The YPT Express Tour: Stories from the Road

This November and December, YPT’s professional performance company toured more than sixty elementary schools, nursing homes, community centers, theaters, and hospitals with YPT’s annual Express Tour, presenting three vibrant new plays written by young playwrights and community members. Over 6,000 community members had the opportunity to explore issues of homelessness in The Good Neighbor, see how a community of magical birds can teach us something new about our own humanity in The Bird of One Thousand Colors and relish the power of friendship in Love, Math and Martians Don’t Mix.

Now that the Express Tour bus has returned home to YPT, Tour company members share thoughts and stories from the road.

Erin Baxter, Stage Manager
The YPT Express Tour. It’s hard to say what I will miss most after this incredible experience!  As the stage manager, I had the opportunity to watch our actors perform in over sixty venues, and each one was unique in its own way.

My favorite part about live theater and this tour is the element of surprise. You’re never quite sure what will happen in theater and it leaves the door open for a variety of opportunities and wonderful moments. We had plenty of surprises on this tour. From the bus not starting, to working in extremely small venues, actors getting sick, or students / residents asking challenging questions, there was always something new. The wonderful part is that we always managed to make the show happen. We might leave half our set out of a performance, replace a sick actor with a person “on book” (with the script in their hand), or improvise wonderful stories during our workshops with the residents. No matter what the challenge, we were always able to make real and moving theater and to stay true to the work we were presenting. Seeing how theater touches people, and, better yet, involves audiences in discussions about real issues, is one of the most rewarding experiences I could ever have in my job.

Wendy Nogales, Actor
We had six shows over two days at one school because it was a huge school and there were a ton of students who were going to get the opportunity to see the show. The class periods were just too short to perform all three, so we ended up performing an extended talkback for The Good Neighbor. It was cool having a real dialogue with the students about homelessness.  Usually we don’t have time to talk for more then a couple of minutes, and we can’t get to that many questions or comments. The extended talkback offered the opportunity to really hear lots of different points of view. We always ran out of time with tons of students still wanting to share. It was a special two days.

My favorite non-performance Express Tour moment happened on the last day, at the last venue. The back-story is that last year we had come across a few therapy dogs while doing shows at nursing homes. So this year someone PROMISED that we would see at least one cute dog. And for seven weeks and six days we saw not one. On a weekly basis, the promise would be questioned and reaffirmed. On the last day of the Tour, it was again promised that we would see a puppy. Well, we walked into our final venue, and in the first room after the lobby was the MOST ADORABLE puppy you have ever seen – a seven-week-old ball of white fur that fit into the palm of your hand. It was pretty surreal.

Alex Vernon, Actor
My favorite thing about the 2010 Express Tour was how well everyone got along and worked together. A 7am call is never a fun experience, but everyone was friendly and helpful, even that early in the morning. There was a great deal of camaraderie, which translated into being able to instantly jump into any classroom or nursing home and feel comfortable enough to start making connections with the audience.

Also, IHOP has this stuffed French toast that I always wanted to get while on tour, but I never did after a bad experience with stuffed French toast in Tennessee. Dawn, a fellow company actor, tried to convince me that it was good and that I should give it another shot, but I was pretty skeptical. I mean, what if it has that gross cream cheese filling instead of that good sweet cream cheese filling? I often just settled for the Viva La French Toast, which they don’t put on the menu in as prominent a place as they used to, but is still available. I reckon some people measure their lives in regrets. But I hope we’re capable of change.

Daniel Mori, Assistant Stage Manger, Actor, Puppeteer
I just met a random student at Starbucks who recognized me from the YPT Express Tour, and we had a lovely conversation about the show and the response of the other kids at her school.  She really appreciated that our plays had meaning and a message, and especially that we focused on bullying and outer appearances vs. inner beauty. She shared how her family moved to the U.S. a year ago, and her first year in school she was bullied and alienated just because she was different. I was able to pull up the YPT website (Yay, smart phone!) and tell her about YPT student Mariana Pavon Sanchez, and how she had written a play with YPT about her experience coming to the U.S., and how she then had the opportunity this past October to accept the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award with YPT at the White House. By the end of our conversation, this girl had already pulled out a notebook and pen so she could start writing her own play for us to perform! **Insert warm, fuzzy feelings here.**

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YPT’s next tour, a two-week travelling performance of Woodlawn, a new play about DC’s historic Woodlawn Cemetery, kicks off this February. We can’t wait to get back on the road!

Be sure to check out the February 7th premiere of Woodlawn during the upcoming New Writers Now! at GALA Hispanic Theatre.

So…Should We Build the Good Neighbor?

As I watched the Express Tour Showcase for the fourth time on Saturday night, I was amazed that I could still find something new and exciting to anticipate in the show. Of course I still enjoyed seeing Alex Perez flounce around the stage as a bully in Love, Math, and Martians Don’t Mix, watching Alex Vernon pluck a kimono out of thin air in The Bird of One Thousand Colors, and seeing Dawn Thomas wave her finger in attitude-laden bewilderment as a seventh grader in The Good Neighbor, but in the end, the part of the show I waited for every night was the moment when the audience became part of the performance.

In case you didn’t get a chance to see it, The Good Neighbor is a play produced in collaboration with Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Program, structured as a community meeting to discuss the building of a transitional housing facility in our neighborhood. The actors on stage each represent a character, speaking words inspired by YPT-led workshops at shelters, transitional housing facilities and schools around DC. Once the characters have expressed their perspectives, the meeting facilitator (played by Wendy Nogales), opens the conversation up to the audience. As a result, every performance is different. At one performance, a little girl told Mr. Best (a character who does not want the transitional housing facility to be built), that his argument was irrational, because people are people and they deserve to have a place to live. At another performance, audience members asked a series of very specific questions about how to get into the facility, perhaps believing that such a place was actually being built. At another, a young man shared his own story of growing up homeless with his drug-addicted mother as a child, and the role of a transitional housing facility in his family’s stability now. In the end, every conversation was different, every performance was different, and the number of votes for or against the facility was different. However, at each Showcase performance, the audience voted to build The Good Neighbor.

I am curious to know how the Express Tour is received differently at each stop on its run (through December). Performing the play in front of folks at nursing homes, elementary schools, and community centers, I imagine that people bring forth drastically different points, questions, and observations. Perhaps the vote to build or not to build The Good Neighbor also ends differently. I hope that some audiences are frustrated or angered by the characters and discussions. I hope they keep talking after the performance is over. That’s what a good play does—it gets people talking. Even if they are frustrated by the things characters say, they are thinking. Maybe it’s the voyeur in me, but I love that this play provides a space to include this dissent and anger within the structure of the performance itself. That makes it pretty great in my book.

If you saw the play (and even if you didn’t), I would love to hear your thoughts! What angered you? Inspired you? Which characters did you identify with? Would you build a transitional housing facility in YOUR neighborhood? Leave your comments below to keep the conversation going, or write your own response and we will post it here on the blog! A play is only as good as the conversation that follows, so keep it going!

Raina
Community Engagement Associate

Responsibility

A few months ago I was tapped to be the Lead Artist for YPT’s Special Project with Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Program. YPT would partner with five schools and five community organizations to conduct workshops exploring issues of homelessness. The participants would create original writing exploring the topic and also engage in group discussion. My role would be to turn all of this material into a play.

This is a very different kind of playwriting than the kind we usually teach our students. It’s not what most people think of when they hear the word “playwright.” For me, being a playwright in a collaborative process begins with the admission that I do not know everything. (I am a somewhat notorious control freak, so this is harder than you might think!) That admission is what allows me to receive the gift of inspiration, stories, writing, and ideas from others. I got to pull from the memories and thoughts of so many when I cobbled this play together. Collaboration made it that much more rich.

I spent a lot of time at home listening to the audio recording of these workshops. Many of the people who participated had direct experience with homelessness, and the stories they told are compelling and heartbreaking. I was humbled by the generosity these men and women showed by sharing their lives with us. I became overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to them.

This responsibility made me more creative. I used not only direct quotes, but questions, concepts, and ways of communicating. I listened to YPT Associate Artistic Director Patrick Torres ask, “Why would someone not want to help the homeless?” The reasons suggested by the participants became a character. The text spoken by this character is original, but his way of thinking and seeing the world were created in the workshops. The play reflects the people we met through this process in myriad ways.

The play, The Good Neighbor, will be performed as part of the Express Tour. The performance itself will also be an act of collaboration. You will have the opportunity to contribute your voice to the conversation. I hope you do.

                              

Nicole
Program Manager

YPT Explores Homelessness in DC

This year Young Playwrights’ Theater is working in partnership with Fannie Mae and their Help the Homeless program to create an original play about the issue of homelessness in the Washington metro area. In the coming weeks, we will be implementing workshops at transitional housing facilities and several public schools to discover the many perspectives, feelings and beliefs surrounding this issue that will find their way into our play. Last night, we conducted our very first workshop at Community of Hope, and we were absolutely blown away by the residents there. We had a group of seven women and their children. The first workshop requires participants to play a role in a made-up drama concerning citizens at a town hall meeting who are deciding whether or not to allow a transitional housing facility to move into their neighborhood. Each person is given a character to play in the fictional community, many of whom disagree with the initiative. Since this was our first workshop, we were unsure if our partners would be willing to voice opposition to a transitional housing facility, but the participants played their roles with vigor and honesty. We had quite a debate for our guided drama, and in the end, the community voted to have the “Good Neighbor Transitional Housing Facility” built in their neighborhood. After the play concluded, we reflected on it and asked the participants to speak openly about the varying opinions of the characters they just enacted. They spoke candidly about the way homeless people are stereotyped and the injustice of writing off the problem as drug abuse, mental illness or apathy. Needless to say we were honored to work with these remarkable women and look forward to the rest of our workshops related to this project.

Please start making plans right now to come see this play at our Express Tour Showcase November 3 through November 6. If the experience of last night is any indication of the depth and sincerity we will meet over the next month of conducting these workshops, then you do not want to miss this showcase!

Patrick
Associate Artistic Director