France-Luce Benson has been honored by the Entertainment Community Fund (formerly the Actors Fund) with the 2023 Teaching Artist Award for Innovative Curriculum. France-Luce was recognized for pioneering Fountain Voices, the Fountain Theatre’s arts education program serving students in schools throughout Southern California. The award is supported by the generosity of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
The majority of students in the Fountain Voices program have never seen a play, read a play, or know much about theatre at all. Ms. Benson observed in her thank-you remarks, “They are completely unaware of the power of theatre – which is that it is a space for us to use our voices. Many of the students have never been given that kind of space. They don’t know they have a voice, or that what they have to say matters. Many of them have never been asked to think about what matters to them, what is important to them – let alone write about it. And it’s exciting to watch them come alive when they begin to discover that, to discover who they are, what they care about. And the most exciting thing is not to see them use their voices, but to experience their desire to be heard, to step into the belief that they have a right to be heard.”
Congratulations, France-Luce! We’re proud of the educational outreach work we do at the Fountain. Thanks for laying out the blueprint to help make it happen.
On March 12, 2020, I flew from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale to watch my 14-year-old niece, Shelby, act in her first play. The year prior we’d spent months, at her request, preparing for her audition for Dillard Performance Arts High School. Days before her audition, she desperately asked, “Auntie, do you think I have a chance?” As any loving aunt would, I replied, “Are you kidding? They’d be crazy not to accept you!”
Truth is, I was worried. Not about whether she’d get in or not—I had no doubt she would. I was actually worried about what would follow when she did get in. What would happen if she fell in love with theatre, just as I did at that age? What if it became her passion, her profession, her vocation, her life? I wanted to protect her from a life of rejection, of disappointment, of cutthroat competition, of financial instability, of heartbreak. I know, right? Project much?
Needless to say, Shelby’s school show did not go on. Like theatres all over the country, the school shut down that week and stayed closed for the remainder of 2020. What this last year without live theatre has taught me is that all the things I love and miss about theatre far outweigh the fears and anxieties I projected on to my niece. I was so focused on the ways the industry can hurt and disappoint. But 2020 reminded me of the ways the art of theatre loves. Theatre heals. Theatre connects. Theatre teaches. Theatre activates change and even revolution.
And probably most evident in this past year, no matter what, theatre survives. I am in awe of the ways my community has demonstrated this truth, and am immensely grateful for the opportunities I have had to create, connect, heal, and teach through my own work. In July 2020, I was one of four female-identifying playwrights, representing the African Diaspora, commissioned to write plays in response to the prompt “Conversations with the Ancestors.” A production of Project Y Theatre, All Hands on Deck streamed throughout the summer.
From April through December, I hosted “Saturday Matinees” with the Fountain Theatre, a virtual salon that featured theatre artists from all over the country, including Kit Yan, Antonio Lyons, Lisa Strum, Dennis A. Allen, Vanessa Garcia, and more. The weekly series celebrated BIPOC artists, while providing audiences time and space to connect with each another during a time when many of us endured incredible isolation. In November, I led a four-week workshop hosted by Global Voices Theatre in London. Participants joined from all over the world—Hong Kong, Philippines, India, the U.S.—to develop new plays aimed at correcting revisionist history.
In January of this year, my play Tigress of San Domingue streamed as part of Atlantic Theatre Company’s African Caribbean Mixfest, and last month I was among six playwrights featured in Long Distance Affair. Produced by Juggerknot Theatre and Popup Theatrics, LDA brought together playwrights and actors from six cities around the world—Los Angeles, Portland, Beirut, Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai—to create immersive theatre. With over 60 live performances, LDA is the closest thing to in-person theatre I experienced all year. Audience members interacted with one another in intimate Zoom rooms, and with the characters whose lives they interrupted, often at odd times depending on the city (2 a.m. in Lagos).
I had the pleasure of collaborating with L.A.-based actor Wendy Elizabeth Abraham, who bravely invited us into her home in Sherman Oaks, and into her emotional journey through grief and motherhood. I attended about six of the 60-plus performances, and no two were ever the same.
Finally, I launched Fountain Voices, a new arts education initiative I developed in my role as community engagement coordinator for the Fountain. The program promotes empathy and community building, teaching students how to write original plays based on interviews with members of their own community. The successful pilot run of Fountain Voices at Hollywood High culminated in January, with a powerful presentation of work that explored homophobia, depression, and homelessness among teenagers. This month, Fountain Voices begins a partnership with Compton Unified School District, where we will serve over 100 students, longing to be seen and heard.
My time spent with these students reaffirmed what the last year taught me. And when my niece is ready to return to school and inevitably enjoys her first moment onstage, rather than prepare her for the darkness, I will encourage her to embrace all the light and love theatre shines on us.
The Fountain Theatre announces Fountain Voices, an innovative arts education initiative that utilizes the power of theater to promote compassion and acceptance of others. The program launched at Hollywood High School in Fall 2020 and is now expanding to the Compton Unified School District, where it will commence March 8 at Clarence A. Dickinson K-8.
Integrating playwriting, critical thinking and performance, Fountain Voices guides students in the creation of original plays about issues that matter to them, helping them gain a better understanding of themselves and each other, and shedding light on the issues they see impacting their own communities.
“The students themselves choose the topics they want to write about,” says playwright France-Luce Benson,who serves as the Fountain’s community engagement director. “The Hollywood High kids wrote plays about depression, what it means to be queer and cope with homophobia, racial identity and homelessness among young people, among other things.”
Although the first phase, at Hollywood High, was implemented virtually due to Covid restrictions, that did not hinder the students’ ability to form deep, long lasting connections. According to teacher Ali Nezu, “Fountain Voices provided a safe and engaging environment in the midst of distance learning, as well as an authentic artistic experience that combined social emotional learning with English language arts development.”
The nine-week program kicks off with a virtual viewing of Benson’s play, Detained. Originally commissioned by Judy Rabinowitz of the ACLU, Detained is based on interviews with long time U.S. residents held in immigration detention and/or deported, their family members, advocates, attorneys and representatives of ICE. Their collective voices weave a compelling and complicated tapestry that emphasizes the impact immigration detention has on families.
Following the performance, students discuss the process of creating plays based on interviews, as well as the significance of sharing stories as a way to build community. Students are encouraged to think about what communities they belong to, what their stories are, and how they want their stories to be told. Social justice issues raised by the play are explored and used as a launching pad for students to think critically about the issues that impact their own communities. Students are then given the opportunity to engage (virtually) with each other through acting games and exercises designed to teach vital communication skills. As they learn about one another, students are also introduced to the key elements of playwriting. A major component of the curriculum is the interviews that students conduct with members of their own communities. Once those are completed, students collaborate with one another to craft short plays and monologues about the communities they live in and the ones they aspire to create.
Sixth, seventh and eighth graders will be the first to participate at Clarence A. Dickinson, with additional Compton Unified schools adopting the program, provided by the Fountain Theatre at no cost to the district, in the near future. “We are bringing Fountain Voices to our students because I believe that our students need the arts now more than ever,” stated Clarence A. Dickinson principal Rebecca Harris. “This will support our students’ literacy skills in a unique and engaging way.”
Concludes Benson, “Every voice deserves to be heard. Profound change can happen when we listen, and our collective voices can inspire compelling stories.”
Fountain Voices is made possible, in part, by support from Mary Jo and David Volk, the Vladimir and Araxia Buckhantz Foundation and Sharyl Overholser.
Leslie R: I was able to meet 6 of the most incredible people I could ever imagine… They made me love something, they reminded me that a family is not DNA. That’s what the program was to me, a family, a community. I learned to love, and through it, I was able to find a little piece of myself.
Delfin G: I was a really shy and reserved student before but being here helped me be more open and sharing that script really did something for me… Hearing those other stories and accounts by my peers was really eye-opening.
Ashley C: The Fountain voices program is a loving and safe space where there is never a right or wrong approach. It feels more like family than just a group and going from strangers to what I consider friends and family in a span of months is amazing.
Madison M: I not only loved the camaraderie of those who were involved in the program, but I cherished the community we built together… Writing is painful, therapeutic, cathartic, beautiful, and fulfilling all at the same time.
I’ve been thinking about a poem by Mary Oliver. The entire poem is only two lines. That’s all it needs. It goes like this:
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
2020 has been a deep box of darkness. Our task is to learn to view sorrows as gifts. That’s a hard one. The poem encourages us to do something when sorrows come, challenges us not to sit back and do nothing about them. That is what I have learned from this year.
It is hard to receive boxes of darkness. At the bottom of my box, I have found the gift of gratitude. For things big and small. As this dreadful year comes to its close, it has brought me this gift born of darkness: To be without the intimacy of the Fountain Theatre for one year makes me grateful for it even more. I hope you feel the same. While our holiday gatherings may be smaller or grid-boxed on Zoom, our hearts will surely be filled with gratitude.
With vaccinations now underway, our boxes of darkness soon will lighten. I honestly believe that the Fountain Theatre will play an essential role in the healing of our community. As we look ahead to 2021, the Fountain has ambitious plans to move forward, both online and onstage. Creating productions that illuminate what it means to be alive at this time in the world and providing impactful arts education programs for students in underserved schools across Los Angeles. All COVID-safe.
Here’s a snapshot: Our new online platform, Fountain Stream will debut a 2021 season of plays and inter-active community programs. Using innovative video technologies, we will go beyond Zoom, to give you intimate high-quality theatre that makes you think and feel. We have expanded Fountain for Youth, our arts education initiatives, with Fountain Voices, an extraordinary in-school playwriting program designed by France-Luce Benson. Our ground-breaking cops/kids residency, Walking the Beat, will return in a glorious new digital format. And, most ambitious of all, we are hopeful that in the spring of 2021, we will launch our biggest adventure next year: a thrilling Outdoor Stage in our parking lot. Live theatre under the stars! Completely COVID-compliant. Stay tuned.
But for now, the Fountain — like every theater throughout Los Angeles and across the nation — remains closed. I don’t have to tell you things are hard. For the Fountain, our earned income has ground to a halt. The Fountain’s budget has dropped by over 50%. Our building remains non-operational, still standing proud on Fountain Avenue thanks to grants, federal loans, contributions, and the private giving by you, our Fountain Family.
If you have already made a year-end donation to our campaign, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are the gift in our darkness box. Your love, friendship and support are the light that shines the way through these uncertain times. If you haven’t yet contributed, please consider doing so. Your generous holiday gift will help make the coming year possible. I am asking you to turn the sorrows of this year into a gift of gratitude. Out of darkness, light!