Our Playwrights Fear Nothing (Not Even Peanut Butter): Reflections on the New Play Festival

Last week, on April 11-13, YPT presented the 2011 New Play Festival. It was an inspiring experience for YPT’s young playwrights, artists, staff and the hundreds of community members who came out to GALA Hispanic Theatre to celebrate with us (we had overflowing houses all three nights!).

As YPT’s Program Assistant and a New Play Festival dramaturge, I was particularly inspired to watch a play written by one of my students make its way from the page to the stage over the past few months.

When I sat down to read Flatworm’s Courageous Act for YPT’s 2011 New Play Festival reading committee in January, I immediately remembered the student who wrote it.

I taught Lauren White’s 4th grade class at Lafayette Elementary School in the spring of 2010 through YPT’s In-School Playwriting Program, and though I hadn’t seen her in more than 6 months, Lauren stuck in my mind as a student who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and was always eager to write. As I read her play again for the reading committee, I was  reminded of why I nominated it for the festival last year. Lauren’s imaginative and hilarious play about a flatworm-turned-superhero who must overcome his fear of peanut butter to save the girl of his dreams (she’s held captive by a Peanut Butter Monster, naturally) left me in awe of her intelligence and creativity. The play’s silliness keeps the laughs coming, but also reads as a staged coming-of-age graphic novel, drawing upon the style and themes of classic comic books.

When YPT decided to produce Flatworm’s Courageous Act in the 2011 New Play Festival, I was excited to learn that I would have the opportunity to help bring Lauren’s vision to life as its dramaturge. After our first meeting, the blend of smart writing and wackiness in the play made total sense: while Lauren took copious notes and had an immediate idea for every suggestion I made, she also demonstrated her “Billy Bob Thorton as an Australian” impression for me while we waited for her mom to pick her up. I also learned where the mature stylistic elements in Flatworm’s Courageous Act came from. Lauren showed me some of the impressive cartoons she has drawn, including one of Flatworm himself, and told me that her mom is a professional artist.

After hearing Lauren’s play read by professional actors at the first New Play Festival read-through on March 12, I grew even more impressed with her playwriting expertise. The characters, style, and tone of her play were so clearly written that the actors immediately picked up on it and created a world of flawed but brave superheroes, gruff villains and shrieking damsels in distress.

Following Lauren through this entire process – from her first workshop in the Lafayette Library to the performance of Flatworm’s Courageous Act which took place last week – has been an amazing experience. It embodies what we aim to do at YPT: foster talented young writers and guide them through the playwriting process from their first monologue to their final round of applause.

To read Lauren’s take on the process, click here.

To see photos from last week’s New Play Festival, click here.

Laurie Ascoli
Program Assistant

YPT Welcomes Raina Fox as Our New Community Engagement Associate!

Sometimes artists get a bad name: they are disorganized and unreliable. They let their ideas get ahead of their ability to perform. They live in a world of their own.

I am so thrilled to be part of a team of artists who share none of those traits.

As I end my very first week as Community Engagement Associate at the Young Playwrights’ Theater, I am overcome by the energy, intelligence, organization, creativity, and passion of the folks who make it possible for our young playwrights to contribute to and be a part of our creative world.

On Tuesday evening, YPT held its first ever kick-off event, at which actors performed teaser scenes from three student plays. Students, families, board members, supporters, and staff gathered to celebrate and watch as these plays begin to form. We watched as a boy from the moon struggled to understand earth, a young man and his turtle friend confronted their own personal hell (high school), and a couple’s relationship started to deteriorate because of a text message.  The plays were funny, insightful, clever, and entertaining. However, the best part was watching the young playwrights as they saw their characters come to life through the words they had written. Though they seemed a bit embarrassed, they absolutely radiated pride and excitement. I was so happy to approach the essence of YPT by experiencing these plays alongside their young writers and so many members of the wonderful YPT community.

I also experienced the first stage of a Fannie Mae-commissioned play on homelessness in the form of workshops at N Street Village and Martha’s Table. The women of N Street and children of Martha’s table were amazingly eloquent, perceptive, and enthusiastic when speaking about the issue of homelessness. They were not only willing to share their perspectives, but thrilled to be part of the play to come. I too am excited to see where these community perspectives lead the creative process and to have my perspective of homelessness tested along the way.

This week was the perfect introduction to my time at YPT—I was able to see the brainstorming and writing processes, experience the first stage in producing a play, and begin to connect with YPT and the broader community. As I start to develop ways to further engage our community, I know this is rooted in a strong, supportive, passionate group of folks, who, yes, happen to be artists.

Raina
Community Engagement Associate

Can Glee Save Arts Education?

James Sims of the Huffington Post thinks so! He makes a great argument for it in his recent article. Here’s an excerpt. To read the full article click here.

With increasing educational budget cuts sweeping the nation, arts education is often one of the first programs to get slashed. Just as Glee was airing on Fox Tuesday night, the community of Fowlerville, Michigan announced it would be cutting band and art programs due to budget reductions.

In steps Glee.

“I actually heard from a guy who worked I think in the public school system somewhere in Washington state and he was like yes, we’re having tons of problems,” Brennan said. “He was like the one thing no one is touching now is Glee Club, which is such a fascinating blow back from this show.”

Why Theatre? Jenn Book Haselswerdt Testifies

Jenn Book Haselswerdt is the Education Coordinator at Imagination Stage. I had intended to interview her for our series about theater educators and what inspires them. Before I could get around to it she posted an amazing piece on her blog testifying to the power of arts education.

Why Theatre?
by Jenn Book Haselswerdt

A new play opened at work a couple of weeks ago, and it’s astounding. That really is the perfect word for it, I think. I’ve seen it three times already, and always come out humming the music (we’re a veritable chorus up in the admin offices). It’s challenging, thrilling, sophisticated, sad, and funny. The set is gorgeous. The performances are fantastic. And yet, we’re getting complaints from adults.

The complaints seem to stem from the “challenging” and “sad” aspects of the show. In my opinion, the play gives parents a great opportunity to talk to their children about serious subjects…if they ask or get upset. And when I spoke to the playwright, she made a statement I agree with to an incredible level: why pander to children, and talk down to them, instead of writing for them as if they were people (which they are!), and, in the process, also entertaining their parents? The script’s references to Marx and the proletariat (in a funny way, I promise) are some of my favorite moments in the play. I don’t believe in talking down to students, nor in presenting them with a world that is sunshine and rainbows at all times (although I do believe plays can certainly be light and airy!). Like our Artistic Director says, the only thing theatre for young audiences has to do that might be different from theatre for adults is always present a sense of hope. And this play has that in spades.

So, why theatre? Why the arts?

I believe in the power of the arts to change the world, to educate, to change the way people think. My life is theatre for young audiences and youth theatre, and I make my living by educating students–and their teachers–through the arts. Good theatre for young audiences is there to educate as well as entertain, to facilitate conversations between children and their parents and caregivers, to expand their view of the world in which they live. And so, I recognize the education can go beyond the classroom, and into the world.

This was also what I took away from the Human Rights Art Festival this weekend. I only went to a handful of events–certainly fewer than I had meant to–but they certainly got me thinking. My favorite event was the panel on the use of the arts for social transformation. I listened to a group of artists talk about their activism through theatre, the double meaning of the word “act” (to act politically and act on stage), the profitability of activist theatre, and whether this type of theatre ultimately means more to the artists or to the audiences. One of my favorite points was that the goal doesn’t necessarily have to be for an entire audience to rise from their seats and begin to protest or donate money or what-have-you. An artist has to realize that everyone in the audience is walking their own steps in their own individual processes, and all one can hope for is that every audience member winds up one step further. Brilliant. This is, indeed, what I want from the arts. I also appreciated the outlook that these plays are not about messages; they’re about stories. There is no message in a story.

I visited the visual arts installation next, and found myself particularly taken by the works of art railing against domestic violence. I’m not a visual artist in the least, myself, and it’s always fascinating for me to see what others can do with the media in front of them.

I do believe in the power of the arts to entertain, but I think artists have a responsibility to educate their audiences–adults as well as children–and to do it well. I hope I can contribute to that.

Click here to link to Jenn’s blog ThirtyFlirtyFab

Interview with Katherine Latterner

Theater Educates interviews a different arts educator each month, to get his or her take on our field. This month we talk to Katherine Latterner of Fillmore Arts Center.

What is your current position?

Katherine: I am currently Principal of the Fillmore Arts Center, a District of Columbia Public School.  Fillmore provides the arts education to 12 DCPS elementary schools and serves 2,600 students at two sites.  Artist teachers provide visual arts, music (including strings and band), dance and drama instruction.

How did you become an arts educator?

Katherine: I began studying piano and voice at an early age and began my college career as a music performance major.  I realized that I would not become a concert pianist and switched my major to English.  After college I worked at a non-profit but continued my involvement in music.  When my children were very young, I discovered they had minimal music instruction in school and I began volunteering as a music teacher.  I studied Orff and Kodaly and became a music teacher at Fillmore where I taught music (and creative writing for 14 years).  I obtained a masters in educational leadership and became the Director of Education for the Musical Theater Center, returning to Fillmore as the principal five years ago.

Did you have any mentors in the field? If so, how did they influence you?

Katherine: My family was always involved in music (mother and grandmothers).  My first real mentor was my piano and voice teacher, Lewis Grubb.  We lived in a small town in Delaware, but he had performed in Philadelphia and New York and exposed me to a wealth of literature and experiences (singing with adult groups in Wilmington and Philadelphia).

There is a lot of debate among educators, administrators and policymakers about arts integration vs. art for arts sake. What is your opinion of this debate? Do you favor one side over the other?

Katherine: I think it makes perfect sense to make connections between the arts and other disciplines.  Using the arts to teach numeracy, literacy, social and physical sciences allows children with varying learning styles to more easily access this information and to use both right and left brain modalities.  However, the push has been to have arts education focus in Arts Integration to the exclusion of the arts as important disciplines.  I am a strong proponent of having a high quality arts education for arts sake.

What advice do you give young people who want to make a career in the arts?

Katherine: Pursuing the arts as a career may not be the most financially rewarding choice (except for a very few people), but it is certainly a personally rewarding choice.  If you have a passion for the arts,  you should pursue it.  Examine the multiple ways you can work in the arts (performer, teacher, production, etc.) .

What advice do you give early-career arts educators?

Katherine: Do not neglect the impact of technology on the students of today.  Explore ways you can incorporate technology and please keep your activities interesting and “fun” for your young students.  You job is to foster a love of the arts in your students so they can not only be participants, but also arts audience members and supporters.

Every educator has a different definition of success. Can you tell us about a time when you felt successful as an arts educator?

Katherine: I have had students go on to great commercial success, but it is the everyday successes (the shy child who performs a dance or sings a solo on stage, the class cut-up who really shines as the “king” in the drama performance, the beautiful ceramic bowl made by a child who said he was “no good” in art) that make me feel most successful as an arts educator.