explaining it to me, I was hooked. The idea of creating avenues for young people to freely express themselves, and then hiring professional actors to realize their visions, spoke to me on so many levels: as an artist, a black woman and a new mother, I saw right away the potential for YPT to transform young peoples’ lives. “Where do I sign up?” I asked. Karen Evans, YPT’s Managing Director at that time, was another huge influence on my decision to contribute my talents to the nurturing of young playwrights.

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Reading my piece at Silence Is Violence

For the next several years, I worked on and off with YPT, performing student-written plays alongside such DC theatre luminaries as Jefferson Russell and KenYatta Rogers. My crowning achievement as a YPT actor came when I was cast as Lil’ Red in Lil’ Red in Da Hood, a YPT Communitywrites! production that we performed at the Carnegie Institute of Washington and the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Since then, I have stayed involved with YPT in an artistic capacity, most recently reading a poem I wrote at Silence Is Violence, YPT’s inspiring #BlackLivesMatter community event.

Though, over the last few years, my career has taken me away from working directly with YPT, the organization and the young people it serves have always been near and dear to my heart. Thus, when I found out that YPT was hiring a Creative Programs Director, I jumped at the chance! This truly is a dream job for me, as it not only combines my two great loves—theater and education—but it also gives me a chance to make a difference in the lives of DC’s young people, every single day.

Tubman Beaut Day 2015-8
Volunteering at Tubman Elementary School with my daughter, Nadia

I am truly grateful to the YPT team for entrusting me with this mission, and to the YPT family for supporting this work for over 20 years. I cannot wait to meet the young playwrights of the 2015-16 In-School Playwriting Program, dive into our 2015-16 performance season and help plan exciting new collaborations with students and artists across DC and beyond! Stick around—it’s going to be a great year.

Again, it is a great honor to be a part of this terrific organization, and I look forward to accomplishing great things together. I hope to meet each and every one of you at our upcoming performances and events!

All my best,

Thembi Duncan
Creative Programs Director,
Young Playwrights’ Theater

Welcome Thembi-53res

YPT’s 20th Anniversary Season: A Look Back

20Fest logo FINAL

That’s a wrap!

YPT’s 20th anniversary performance season is in the books, and it was one for…well, the books.

In the last seven months, YPT has held six unique performances, featuring a grand total of 41 student-written plays. Over 100 professional theater artists participated in YPT’s productions this year, including actors and directors from ten different DC-area theater companies. Nearly 1,000 people attended our free productions, and were inspired to donate upwards of $2,000: enough to fund one more classroom in our 20 Classroom Challenge!

In honor of a record-breaking year of student-written theater, we wanted to remember some of the highlights from a season we’ll never forget!


20Fest Flier FINAL FINALYPT’s 20th Anniversary Festival
Friday, December 12, 2014
7pm
Theater J

YPT’s 20th anniversary season began with a celebration of our rich history: the 20th Anniversary Festival! Featuring twenty of the best plays written in YPT’s first twenty years, 20Fest brought together ten local companies to remount the student pieces in their own signature styles.

From Rorschach Theatre’s reimagining of Ally in Blunderland to Faction of Fools’ commedia dell’arte take on Magnet Dude, 20Fest honored twenty years of young playwrights with transcendent interpretations and performances of their work. Thank you to all who took part in 20Fest – it was such a joy to see the DC theater community rally around young voices!

For photos from 20Fest, click here.
For video of the performance, click here.
To buy Write to Dream, the book containing all the 20Fest plays, click here!

20Fest Perf-298


Silence is Violence flier FINALSilence Is Violence: A #BlackLivesMatter Event
Tuesday, January 29, 2015
7pm
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

At the dawn of 2015, the #BlackLivesMatter movement had grown into a nationwide outcry against racial injustice and police brutality. Seeing that DC’s young people had little chance to share their own reflections on the movement, YPT did something we’ve never done before: we held a pop-up event.

Conceived and organized in under two weeks, Silence Is Violence: A #BlackLivesMatter Event was an open mic-style forum for artistic and community expression. Before a packed house at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, eleven adult and four youth artists performed works of poetry and prose, including a group reading of response pieces written by sixth graders at Eliot-Hine Middle School.

The event culminated in a space for community artistic response, including a group mural and an #IHaveADream ribbon activity led by activist Omolara Williams McCallister. It was incredible to see so many people empowered to speak their minds!

For photos from Silence Is Violence, click here!
To read the student pieces from the event, visit our blog, Silence Is Violence DC.

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Photo by ShelbyWorks

NWN nofilter flier v2New Writers Now! #nofilter
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
7pm
Anacostia Playhouse

Just two weeks after Silence Is Violence came New Writers Now! #nofilter, YPT’s first professional staged reading of 2015.

In honor of Black History Month, #nofilter featured four powerful plays written by black female students in our In-School Playwriting Program. Presented by YPT in partnership with Wild Women Theatre, the performance captivated the capacity crowd with tales of murder and mystery, love and kinship, teen homelessness and much more.

Through this celebration of young black voices, we were honored to continue the conversation around the #BlackLivesMatter movement. After the show, audience members were invited to contribute their own experiences to the community mural begun at Silence Is Violence.

For photos from #nofilter, click here!
For complete video of the performance, click here.

NWN nofilter-97


2015 NPF Postcard FRONT FINALThe 2015 New Play Festival
April 20-22, 2015
7pm
GALA Hispanic Theatre

After #nofilter came our biggest performance event of the season: the 2015 New Play Festival!

This year’s Festival spanned three nights, featuring fifteen brand-new works written by YPT students. The plays brought to life tales of samurai warriors and dreadlock-nappers; brothers and sisters and fathers and sons; poets, playwrights and, of course, vengeful bacon strips.

The 2015 New Play Festival drew over 400 people to GALA Hispanic Theatre and raised over $1,800, making it among the most successful New Play Festivals in YPT history!

For photos from the 2015 New Play Festival, click here!
Videos from the Festival are not yet online, but you can watch the promotional “showdown” videos here!

To buy the 2015 New Play Festival book, featuring all 32 Featured and Finalist plays, click here!

NPF 2015 Group B-215


Stage Fright flier FINALThe Student Advisory Council Presents: Stage Fright
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
7pm
Busboys and Poets

The close of the New Play Festival marked the end of YPT’s professional performance season, but our students were not done sharing their work!

The Student Advisory Council, a group of YPT alumni who advise our staff and create new work together, followed up last year’s Dear Mr. Stein with a new original play, Stage Fright. Through a series of vignettes and monologues—some funny, some poignant—Stage Fright addressed our everyday fears and not-so-everyday phobias.

The play culminated in a Choose Your Own Adventure piece that brought the audience into the performance, and raised over $200 for YPT in the process!

For photos from Stage Fright, click here!
For the full video of the show, click here!

Stage Fright-503


YPW Presents 2015 flier FINALThe Young Playwrights’ Workshop Presents: The Art of Understanding
Monday, June 15
7pm
Source

YPT’s 2014-15 performance season concluded with The Art of Understanding, an original play written and performed by the teen artists of our award-winning Young Playwrights’ Workshop!

Weaving together dramatic vignettes and personal poems, The Art of Understanding addressed the subject of mental health through a variety of genres and perspectives. From love stories to tales of escape, the play explored the experience of people with eating disorders, multiple personality disorder, depression and much more.

Presented by CulturalDC as part of the 2015 Source Festival, The Art of Understanding wowed the crowd and sparked a valuable dialogue about mental illness, representation and the creative process. The night ended with a dessert reception celebrating an incredible season and paying homage to those Young Playwrights’ Workshop members moving on to college and more!

For photos from The Art of Understanding, click here!
For an interview with three graduating Workshop seniors, click here!

YPW 2015 Performance-213


Thank you for supporting YPT’s 20th anniversary performance season! We’ll see you in the fall!

The 2015 New Play Festival: Super Awesome Extras

2015 NPF Postcard FRONT FINAL

YPT’s 2015 New Play Festival is just around the corner! April 20-22, 2015, at 7pm at GALA Hispanic Theatre, our dedicated team of professional actors, directors and dramaturges will bring to life fifteen vivid and compelling plays written by YPT students ages 8-17.

This year’s Festival, the culmination of YPT’s 20th Anniversary season, will be our biggest and best yet! The fifteen plays we’re featuring this year come from a pool of over 1,000 submissions – more than we’ve ever received before. NPF 2015 Book Cover FRONTAnd boy, are they spectacular! From the riotous tale of a bacon strip’s vengeance to hard-hitting family dramas, these plays reflect the diverse voices of our intelligent, inquisitive and imaginative students.

We received so many great submissions, in fact, that we couldn’t fit them all into one show! Seventeen other plays, which were named as Finalists for the Festival, will be published alongside the Featured Plays in our 2015 New Play Festival book, available for purchase on Amazon.

But the creativity of our young playwrights did not stop with their Finalist or Featured Plays – many of them have sent us other pieces of written or visual art that couldn’t make it into the book. Thus, we present to you:

The 2015 New Play Festival: Super Awesome Extras

Featured Plays

The Trip to the New World, by Aijah T. Royal

The Trip to the New World tells the tale of a teenage girl stuck inside High School World, who dreams of traveling to the Real World. Even before the play was selected for the Festival, Aijah had already sketched out her vision for what the two worlds look like! Check it out, and see The Trip to the New World live onstage on Monday, April 20!

Trip to the New World scene

Losxy Docxy, by Evan Alston

Based on an African folk tale, Evan Alston’s Losxy Docxy is the spooky story of a being that comes out at night to snatch people with dreadlocks and take them away to his lair. Evan himself, however, is far from spooky: in fact, he’s just about as cute as can be! He’s also an accomplished poet, and read this heart-warming piece at YPT’s Giving Voice Award Gala in early March:

Dear fellow student. You have just found this hidden capsule. So for your reward I’ll tell you a poem about the Young Playwrights Theater.

Processed with VSCOcam with f1 presetAfter this poem, I know you’ll be a fan.
After this poem I 
know you’ll understand.
After this poem you won’t be 
tired,
after this poem you’ll be inspired.

The Young Playwrights are the best.
They are better than 
all the rest.
The Young Playwrights are so cool,
So cool 
just like school.

They will take your hard work and creativity,
and help 
you be the best you can be.
YPT is so much fun.
They 
have enthusiasm for everyone.

So if you want to write a play you better come on in,
because with YPT you’re going to win!!!

Written by Evan Alston

See Losxy Docxy on Night Two of the Festival, Tuesday, April 21!

Finalists

The Hero Who Called Himself Faith, by Scott Lake

During his In-School Playwriting Program, Chelsea School student Scott Lake wrote an epic fantasy play called The Hero Who Called Himself Faith. We were astounded by the richness of the world he created, and are happy to share the script in the book! Just before we sent the book off to print, Scott sent us more background on the play, along with two AMAZING drawings his friend Jordan Barron made of the hero James and the evil Demon King. Take a look!

There once was a war between Man and Demon. Neither side could win, but the Demon King had a trick up his sleeve: his weapons were made out of a rare alloy forged out of misery.

The Demon King used many slaves working in his mine to look for this rare alloy. He captured many villages and made them work in the mine. The Demon King killed many people and made some of them work till death. The miners would feel very miserable and scared when they worked and it made the weapons even stronger.

But one man with pure heart stole some of this rare alloy and forged the Sword of Faith, the Helm of Wisdom and the Shield of Strength. These weapons made the Demon King retreat back to his domain.

But all good heroes die; before he died, he saw a vision from the Helm of Wisdom that when he died the Demon King would return and take over. But he saw a child that was purest of heart and would vanquish the Demon King. He told his oldest and strongest son to take the Shield of Strength to the eastern mountains with a huge army waiting for this child. Then he told the smartest and wisest son to take the Helm of Wisdom to the south and train this child. He told his last son that he should go west to look for the child, so he gave his son a piece of his sword and told him, “It will glow when you find this child.”

When he died, his body was hidden in the mountain with the sword guarded by a dragon. The only way to get the Sword of Faith is to solve this riddle, and the riddle is: “I shall raise my sword only to Evil and put it down for Good.”

James, holding the Sword of Faith and the Shield of Strength and wearing the Helm of Wisdom.
James, holding the Sword of Faith and the Shield of Strength and wearing the Helm of Wisdom.
The evil Demon King!
The evil Demon King!

YPT Then and Now

Happy New Year! Traditionally at this time, we present a countdown of things that we are excited for in the coming year. In honor of our 20th Anniversary, we are mixing it up a bit this year!

Start your 2015 with this list of ten YPT milestones: Then and Now. Join us in celebrating our past and gearing up for the future!

This list was first published on our Facebook page, and is being reposted here with a few edits and additions.

Writing

10

Then: In 1997, YPT celebrated our first year as an official nonprofit, offering programs in three schools in Washington, DC.

Now: YPT is projecting to serve 2,500 students in 27 schools across all eight wards of DC. We are honored to provide the opportunity for so many young people to share the power of their own voices with their communities! None of this would be possible without the support of our partner schools, our donors and funders, the DC theater community and the rest of the incredible YPT family. Thank you all for 20 great years!

 

9

ypt-pvogel-14Then: In 2012, YPT held our first ever Giving Voice Award Gala, honoring playwright Paula Vogel. The event was a huge success and Paula even led a playwriting workshop with our students beforehand!

Now: YPT’s 20th Anniversary Giving Voice Award Gala will be our biggest gala yet! The event will be held on Saturday, March 7, 2015 at 7pm at the National Press Club. Much more to come, so mark your calendars!

 

8

Then: In 2010, we launched our first In-School Playwriting Program at Lincoln Multicultural Middle School, establishing a continuum of programming between it and its feeder high school, Bell Multicultural High School.

Now: Through our Dream Impact Map, we are seeking to establish elementary, middle and high school continuums in Wards 1, 7 and 8 of DC. These will allow us to serve students in those neighborhoods three times during their scholastic careers! We can’t wait to work with them as they blossom into mature, creative and empowered adults.

 

7

Then: In 2011, YPT was excited to launch our programming at Powell Elementary School, reaching students in the Petworth neighborhood for the first time.

Now: We can’t wait to return to Powell this spring and expand into a new classroom as part of our 20 Classroom Challenge! (Cool fact: our 2015 Giving Voice Award recipient is an alumna of Powell. Who is she? Stay tuned to find out!)

Want to sponsor our new classroom at Powell? Visit our 20 Classroom Challenge page to learn more!

 

6

Then: In 2010, YPT received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. YPT student Mariana Pavon Sanchez was the only youth participant invited to speak at the ceremony. She told the large audience, which included Mariana at the White HouseFirst Lady Michelle Obama: “Don’t be afraid to express yourself through writing. It’s important.”

Now: YPT remounted Mariana’s play as part of our 20th Anniversary Festival, our celebration of 20 years of student voices and DC theater. GALA Hispanic Theatre brought Mariana’s play to life again in a powerful and resonant way!

 

5

Then: In 1999, YPT moved into the Josephine Butler Parks Center with four full-time staff members.

Now: We are proud to employ a staff of 11 artist-administrators, dozens of Teaching Artists and over 30 professional theater artists hired to bring our students’ work to life onstage and in the classroom.

Help us keep growing and support DC’s arts community by giving to YPT today!

 

4

Tech-284resThen: In 2008, YPT launched the Young Playwrights’ Workshop, an after-school ensemble open to students interested in creating and performing original, collaborative theater.

Now: YPT’s Workshop has grown more than we could have imagined, with students performing their original pieces in the Capital Fringe FestivalINTERSECTIONS and CulturalDC‘s annual Source Festival. Our students are currently hard at work on their piece for this year and we can’t wait to see their play premiere at Source on June 15, 2015 at 7pm.

 

3

Then: In 2008, we offered our first In-School Playwriting Program at Claremont Immersion School in Arlington, VA, expanding our flagship program beyond DC proper for the first time.

Now: In 2014, we took the next huge step, launching our first In-School Program at a school outside the DMV entirely: Graciela Garcia Elementary School in Pharr, Texas. Led by Teaching Artist Catherine DiSanza, Garcia’s fourth graders produced incredible work and improved their standardized test scores by 7 points in writing and 11 points in reading! The program has grown by leaps and bounds since then, and we can’t wait to reach even more of South Texas’ bright and inventive young people.

2

Then: In 2009, YPT premiered Choosing Change, a collaborative piece created by adjudicated youth at Oak Hill Academy, in partnership with Mentoring Today and the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Through poetry, Choosing Changeprose and interactive storytelling, Choosing Change shared the heart of those who traveled through the DC Juvenile Justice System – and how the system is regaining its heart.

Now: Oak Hill is now New Beginnings Youth Development Center, and YPT will bring our program to a new group of scholars there this spring. Recently, New Beginnings teacher Chelsea Kirk told us: “[Your] playwrights … helped my scholars see that their life stories and the struggles, successes, issues, and concerns that they face each day shouldn’t be hidden or untold, but … can come to life.” It is our honor to help these young people bring their stories into the world.

1

Then: In 1995, playwright Karen Zacarías returned to her hometown of DC with an MFA in playwriting and a deep desire to use her art to positively impact her community. She began volunteering teaching playwriting in one school and our story began.

Now: Now in our 20th year, YPT serves over 2,000 students per year across the DC metro area and beyond. Our professional productions bring over 25 student-written plays into the community every year, and our special projects have impacted young people from Texas to Detroit to Russia.

Ring in the new year with a gift to YPT and see where our work will take us next!

Lauren Watches Professional Actors Perform Her Play

YPT’s New Play Festival Book Giveaway

Every year, YPT’s New Play Festival features 15 of the best plays written by our students across Greater Washington. We also publish an annual New Play Festival Book, which features all 15 plays from the Festival, as well as the 15 finalist plays. All 30 students are honored onstage and given free copies of the book.

This year, YPT took this a step further, sharing the book of student voices with the DC community in a city-wide Book Giveaway. A group of dedicated volunteers from George Washington University’s Generic Theatre Company joined YPT for the day-long event, and we asked Caroline Crook to share her experience from the day.

YPT volunteers in front of the Big Chair
YPT volunteers in front of the Big Chair

Hello all! I’m Caroline Crook, a sophomore at George Washington University and Assistant Artistic Director in our student-led Generic Theatre Company. I reached out to Generic at first because it seemed like a fun, social way to keep theater in my college life; I stayed on because, as my mom puts it, I “found my tribe.” I love that theater provides a space for both vulnerability and safety, a space where anyone can emotionally reach out and connect using the universal language of storytelling. Young Playwrights’ Theater is great because its members reach out to schools and DC neighborhoods with this exact message in mind: everyone has a powerful story to tell, no matter how young or from what background.

On Sunday, October 26th, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Young Playwrights’ Theater, five volunteers (including myself) gave away a collection of plays written by YPT students to people in neighborhoods across DC, including Eastern Market, Anacostia, Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights. We handed out stacks of our glossy purple books to passersby and offered a chance to talk a little more about the role that Young Playwrights’ Theater played in these students’ growth as writers. In the end, we gave away 225 books throughout these neighborhoods and along the way, we met a ton of people who wanted to hear more about YPT and its goal as an organization.

When I think back to that Sunday, three groups of people stand out in my mind as individual successes of the project: the kids in Anacostia, the bookworms in Dupont Circle and the Sunday picnic crowd at Meridian Hill Park.

Anacostia Library
Elementary school students look through their new books

The Anacostia Neighborhood Library was not a busy place that morning. In fact, the only people we saw outside its doors were a group of 8-to-10-year-old boys talking amongst themselves. We said hello and offered them a few plays to read. The boys were skeptical at first; they asked if the books were for coloring, then seemed mainly disappointed by our response. But by the time we left, they were sitting quietly, reading the published work of students their age, from their neighborhood. The YPT Book Giveaway made it possible for these kids to learn more about theater and playwriting, even in a non-classroom setting.

Dupont Circle, by contrast, was crowded with people. As a result, the people I remember personally are the individuals who deliberately stopped to have a full conversation about YPT and ask questions about the book they received. One man, Johnny, listened as I explained YPT’s goal as an organization, then told me, “I’m a playwright myself and I really respect what you’re doing for this neighborhood. I’m going to go put this [he gestured to his new book] on my bike so I don’t forget it.” He shook my hand and walked away, leaving me with a renewed sense of appreciation for the Dupont community and its support of the arts. Later on, a woman stopped to talk to us about the YPT classrooms and revealed that she was an English teacher in a nearby elementary school. As she flipped through her playbook, we told her about YPT’s 20 Classroom Challenge, a plan to integrate YPT’s In-School Playwriting Program into at least 20 more DC classrooms this year. She nodded and smiled, looking genuinely excited at the thought of students across DC learning how to write plays and create their own works of art.

We finally ended where we began: in Meridian Hill Park. When I think back to that day, the image of that park is what stands out the most in my mind; I remember how by the time we finished distributing, the bright purple of the New Play Festival Book’s cover was all over the park. One man let his (adorable) son, who looked about 5 years old, grab one of the books I held out to him and said, “Maybe we can read some of these before bedtime, right kiddo?” His son nodded with his eyes on the book and I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down, I was so excited. People who had entered the park with their own books and e-readers had set them aside to read ours. Even the more active picnickers and frisbee-throwers had begun reading out loud to each other, casting themselves as characters from these student-written plays.

What I found so successful about the book giveaway was the way it allowed multiple DC neighborhoods to support YPT just by reading some entertaining plays. It was inspiring to watch a supportive DC arts community reveal itself so organically, just by handing out a book. I’m so proud of my fellow Generic Theatre Company members, Joe and Anthony, who threw themselves into the project and were only too happy to start a conversation about YPT with total strangers. I’m also proud to count myself and my fellow volunteers as a member of this DC arts community as well.

Wows, Wonders and Lessons From The 524 Project

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The 524 Project’s DC students take a bow after their Final Performance.

About a year ago, YPT teamed up with Detroit-based arts educator InsideOut Literary Arts Project (iO) and DC documentary film company Meridian ImageHill Pictures (MHP) to create The 524 Project, a cross-country collaboration that connected a class at Ballou Senior High School in Washington, DC with one at Western International High School in Detroit.

Named after the 524 miles separating DC and Detroit, The 524 Project brought the two schools together for a hybrid curriculum of poetry, playwriting and media arts. Students met weekly during the spring semester of 2014 to create works of art investigating and challenging dominant narratives of the cities each call home.

Using writing prompts such as “I Am [City Name]”, “My Art Is So Loud”, and City-to-City Love Letters, The 524 Presentation 7Project encouraged these young people to rethink stereotypes of both DC and Detroit, and to speak out on behalf of their neighborhoods, their cities and themselves.

Then, they shared their voices with each other! Equipped with iPads, basic video editing software and free Google Hangouts, 524 Project students recited poems and asked each other questions via recorded videos and live online exchanges. The Project culminated in a simultaneous, live-streamed multimedia Final Presentation of student work, that introduced the larger communities of DC and Detroit to the powerful insights of the young people in both cities.

 

Now that The 524 Project is all but over, we asked some of the staff members responsible for the program to reflect back on the journey. Here are some of the Wows (highlights), Wonders (questions) and Lessons that came out of this amazing, challenging, inspiring process!

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ImageLaurie Ascoli, Program Manager, Young Playwrights’ Theater

Wows: The trip to Detroit last October was totally amazing. I’d already been to and fallen in love with the city itself, so being back there was really exciting. But even better was getting to hang out with YPT and iO artists for four days and explore ideas, brainstorm, write poetry, make journals for each other, create performance pieces, study art. We’re all artists, but I feel like that often gets buried under the day-to-day logistics of running an organization. It was really amazing to just sit together and explore, deeply, the creative impulses that drive us to do what we do. It felt like a retreat back into the center of our mission.

Wonders: Technology is a relatively simple and truly incredible way to connect people from all over the world, people who never would have interacted otherwise. But what do you do when not everyone has easy access to this technology? Despite its growing presence, access to the Internet is still something that is largely only available to developed, financially secure communities, so a huge percentage of the population that we could be communicating with and learning from is shut out from these opportunities. How can we change that?

Lessons: With a project this ambitious, I think it can be easy to lose track of how, specifically and directly, the students are benefiting from it. We always aim to keep students at the center of everything we do, but between negotiating with two other organizations and two schools, dealing with unreliable technology, and tracking our progress for a major funder, the students themselves can easily get lost in the shuffle. It’s important to continually come back to them and remember that they are the soul of the project, and the reason for all the other logistical madness.

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ImageLance Kramer, Executive Director, Meridian Hill Pictures

Wows: One of the major challenges when working on a media project with any new community can be openness to embracing something new. Typically it’s not just learning new technology or a new tool, but also adopting a new way to think about storytelling. In the case of The 524 Project, we introduced iPads, video capture, and exchange software, as well as social media platforms that were new to most team members at the onset of the project. We were completely humbled and wow-ed by people’s enthusiasm for working with unfamiliar creative tools. Team members embraced the discomfort, handled setbacks admirably, and emerged with a new set of skills and appreciation for the technology. In a sense, the project staff were students as well – I would say they earned an A+.

Wonders: I wonder what could have been done to more directly provide our actual students with strategies for employing the 524 Project tools in their own artwork after the class concluded. As staff, we were still learning the technology as the project was in progress and figuring out how to master it ourselves. So it was definitely more challenging to pass the torch to our students. By having more time before the launch of the project for dedicated staff trainings, we could have alleviated some of these stresses. But I also think that the newness of the whole concept meant that there would be a good deal of figuring out along the way, no matter how much prep time was carved out. As the dust settles following the final performance, I do wonder how the students will become ambassadors of the lessons learned from The 524 Project. What will they pass on to their friends and family? And what are the breadcrumbs we’ve all left for the future?

Lessons: It sounds simple enough, but having an exceptional understanding of your limitations was a major lesson learned during the project. In our ambition and excitement to just do it, I think we may have lost some sight of what was actually possible within the time and technological constraints we were given. In future projects, we may consider how to be slightly less ambitious with the technology in favor of deepening our ability to train partner project staff to build their own mastery and ownership of the process. The idea of structuring a collaboration as more of a professional-development type relationship may not have quite as many bells and whistles, but it could lead to a more sustainable structure that imparts more lasting knowledge.

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ImageShawntai Brown, Writer-in-Residence, InsideOut Literary Arts Project

Wows: The big wow moment for me was seeing the Detroit students go from being critics of their hometown with opinions shaped by the media, to having a newfound sense of city pride. Through their research and writing, students became vocally more confident in their city, neighborhood, school, and even D.C.  Also, by running a multidisciplinary program (writing, filming, acting, researching), each student found ways to be involved – even those who had struggled with classroom participation prior to 524.

Wonders: I wonder if we could have made better use of the technology by encouraging more one-on-one youth interaction since video conferencing as a group was sometimes troublesome. I would have loved to see one or two D.C. and one or two Detroit students craft a group poem or play scene together, or simply interview each other. I also wonder if having longer classroom periods (1.5-2 hour sessions multiple times a week), or having had the in-class programming start earlier would have allowed students more hands-on experience with the technology (the cameras and editing software were mostly used by the staff).

Lessons: Students are easily frustrated if there are breaks in the flow of the lesson. Technology was a challenge we were determined to conquer, and sometimes the battle between humans and iPad interrupted the flow of class. Lesson: always have an engaging plan B and tech-savvy staff on hand for mishaps. It’s also fair to be honest with students about what challenges are occurring. Many of our students knew how to bypass blocked web pages needed for instruction, connect the projector, adjust speaker volume, etc. Learners are great resources! Also, many students showed great leadership toward the end of the project. In hindsight, identifying, developing, and utilizing class leaders early on would have benefitted the class when one-on-one attention from the staff was stretched.

For more lessons learned from The 524 Project, click here!

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The 524 Project was made possible by the generous support of the Metlife/TCG A-Ha Program, whose Think It, Do It grants enable theaters and other arts organizations to experiment with new forms of collaboration and creative problem-solving. Without the A-Ha Program, there would be no 524!

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For more from The 524 Project, please visit our Tumblr blog, where we have recorded every step of the process, as well as some of the best moments from our classes in DC and Detroit. One of the main goals of The 524 Project was to establish a model for other organizations around the world to follow – so please, Steal Our Ideas!