Updates From the Road: Where We've Traveled Thus Far

A lot has happened since Via Arts announced its existence back in March! Besides maintaining our careers as directors and independent teaching artists, spending time with our families, winning awards, and planning a wedding, Kristy and I traveled together for the first time as partners to Washington, D.C. to participate in Arts Advocacy Day sponsored by American’s for the Arts. Besides learning about ways to effect arts policy and meeting other impassioned arts’ education supporters, Kristianna and I were inspired by the words of keynote speaker and television producer, Norman Lear. Kirsty and I were moved when Lear emphatically shared his opinion:

I believe we will save our world. And when we do I believe the door will have been kicked open by the things that bring us together as humans: the arts.

We are now hard at work growing current partnerships and establishing creative ventures with new partners like school districts interested in our professional development programs. We are excited for what the future has in store!

**WARNING: What follows  is a very detailed blog post where I describe a couple of programs I’ve been working on and partnerships I’ve been developing. If you are interested in some of the specifics of what we’ve been up to please read on. Otherwise, skip to the bottom for more information about what’s happening next AND.... a call for volunteers for an exciting documentary theatre project!! :)**

STRIVE ON STAGE

IMG_0558.jpg

Last month I wrapped up an eight-week community engagement program with the YWCA of New Britain’s STRIVE program. STRIVE stands for “Strength, Teamwork, Respect, Individuality, Vision, and Excellence; this after-school program addresses the needs of middle school girls in New Britain, CT. One of STRIVE’s goals is to explore issues important to youth such as non-violent conflict resolution, goal-setting, and healthy body development.

I facilitated a drama program for STRIVE called “STRIVE on Stage” that incorporated social justice theatre techniques like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (Image Theatre). I also drew from Michael Rohd’s Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue, The hope is vital training manual as well as creative drama and structured improvisation exercises.

When I first met the STRIVE girls there was some hesitation. I got the What-do-you-want-me-to-do-with-my-name-lady kind of looks that I’ve come to recognize on first days. So, I decided it might be best to start off with open-dialogue rather than to jump into the usual first day drama exercises and games. After we shared our expectations of each other, I provided the group with writing prompts to identify issues the girls wanted to explore using theatre and drama. I hoped this process might also help us get to know each other better. Prompts included statements such as “I get really excited when . . . ”, “Something that really annoy me is . . . ”, “Being a middle school girl in New Britain, CT means . . . .” Participants wrote anonymous responses on separate pieces of paper and then placed papers into one pile. I read each response aloud and we worked together to create piles separated by themes and similar interests. This process synthesized ideas, encouraged dialogue, and helped to “break the ice.” Given that our meetings were brief (two hours, once a week for eight weeks) the process  immediately allowed us to get to work exploring issues and ideas the girls deemed important. We discovered most girls mentioned that “Being a middle school girl in New Britain, CT means coping with bullying and trying to be yourself despite the haters.” (By the way, lately this theme of being yourself reemerges almost every time I work with middle and high schoolers.)

I sensed we still needed sometime to process the themes of “bullying” and “being yourself” before getting up on our feet so I facilitated a Story Circle activity where each girl shared personal narrative related to the themes. After this exercise, it finally seemed like the right time to get on our feet. The participants created frozen images that explored common themes extracted from the girl’s personal stories. We shared their work and reflected upon the physicality and power relations represented in each images. We discussed how simple it was for a girl to praise being her fabulous self in a dramatic image, but how difficult she might find actually being herself in "real-life" particularly because of the fear of being judged or bullied either by someone else or even her own self-consiousness.

The next few weeks were spent in a similar manner with open dialogues, dramatic activities, and writing reflections. This process eventually led to the creation of devised piece of theatre. The girls drew on all our work and their personal experiences to create a composite character named Maria. Maria is a poor but sweet middle school girl who is bullied by three girls for “crushing” on the new boy in class who Maria’s bullies think “She could never get with such tore up skanky clothes.” By the end of the sequence of scenes, Maria attempts suicide but survives and the bullies reveal that they treated her the way they did because of their own insecurities.

IMG_0748.JPG

The girls shared their piece with family and friends and their STRIVE leaders. The audience was given a chance to “Hot Seat” the characters after the performance. The performers stayed in character while audience members interviewed characters with questions about their choices surrounding Maria’s situation. Audiences of peers, siblings, and parents wanted to know: Why didn’t the adults take more action to help Maria when they saw the beginnings of conflict? (The actor in role as the teacher answered that she didn’t think it was a “big deal” and that they were just “kids being kids, you know?”); Why didn’t Maria stand up for herself? (The actor in role as Maria said she was terrified); Why were the bullies so mean? (One of the actor’s in role as a bully admitted it was because she had a crush on the same boy Maria did); What would Maria do differently to cope with her bullying? (The actor playing Maria said next time she would try to identify and reach out to her allies for support because there are people who do care.) The performers then metaphorically “unzipped” themselves out of their characters’ bodies and talked about how real these types of situations were in their own lives.

As always, I was impressed with the drama work of my youth participants but mostly with their willingness to be so open and vulnerable in order to make a positive impact with their work. They were so passionate about their story of Maria, they often worked on their own after I left for the day. I will be honest though, and say that this experience was challenging at times. First of all, like most after-school programs, attendance was inconsistent. Thankfully, the improvisational quality of our work worked in our favor when it came time to fill an absent ensemble member’s part in the performance; the girls in attendance always stepped to the plate. Since the girls had ownership of the piece and chose to improvise the story by creating plot points and images rather than writing a script to be memorized, they were able to jump in and out of different characters and step in for each other at a moment’s notice. Secondly, though the girls discussed how wrong bullying is and how important it is to be comfortable in your own skin, they struggled with being kind to each other and accepting each other’s personalities and identities. On the day of the performance, I walked in and half the group vehemently refused to perform because the other half was “talking about them behind their backs.” I’ll save sharing the crux of their argument for another time, but I will say that the girls eventually resolved their issues and realized their passion for presenting their hard work was greater than their frustrations with each other. 

The most amazing thing that came out of this argument (and the program as a whole, I think/hope) is that it planted a positive seed of self-awareness in all of us. At one point during the arguing, one of the girls accusatorily made a comment about another girl making “a big deal out of something stupid.” Later, when we were prepping ourselves for performance, I asked the girls to quickly share what they hoped their audience might take away from their short playlet. One ensemble member remarked how she wanted the audience to see that even the kind of bullying that is considered minor “trash talking” can still be incredibly hurtful and might lead someone to thinking her life isn’t worth living.  She wanted people to know they should be sensitive to other people’s feelings. I took this opportunity to remind them of what happened earlier: “Um, guys? Remember when one of you dismissed another member’s feelings as being trivial and you accused her of making “a big deal out of nothing?” I asked them to consider the parallels between how Maria is treated in their playlet and how they treat each other. I took the silence to mean they were taking the time to consider.

STANLEY-WHITMAN HOUSE AND JULIA & HUGH

In the meantime Via Arts has been growing their relationship with the Stanley-Whitman House Museum. In March we began with professional development of SWH volunteer performers and interpreters in the form of Period-Style Acting workshops. These workshops helped to prepare SWH volunteer performers to authentically play their roles in Julia & Hugh, a historical drama researched and written by SWH Education Coordinator Joann Zeisner. For some time now Joann and SWH have been researching the life of Julia Roper, an Irish immigrant who lived in the house during the Civil War era. Since a picture of Julia Roper appeared almost out of nowhere and demanded a closer look, Joann's research has taken surprising twists and turns. Through Julia we are seeing how the historic house was used to aid Farmington's poor and the ways in which one remarkable woman struggled to achieve the "American Dream" for herself and her daughter after her husband Hugh’s tragic death during battle. Each time new research is uncovered, the play transforms to reveal new findings. This year I worked with Joann to revise the script into a more cohesive narrative and to further develop the character of Hugh who returns from the dead to visit Julia. Hugh takes the audience on a journey through the SWH house in search of Julia while he recounts his story of battle. A new development suggested by me includes the audience taking on the roles of Hugh’s fellow men and fallen soldiers of the ill-fated 16th Regiment as they follow Hugh through the house in order to observe slices of Julia’s life and help Hugh find some peace of mind.  

Excuse the quality of this video. I was trying to be inconspicuous on my phone.

 

One of the more special outcomes of this project, other than working with some incredibly intelligent and talented people and learning more about the town that my family has lived in for over twenty years, was the audience's response. As people of various ages entered the house and Lisa (SWH Executive Director and tour guide) asked them to suspend their disbelief, most became intrigued; and when Hugh first greeted them as “fellow men of the 16th,” all became fully engaged. In the final moments of the tour and performance, Hugh shares with his “fellow men:”

To be sure we will find that your families have suffered your losses as deeply as Julia suffered mine. But I am sure that we will find them resilient and surviving like my Julia has. Julia and all our families are a testament to the strength of the town of Farmington, as is the sacrifice that we made with our lives. We are a proud and generous lot.

Hugh and Julia Roper’s stories of tragedy and survival are both heart wrenching and hopeful. The Roper’s narrative is also reflective of how a particular community coped with immigration and the tragedies of US American Civil War. After the performance, audience members thanked SWH staff and me for presenting a story that provided them with a unique look at their community’s past and that also managed to move them viscerally. This type of research-based and site-specific theatre continues to excite me with its enormous potential to strengthen communities as it asks them to look critically at their past, present, and future. 

FUTURE PROJECTS: More To Come At Stanley-Whitman House & Professional Development in the Works

As a result of our passion for research-based performance, SWH Executive Director Lisa Johnson and I have begun to undertake The Abolition Movement in Farmington: A Community-Based Documentary Theatre Project.”  A workshop production will investigate the abolition movement in Farmington and the town’s complex relationship to slavery.  A script will be developed and workshopped this summer with a group of teen and adult artist-research volunteers from Farmington and Unionville as well as New Britain, Plainville, and Bristol (towns that border Farmington, and/or at one time were part of town of Farmington).

Documentary theatre is a type of reality theatre that takes true stories of real living people and secondary research sources and turns them into a scripted play. This project begins with research from SWH’s Farmington Slavery Research Project begun in 2012. This partnership between Via Arts and SWH hopes to engage the community of Farmington and the surrounding areas in developing a historically accurate piece of theatre about the abolition of slavery. We currently seek volunteers who will work on developing this project by participating in theatre workshops, examining documents, and reaching out to descents of captive slaves and abolition activists and members of surrounding communities to conduct interviews that provide insights into the movement and its connections to current times.  

 

We seek all types of volunteers with varying levels of experience. ADULTS AND TEENS OF COLOR ARE ESPECIALLY ENCOURAGED TO CONTACT ENZA WITH THEIR INTERESTS IN TELLING THE MOST ETHICAL AND AUTHENTIC STORY POSSIBLE.

Play development will primarily take place at Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, CT. Volunteers will meet with Enza over a period of eight weeks beginning with an informational “meet and greet” on Saturday June 28, 2015 at 1:00 p. m. at SWH. The project will culminate with a presentation for an audience in August. There is no cost for participation.

Finally, Kristy and I are currently developing our professional development partnerships and programs. I will facilitate a creative drama and classroom management workshop for New Britain Youth Theater's teaching artists in preparation  for the Consolidated School District of New Britain's Summer Enrichment Program and Kristy has created a partnership with the Wethersfield School District to work with music teachers interested in learning more about incorporating musical theatre techniques into their curriculums this coming fall. Be sure to also look out for training sessions aimed at those wishing to learn more about the benefits of Acting technique and the field of teaching artistry. 

Can't wait to see where the road takes all of us next!

Safe Travels, Enza