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.
Students prepare to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden.
by Stephen Sachs
There hasn’t been that much rapturous cheering in Madison Square Garden since the Knicks won their last championship in 1973. But the thunderous hollering heard this Wednesday at the sold-out arena was not for a basketball game. It was for a play.
On Wednesday, 18,000 middle and high school students from Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island attended a free one-time special performance of the Broadway production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden arranged by producer Scott Rudin, the MSG organization and the city of New York. That’s right. 18,000 kids sat and watched a 3-hour drama in the cavernous home of the Knicks. Who would have thought it possible?
The result? By all accounts, everyone there on that school-day afternoon – actors, audience, organizers – have been forever changed by the experience. And, I hope, so has our field, as the impact of this one-time event ripples nationwide for years.
Artistic Directors like me have been wringing our hands over the same question for decades. How do we get younger audiences to come to our theatre? How do we engage young people today in our ancient art form? How do we not only hold their attention but excite them enough to want to come back to our theatre?
This week, one answer came. And it showed me that maybe we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong question. Sometimes we must bring the mountain to Muhammed.
The play’s usual Broadway home is the Shubert Theatre, where it commands an average ticket price of $162. The one-time performance at The Garden was free. For many kids, they were seeing a professional play – in an unusual setting — for the first time.
“This is a one-of-a-kind event — 18,000 young people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to see a Broadway play are going to be introduced to American theater,” playwright Aaron Sorkin said.
The cast of To Kill a Mockingbird take their bows on stage after a special performance for students at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In a week of nothing but bad news for our country, this gives me hope. And shatters a few myths theater-makers may hold about young people.
The attention span of teens is too short. The myth we keep telling ourselves is that the light-speed tempo of video games have accelerated the viewing habits of young people to such a degree that they’ll never sit still for a serious play. A musical, maybe. A rock musical, certainly. Not an issue-driven drama. But the 18,000 students at Madison Square Garden not only sat still and listened to “Mockingbird”, they were riveted in their seats.
Young people are only interested in contemporary stories about themselves. It’s okay to offer them hip hop plays, urban musicals, modern teen comedies about their world today. A drama from another time period? Too risky. This week, however, a multitude of students from New York were engrossed by a fable that takes place in 1934 Alabama. Want to make it worse? It’s a play adapted from a book they are assigned to study as homework in class, for crying out loud. A theatre producer’s nightmare, right? Wrong.
Young people hate theatre. Not true. They just have fewer opportunities to see it. And when they do? “It’s so exciting,” said high school junior Michelle Hernandez. “It’s amazing,” said student Justine Jackson. “The story is very real and you can relate it to modern society,” said junior Andy Lin. “Specially racism because it’s still going on.” The 18,000 students were clearly swept up in the play and the excitement of the event. The setting of Madison Square Garden seemed to set them free to react openly in ways they would never dare in a conventional theatre. They laughed, they gasped, they shouted, and they cried. They cheered Atticus Finch like he was a rock star.
Regional theaters across the country have educational outreach programs that include bringing their productions of plays to schools for students to enjoy and benefit by seeing. It’s a failsafe strategy that is not going anywhere. A theatre importing its production to a school campus is one thing. Partnering with Madison Square Garden is another.
The conventional model of bussing students to your theatre holds its own many benefits. But I hope the “Mockingbird” event inspires theater organizations across the country to think outside the box in their own community. To explore unconventional venues and unique partnerships to help bring the power of theater to young people nationwide.
Could the “Mockingbird” event happen in Los Angeles? Can we imagine 20,000 students from across the Southland coming to Staples Center to watch a performance of “Death of A Salesman”? Why not? It takes a mayor, a theatre producer and a city believing that it’s important and willing to make it happen. As NY Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “The only way to change your world is if you decide it is your world to change.”
And you must find like-minded partners who are willing to change it.
Post-show blues. It’s a common phrase among theatre folk.
As we close the final performance of the Fountain Theatre’s arts education program, Walking the Beat Hollywood, as panels are struck and lights come down, as kids head safely home to their families, and cops return to patrolling the streets, the phrase takes on new meaning. In the context of Walking the Beat Hollywood, the phrase alludes not only to the malaise that accompanies the end of an affecting production, but also to the image of an LAPD uniform.
Walking the Beat Hollywood is a theatrical residency for high school students across Los Angeles and the police officers who patrol their neighborhoods. Together, students and officers devised a piece of theatre they titled “A Wall is Just Another Door,” about community policing informed by their personal experiences. During the show, performers begged the question in a rap battle, “When you see me in my uniform what do you see?” The question asks us all to challenge the assumptions we make and to acknowledge our biases, disadvantages, and privileges.
I have often been told that if I want to make a change in the world, I’m in the wrong business. I’ve heard that political theatre preaches to an audience that is already in agreement. This assumes that the audience attending theatre is of the same ilk. And yet, after Walking the Beat Hollywood I have never been more convinced that theatre changes lives.
Perhaps that is because the theatrical community that created and witnessed Walking the Beat Hollywood was not typical. (Walking the Beat Hollywood challenged convention as soon as the doors opened.) Development offices at theatres all over the world work hard to gather demographic information about their audiences. As a result, we know that theatrical audiences are largely white, liberal, affluent, and over 50. Working for a theatre festival during college, I was tasked with reviewing and digitizing hard-copies of audience surveys. One respondent answered the race and ethnicity question: “Really white.”
This respondent’s answer still makes me laugh. However, it’s also true and has far-reaching and troubling consequences. The ambition to democratize theatre can paradoxically become pretentious and self-serving. This is when theatre-makers become white-saviors. “Democratizing” can often look more like condescending to a group of people those in power ostensibly want to “uplift.” This is tokenism. The antidote to this kind of practice is recognizing that individuals are individuals and not representatives of a group. They are people of worth and power. Walking the Beat Hollywood succeeded in democratizing theatre precisely by self-consciously circumventing that goal.
It would be untrue to claim that the regular homogeneity of most theatrical audiences was unrepresented at Walking the Beat Hollywood. But largely this audience and this cast were unconventional. In fact, the ensemble worked hard to disrupt and challenge convention. Their tools in dismantling systems of oppression were their own stories. The ensemble gave generously of themselves and as a result moved their audience.
Melina Young and Barbara Goodhill welcome guests to “Walking the Beat” at LACC.
Angela Kariotis, a visionary theatre-maker, teaching artist, and WTBH playwright writes, “Telling a story is simple, but not easy. Easy and simple are not the same thing… We never think we have any stories. But then all of a sudden, they come tumbling out because we cracked open the door a little. And here they are all demanding, demanding to be told.” That demand imbued Walking the Beat Hollywood with honest urgency. Sitting inside the Caminito Theatre, the call for truth was palpable and stirring. My father wept as he listened to each student’s identity poem and so did I. I already knew and loved these kids and by the end of the performance I think he did too.
When I handed one of the students her final pay check, she looked at me with a telling pout and said, “I don’t want this one.” When I asked her why, she said “because it means it’s the end. And I don’t want to say goodbye to everyone.” Her reluctance was evidence of love. Sixteen strangers—ten kids and six cops—became friends.
Theatre. Changes. Lives.
I saw these kids change. I saw them grow. Many students started this process shy. Many didn’t. Some are still shy and some still aren’t. But I know that they know their worth. I know that they proclaimed their worth in front of an audience eager to bear witness to it. That is genuinely important.
Sure, this was a production focused on cops and kids coming together to discuss the problems of community policing. But the final performance did not offer a solution. Rather, it highlighted human beings of different experience coming together to listen to one another.
I return to the idea of post-show blues. How did Walking the Beat Hollywood change our proverbial uniforms? If only for an evening, we have been armed with an open mind and with the impulse to listen.
I want to challenge theatre-going audiences to continue the legacy of this performance. Be silent and be moved. Listen. After all, “Listening is an act of love.”
The Fountain Theatre believes students and young people must have the opportunity to engage and consider meaningful human issues through the experience of live theatre. We love having students in our audience. They are the artists, arts patrons and arts leaders of tomorrow.
We’re always delighted when teacher Alan Goodson brings his students from Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising to the Fountain Theatre. They recently enjoyed our funny and poignant West Coast Premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Cost of Living. Here are some of the reactions written by the students:
“Overall, the play was an excellent representation of everyday life, not just for one with disabilities, but for those who crave to be pulled out of loneliness. The way that Majok portrayed the play through the eyes of two characters in wheelchairs, as well as their caretakers, was an excellent way to grab the audience’s attention. It was an on-edge performance, with exceptional acting skills. While showing someone with disabilities can be a touchy subject for most, it’s important for others to see that they aren’t the only ones in life that may need a little extra love, or caretaking.”
Tobias Forrest and Xochitl Romero in “Cost of Living”
“Whether it be bathing, eating, or taking part in social life, Cost of Living is a reenactment of what millions of people go through. This thought-provoking piece allows the audience to be vulnerable, uncomfortable, and also gives people a chance the be thankful for the simple things that are often taken for granted.”
“Cost of Living was a production that completely changed my perception of those that are disabled. I believed that many were strong, and had to carry on with their lives after an incident happens, or even from birth. However, I didn’t realize the actual struggle that these people had to face in daily life, when it comes to daily, normal activities. I not only had sympathy for them, but I also saw their strength and courage and how it can be hard to accept help from others, especially when they see others carrying on their lives normally, when they physically are not able to do so. If the play was able to change my views, it’s able to change many others’ as well.”
“I believe the director and actors were able to show and bring to life that feeling of what the characters cost of living was. Personally, I can relate to the production in that I have a disability that at times hinders my ability to live life to my fullest. I try not to let it, but at times there is nothing I can do about it being my cost of living.”
“The play is about disabilities with people, not the other way around. The message of the play is that the biggest disabilities we can have are the ones that every person encounters at some point—loneliness and fear. The worst disabilities are not about having someone bathe or shave you, it’s the ones that make us human and make us all alike in some way. Personally, I found myself somewhere in this play, as I’m sure many others did. It captured me from the very first scene, and made me feel for each character and I related it to struggles in my own life.”
Theatre as a Learning Tool is the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program, making theatre accessible to students and young people throughout Southern California.
To many college students, class assignments can seem boring and meaningless. But for teacher Alan Goodson and his students at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, the ongoing visits to the Fountain have become one assignment they eagerly look forward to undertaking. For years, Goodson regularly pulls his students out of the classroom and into the Fountain to benefit from the educational and life-enhancing experience of live theatre.
The student visits are made possible by Theatre as a Learning Tool, the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program that makes live theatre accessible to young people throughout Southern California.
The FIDM students arrived at the Fountain on November 4th to see our acclaimed world premiere of Runaway Home by Jeremy J. Kamps. The play is set in New Orleans, three years after Hurricane Katrina. 14 year-old runaway Kali embarks on a journey to pick through the wreckage of what used to be her life. Rhyming, stealing, and scamming her way through the still-destroyed neighborhood, she grapples with the real cost of what she lost and is forced to confront the higher risk of moving forward. A funny, moving, and powerful new play about community and the power of family.
Returning back to their classroom, the students wrote essays expressing their thoughts and feelings on seeing the production. Take a look at these excerpts:
“The small black box-style theater that The Fountain offers made for an utterly intimate show, leaving tears swelling in every audience member’s eyes as they watched these characters and their troubles unfold. . . . As someone who had no experience with the post-Katrina trauma, this show was a huge learning experience for me. In a way, it caused awareness for tragedies like Katrina, and how the devastation is anything but short-term. In my mind, three years sounds like a very long time, but seeing how devastated these families and communities still were three years later really put it into perspective. Also, the intimate environment of the venue made me feel even closer with these characters, and I truly felt a connection with each and every one of them throughout the show. Kamps’ writing exposed the ugly truths of a natural disaster, but mainly expressed the importance of acceptance, family, and growing up.”
“This play was directed in a way that really involved the audience emotionally. When watching the play, there were times when I literally felt as if I was in the scene. Aside from that I was sitting in the first row, I felt as if I was immersed in each scene, embracing every dramatic and/or even comedic moment. The actors in the play all performed extremely well. They really embraced the importance of how the aftermath of the hurricane effected so many people.”
“My personal opinion of the play is that it was a very emotional, but strong story. The actors played the parts effortlessly, especially the actress that played Kali. . . . Overall, the play was very inspiring. It was told in a different way, with these monologues that were extremely poetic. The experience was very cool being so close to the actors. It felt like I was in the story. The was definitely worth watching.”
“These close quarters allow for audience members to analyze every detail of the actors on stage, whether that be gestures, dialogue, or facial expressions, we can see it all. With that said, the small proximity of the theatre made the execution of Runaway Home that much more impressive and admirable. For audience members like myself, I could tell that each cast member was fully engaged in the story and connected to the characters they played.”
“Intimacy and raw emotion are concepts that are commonly taken for granted, but when they are used to enhance a piece of art, they suddenly become indispensable. With a smaller-sized venue located at the Fountain Theater in Hollywood, and a close-knit cast of animated actors, they were able to incorporate intimacy as well as capture raw emotion in one jam-packed performance. . . . This play provided not only insight into an event, but shed light on the darker aspects of our government’s behavior. Both the venue and the personnel chose to play each character worked perfectly in articulating the message that Kamps was trying to convey. The audience can expect to get giggly as well as a bit teary eyed during this performance. The range of emotion and intimacy that is put on display makes for an extraordinary production.”
The passionate life and self-destructive death of 1960’s dancer Fred Herko inspired friend Deborah Lawlor to write her play, Freddy, opening Wednesday at LACC Theatre Academy as a co-production with the Fountain Theatre. Her new theatre/dance work has, in turn, motivated the students and professional artists involved.
In this honest, poignant and empowering video, the company from Freddy share their thoughts and feelings on the often challenging journey of being an artist, the inner demons they face, and the wings they develop to enable them to soar.