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

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

Duncan, Rhee, Bobb and Weingarten Debate How to Do the Right Thing

Last week’s Meet the Press featured an all-star education panel, featuring Secretary Arne Duncan, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, and Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools Robert Bobb.  Host David Gregory brought these leaders to the table to discuss what’s next in education reform, in light of the newly released film Waiting for Superman.  I enjoyed seeing such contentious characters at the same table and hearing their various approaches to reform articulated in context of each other. But something also seemed to be missing.  Something bothered me about the conversation. Maybe it was the absolutism of the language offered, as if no middle ground exists between choosing to fire or help bad teachers get better. Or maybe it was the inherent contradictions, including the Secretary’s support of local reform, but his inability to actively support those reforms on the local level. Maybe I was uncomfortable because true reform is extraordinarily sticky and complicated and it’s difficult to boil down to talking points on a morning talk show.

This week I’ve been going back and forth on what bothered me – and today I finally realized what was missing from that conversation – the students themselves. Every person at the table said it’s “all about the students,” as we’ve heard so often in recent years. They emphasized their dedication to serving students better, and to “doing right by our children.”  And yet on this panel, and the entire show, we never heard from students – on what they think, on what they need, on how they think schools need to improve. As we continue to debate these reforms in the press, and people go back and forth on whether recent reforms are effective, unfair, or even racist, we have yet to hear from the students.  At YPT we give students a platform to speak, to express their hopes and dreams for the future, and share their views with the world – and they never disappoint.  They often reveal something deeply unexpected and illuminating, that expert adults would never be able to uncover.

So I applaud NBC’s efforts to focus on the education debate with their week of “Education Nation.” But I challenge all of us to start asking the hard questions of education reform to the students themselves.  What do they need? How do they think reforms are going and how do they think they’re doing? And what do they think makes a great, effective teacher?  At the end of the day, our students have the most to gain or lose in these reforms. Their lives are the ones that will be most greatly affected. And they know most what happens in schools and what doesn’t – and why.  I bet if we started asking them how to fix schools, they’d tell us loud and clear. And then we’d need to do it.

David
Producing Artistic Director and CEO

Back to School with YPT!

It’s such an exciting time of year. Last week YPT successfully trained our entire team of teaching artists to execute the In-School Playwriting Program. It was a somewhat daunting task. We’ve been dreaming all summer about how to make YPT better, how to create a richer experience for students, and how to make everything run more smoothly. All of a sudden it was the end of August (how did THAT happen?) – time to pull my head out of the clouds and get down to business.

Fortunately, (and I think this is a proven scientific fact) YPT has the best teaching artists in the entire world. They made training so easy, it was actually kind of confusing. I thought I might hear run of the mill questions like, “When are the first drafts due again?” Instead, we spent our time discussing strategies for serving students with special needs and testing the fun factor of YPT’s educational games. Seasoned teaching artists were generous enough to share their knowledge with those who will be teaching with YPT for the first time.

One such YPT veteran, Danielle Drakes, has experience teaching our After-School Playwriting Program and has also served as an actor for the In-School Playwriting Program. She spoke in particular about her experience with high school workshop six – The Language Workshop. The Language Workshop focuses on how a playwright uses word choice and grammar to affect an actor’s delivery. In one exercise, students are given a basic character (like “an old woman from the country trying to get some lazy kids off of her lawn”) and asked to write a couple lines that demonstrate how they imagine that person would speak. The actor’s role is to perform these lines exactly as the students write them.

Danielle said that it was her experience as an actor in The Language Workshop that made her want to teach the In-School program. She spoke about how powerful it was for students to find out that using language isn’t always about “right” and “wrong.” When you’re capturing a character’s voice, it’s OK to spell creatively and use unconventional grammar. Danielle told us about a student at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School who used the word “gunneh” in a play. She was able to have a sophisticated conversation with all her students: what’s the difference between “gunneh,” “gonna” and “going to”? Each choice communicates something specific about a character, and none of those choices are wrong!

YPT’s teaching artists are so intelligent, so creative, and so committed to students that it will blow your mind. We’re sending six of them to seven schools this fall. With help from Laurie Ascoli (our Program Assistant), Patrick Torres (our Associate Artistic Director), and me, YPT will reach twenty-one classes and serve about 450 students.

Did I mention that’s only the fall?

Welcome back everyone! Game on.

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