Listen Up

Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s trial and subsequent acquittal have sparked a heated and important national conversation. Many intelligent thinkers are trying to make sense of this tragedy, searching for ways that we as a nation can heal and move forward. As I reflect on the work that we at YPT do with young people, specifically teenagers, I feel compelled to speak from my point of view as both an artist and an educator.

As adults, we have got to listen to teenagers. Now more than ever. We have got to let African American teenagers and teenagers of color and all teenagers know that they deserve safety, health and happiness, and that their voices matter.

Too many teenagers in our society are plagued by violence in their schools, in their homes and in their neighborhoods. They are marginalized because of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia and combinations thereof. They are judged unfairly, labeled “dangerous,” “threatening” and “difficult.”

I am deeply troubled by all the negativity surrounding the “millennial” generation. Millennials are supposedly “lazy” and “entitled.” They’re attached to their phones. They’re the “me generation.” At the same time, studies report that the time to invest in young people is in early childhood, an excellent strategy but one that I worry may inadvertently suggest a hidden corollary: that by the time children have become teenagers, they cannot learn, cannot grow, cannot make important contributions to their communities.

In my five years with YPT, I have met amazing teenagers. YPT’s teenage playwrights have written insightful plays that comment on real issues facing their communities such as gang violence, teen pregnancy, bias crime, bullying, gentrification and immigration. And they’ve also penned delightful comedies that lift the spirits of all who watch or read them. I’ve met teenagers who surprised me by sitting silent in the back of the class for a whole semester, only to hand in brilliant plays. I’ve seen teenagers work together and forge connections with other students who were different from themselves.

When I walk into a high school classroom, I know that I will have to work hard to earn the respect and trust of the teenage students. Why should this reflect poorly on them? Teenagers are savvy. Just like adults, they ask us to prove ourselves. That doesn’t make them “bad” or “difficult” – it is their right as human beings.

Now more than ever we need to empower young people. We need to listen to their stories and honor their perspectives. We need to encourage and allow them to speak their truths to help us as adults “widen our circles of compassion,” as President Obama put it. Our circles of compassion must grow to encompass all teenagers. To do that, we’re going to have to listen up.

Nicole Jost
Artistic Director

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

whYPT? Let’s Ask the Students…

In the end, the answer to “whYPT?” is the students. For the last few weeks, we have been sharing the perspectives of staff and teaching artists on why YPT matters. But why do students actually take the time to imagine, write and turn in plays to their Teaching Artists during the In-School Playwriting Program? Why, after a day of school work, do they come to the Young Playwrights’ Workshop to learn acting and writing techniques as an ensemble?

“Young Playwrights’ Theater is a wonderful program where young adults can express themselves in many ways. Every Wednesday is full of new activities, new lessons and a more enjoyable time than the week before. The reason why I enjoy YPT is because it’s fun, it’s something I look forward to every Wednesday. In my opinion it should be more than just one meeting a week.”
-Reyna, 11th grade, Bell Multicultural High School

“When I decided to join YPT’s Young Playwrights’ Workshop I was looking to learn new writing techniques. In the Workshop, I learned how to make a character more interesting, practiced my English, and got feedback on my play from my teacher. By participating in YPT, I learned the power of writing. I found out that writing can be powerful because a play can inspire people, bring them joy, make them feel sadness, or learn something new. YPT to me is a door open to express yourself and be heard in our community.”
-Alfonso, YPT Alumnus

 “I first started off as a student in the In-School Playwriting Program my junior year of high school. I enjoyed the games and acting exercises that came along with the playwriting, and I decided to take it a step further and participate in the Young Playwrights’ Workshop. The acting workshops were sometimes a challenge; David wanted to stimulate our thoughts and have us thinking and writing outside our comfort zone. I enjoyed it so much that even after I graduated, I still wanted to be involved with YPT.”
Mercedes, YPT Alumna

“Normally, the prospect of writing a play can be really intimidating. But in our activities, YPT showed so much respect for our ideas; you felt that your perspective was valuable. Kids that had been unengaged in class were suddenly putting their experiences and fantasies down on paper to share. To us, this project was worth more than a grade.YPT was genuinely interested in what we as individuals wanted to write about. And because of that, I had the privilege of seeing students from all over the academic spectrum create something unique and communicative about themselves. I sincerely hope that YPT will continue to have the support it needs in order to facilitate that for future students and the support it needs to continue showing us how natural and liberating creativity can be.”
Sarah, YPT Alumna