Dionna Daniel and the GirlPower group at A Place Called Home.
by Dionna Daniel
I had the pleasure of joining the GirlPower group at A Place Called Home on November 1st, 2017. The Fountain Theatre is always excited to have the students of APCH come see the productions at our theatre. For the first time ever, I was able to lead a short post-show workshop with the youth through our educational outreach program, Theatre as a Learning Tool.
When I visited the students at their space, we began the afternoon together with a round of theater games. The laughter echoed in the room as we all introduced ourselves with funny gestures and sounds. Then we began to discuss the Fountain’s production of Runaway Home and how they connected with the show. Many of the students said that they connected with the rocky relationship between the character Kali and her mother. We then began to talk about the historical context of Hurricane Katrina. It was eye opening for me to realize that these students were just babies when one of the most disastrous storms to ever make landfall hit the southern United States. They really didn’t have much context to this show at all.
The group dives into a writing exercise.
As I showed the students video coverage of the devastation that Katrina caused, our discussion shifted to the themes of displacement in Runaway Home and how it relates to people in Los Angeles. Many Angelenos are being displaced due to the growing housing crisis in LA and the rise of gentrification in LA’s east side. We discussed the erasure of black and brown neighborhoods and communities that is currently taking place in LA. A lot of the gentrification looking very similar to what happen to New Orleans’ black communities. We ended our session together with a quick free-write and said one word that resonated with us in that moment. While some students said such words as “inspired” and “hopeful”, I reflected on how this experience was equally inspiring for me.
As I say often, I believe art must do something. During my time at APCH, I witnessed that theater can be utilized as a gateway to empathy, to not only discuss the historical context of the traumas of people in New Orleans but to also reflect on ourselves and our own communities. Art is vital to understanding the human condition. Theatre matters.
Dionna Daniel is a playwright, performer, and Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.
How does theatre dramatize important social, political and cultural issues in a way that is compelling and meaningful? Can a play bring to life the challenges of immigration and the struggle of undocumented workers in a story that reveals the human being behind the stereotype? Isn’t it remarkable how the magic of theatre pulls us into the personal lives of these colorful characters in this play and then delivers a heart-stopping blow at the end that forces you to examine your own belief systems about yourself?
These compelling questions — and more — were some of the topics raised in a heartfelt Q&A discussion with the cast following yesterday’s matinee performance of My Mañana Comes. The audience included young people and adults from The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company, a non-profit organization that makes theatre accessible to low income youth and adults. The program also uses theatre as a vehicle to create community and empower, educate and give artistic voice to young people.
My Mañana Comesis a funny and powerful new play about four busboys — three Mexican, one African American — in a upscale restaurant who battle issues of immigration, fair pay for labor, and chasing the American Dream. The play utilizes fast-paced dialogue and slang in both English and Spanish. That same diversity was reflected in the cultural mix at yesterday’s Q&A when the discussion was conducted and translated in both Spanish and English.
The interchange between artists and young people in the community was made possible through the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program, Theatre as a Learning Tool, which provides the life-enhancing experience of live theatre to underserved young people throughout Southern California.
“Our goal at the Fountain is to use the power of theatre to put a human face on the social, political and cultural issues of our day,” says Co-Artistic Director Stephen. “And to open the eyes and minds and hearts of young people. There is nothing more rewarding than making theatre available to those in our community who otherwise have little or no access to what theatre can do.”
An aspiring actress on the Fountain Theatre stage.
By Lisa Phillips
There are many things I don’t know about life and how the world works, but there are two things I know for certain. The first is that many young people are less prepared for the working world than they were 20 years ago. The second is that there is something we can do about it!
Don’t get me wrong, young people today are energetic, caring about the environment and passionate about social justice. However, when it comes to the skills they need to conquer the competitive nature of the working world, there is some work to be done. Success skills such as effective communication, accountability, finding solutions to challenges, and adaptability are just some of the areas that many members of the current generation are lacking.
So where can they learn them?
In those “nice to have, but not need to have” programs that our school boards seem to be cutting like they were last year’s fashions…THE ARTS!
If parents, educators and policy makers would just LOOK and see what I see, they would recognize an untapped opportunity to catapult 21st century students toward achieving their goals in life. I would like to offer six reasons why the arts offer excellent opportunities to develop these vital success skills.
1. The Arts Don’t Focus on Right & Wrong
The simple fact is, if we learn mainly in an environment in which we pump out answers that are either right or wrong, with no middle ground or room for creativity, we will begin to see the whole world as black and white. We will expect every problem to have aright answer. Participation in the arts opens up our mind to the possibility that the world is full of color and there is more than one way to achieve a goal. When the pressure of needing to find the right answer is removed, it becomes easier to take a risk and try – and trying is the only way to succeed.
2. The Arts are Inherently Creative
The desire to employ creative people is not unique to Apple. The most successful companies assemble teams of people who are able to see the big picture, to make connections and to predict market trends. Even in a fiercely competitive job market, these skills will always be in demand. Unfortunately, our traditional systems of education are not designed to produce people with these skills. In arts education children are constantly being asked to try new things and think of alternatives. This kind of thinking goes a long way toward developing the essential success skill of creativity.
3. The Emphasis on Practice
In the arts, it is understood that you will not be able to learn an instrument or be an incredible dancer over night. Developing these skills takes effort and hours and hours of practice. The arts environment encourages persistence through challenges towards mastery, a skill very much needed to thrive in the 21st century. When children participate in the arts, they will not shy away from learning things in their adult lives that are challenging, or take lots of time and effort. They would have already experienced the benefit of that level of practice through their arts training.
4. The Focus on Feedback & Critique
Feedback is a constant part of the learning process in the arts. This helps children understand that feedback should not be taken personally, but that it is meant to challenge them to push beyond what they think they are capable of achieving. A good arts teacher’s critique is specific; it tells the student what works, what does not, and what they can do to improve. If we are used to seeing feedback as fuel for improvement, our natural reaction when receiving feedback will not be to make excuses, but to ask for more feedback about how we can improve our performance.
5. The Moment of Success
Each discipline within the arts has its own method of performance or presentation– an art exhibit, a play, a dance show etc. This gives children a sense of accomplishment after all of their effort and practice. This acknowledgement translates into a strong boost of confidence and enhances their drive to continue learning and improving. They have experienced a moment of success and when that happens they are typically motivated to seek even more success.
6. The Coping Mechanisms for Handling Stress
Mental health is a growing concern in our society and often people can become overwhelmed with stress. It is important to find ways to calm ourselves during those moments. Dancing, painting or playing the piano can be a great stress reliever. These activities help us let out our frustrations, and express ourselves without needing to use words. If children develop these skills early, then as adults they will naturally gravitate toward these and will have a way to deal with stresses that come up in their lives.
The world is changing so rapidly and the rules in the job market are requiring a different set of skills in order to find success. Long gone are the days when a university degree was enough to guarantee a great career. We need to wake up to the realization that the arts have a critical role to play in the development of the skills young people need to not only survive, but to thrive in the 21st century.
Lily Brown and friend chat with actor Tim Cummings
All of us at the Fountain Theatre feel it is important for young people to see our current production ofThe Normal Heart. Larry Kramer’s powerful, funny and deeply moving chronicle of the dawn of the AIDS crisis in 1981 has been named one of the 100 Greatest Plays of the Twentieth Century by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain. Our production has earnedrave reviewsand overwhelming audience response and has just been extended to December 15th.
An entire generation of young people have grown up with little or no awareness of AIDS. Many think the AIDS crisis is “old news” and something that happened “back then” with no relevancy today. Not true. More than 30 million people have died worldwide from the AIDS virus so far, with over 1 million people still dying every year — today, now — in 2013.
Our acclaimed production of The Normal Heart is not a history lesson. It is a riveting drama, a heartfelt love story, a compelling political thriller. It is powerful theater, life-changing theater, necessary theater. With the force to inspire and open the eyes and hearts of young people. As this message from college student Lily Brown states so eloquently:
There have been so few times in my life that a piece of theater has moved me so much as to push me to the point of tears. Tears for heartbreak, tears for sorrow, tears for pure rage and tears for lost time and lost lives. But more than deeply moved, I was deeply inspired. As a 20-year-old college student working to get a degree in political theater and Spanish, there is nothing more valuable to me than getting to see the type of work that I aspire to make brought so wonderfully and vivaciously to life. It gives me hope for the future of theater and hope for the future of my career -- I can only hope to make something so powerful someday. Thank you for an evening not soon forgotten.
All my love and appreciation,
The Normal Heart Extended to Dec 15 (323) 663-1525MORE
Let’s you and I build the perfect audience for our new play. While we may differ on a few details, I’ll bet that our ideal audience would share some of these traits:
They would be Eager—they’d rush to their seats, they’d want to sit up close, they would not want to leave when it was over.
They would be Engaged—leaning forward, hungry for action and image and story and surprise. They would not sit with their arms folded across their chests.
They would be Open—open to experimentation, to newness, to things they have never seen before in a play.
They would be Demanding—they’d bust us when our play got boring or maudlin or vague or preachy or pretentious.
They would be Vocal—they’d hoot at the good jokes and gasp at the surprising stuff. They’d cheer when it was over, and then ask the hardest and truest questions imaginable.
And they would be Committed—they’d likely want to come back the next day and see the play again.
There’s a name for this ideal audience. They are called kids. If only we got to write for them. How amazing that would be.
The fact is we don’t write for kids. We write for their gatekeepers. Of course we have kids in mind when we write. But we don’t write our plays for them. Not directly.
I would respectfully ask my fantastic playwright peers to consider what percentage of our creative time is spent really (really) thinking about what kids want from our plays … and what percentage is spent thinking about the needs of their gatekeepers: parents, teachers, school administrators, the artistic and financial leaders of theaters, the publishers and licensors and booking agents. “What kind of plays are you looking for?” is something we regularly ask our gatekeepers—but seldom, I’m afraid, ask our kids.
As theatergoers, young people are an occupied country. They depend on the benevolence of empirical leaders. They do not vote. They are not the “deciders.” They are fed what we believe they should eat, whether we know what they’re hungry for or not.
I write you as one of these gatekeepers. I’m the parent of two kids—and though I like to “present” as a Democracy, I probably parent as a Dictatorship. I have strong views on what I think my children should experience in the theater. With the best of intentions—and with what I assume (don’t we all?) is my admirable and blisteringly enlightened sense of taste—I lead them toward some plays and discourage them from others.
But here’s the thing: I don’t really know what kind of plays they want to see. I just know the kind of plays I have taken them to. And of course at some point the kind of plays they want to see are simply the kind of plays I’ve been taking them to. This allows me to think I’ve made them into “theatergoers,” when perhaps I’ve just made them into me—saddling them with my own tastes, prejudices, and opinions.
Earlier this year, I heard a mom in a theater lobby tell her young son about an upcoming play. She said the title of the play. He asked: “Do I like that?” She said, beaming: “You love that.” That young boy’s question continues to haunt me.
II. The Double Audience
I also write you as a friend and colleague of many artistic leaders in the field of Young Audiences. I admire and respect these women and men beyond measure. And in case running an American professional theater in 2012 was not hard enough, they must program their seasons for a Double Audience. These leaders always seek to astonish and inspire their young audiences—but make no mistake: they must cater to the parents. And the schools. And the funders and the marketers and the Board. They must constantly assuage the well-intentioned gatekeepers like me.
On the whole, we gatekeepers are a pretty benevolent bunch. We (mostly) root for newness, and we (sort of) champion risk, and we take comfort in the fact that “our hearts are in the right place”. But we also allow things to be dumbed down in our plays. We ladle out buckets of self-esteem and we pass only the most incontrovertible of judgments – no matter what the scenario, character, topic or event. We oh-so-naturally default to the happy, the heartwarming and the upbeat, and we do so with the most ironclad rationale: it’s for the good of the kids.
But let’s please admit this: we don’t dumb things down for our kids—we dumb things down for us. To mollify our own fears. We don’t make upbeat endings or “easy morals” for our kids—we make them for us. To avoid what might be the harder discussion. We don’t censor (and please let’s drop the euphemisms and use the word) plays for our kids—we censor them for ourselves. And why? Because we get “outraged”—or, more commonly, we live in fear that someone else will get “outraged.” And god forbid we do a play that not everyone in our community is one-hundred percent behind. The squeaky wheel is always ready to pick the season.
Gatekeepers tend get outraged about words, bodies, “issues” and “themes”—especially those that bespeak a less-than-sunlit world. Kids get outraged, too — but in my experience their outrage is not about nouns, verbs, butts, boobs, dark thoughts or moral complexity.
Kids get outraged by stories that are stupid. Plays that have crappy endings. They get outraged about characters that do really obvious and dumb things, speeches that are boring, and stagecraft that looks fakey or dopey. Kids get outraged about being talked to like “kids”. Kids get outraged at the theater’s bright, earnest, pleasant, upbeat and relentless inability to astonish them.
I believe kids want stories and not “titles.” I believe they want adventure and conflict and hard truths and cool stuff and fear and death and history and magic and some more cool stuff and maybe some kissing or blood or a guy like their weird Uncle Dan or a bike that flies or turns into an elk. Unlike their gatekeepers, I am fully convinced that kids do not want “excellent role models”, compulsory “understanding” and a seventy minute run time.
III. We Are All The Young
So how can we make “youth theater” for the young—and not for their gatekeepers? I respectfully submit here one possible way to start:
Let us remember that no matter what theater we enter, there is a child in every seat. An audience made up of Toddlers, Teens and Parents is in fact an audience filled with the Young, the Recently Young, and the Previously Young.
Age is not a horizontal marker, but a vertical one. Our youth is never behind us, it is beneath us; it is never surrendered, only sublimated or surmounted.
And thus a “children’s play” is not a play about “children” any more than an “adult play” is about “adults.” These are plays about our Youth. These are not plays that move faster or play brighter or end better—these are plays that dig deeper, that reach back farther. These are plays that do not settle for the facile adult surface of a man, but instead burrow to his core, his past, his youth. A “children’s play” can surely be about five young girls having a grand adventure—but it can also be about five women in their eighties who gather to rekindle the girls that still reside inside them. All of our ages conspire within us and continue to underscore our days. We are all the young.
And what’s more: our youth is the very oldest part of us. We have carried it longer, had the chance to know it more fully, than any self we have concocted in the interim. When we write for “children,” we are writing for our most fundamental selves.
I have learned that young audiences demand a profound and ruthless interrogation of my own Youth: What became of the child in me? What did I know back then—in my heart and gut and bones—before the world began to teach me everything else?
To make plays for young audiences asks a playwright to wrestle with essences—a challenge often just impossible enough to summon our very best work. It has the feel of trying to grab at fireflies in an endless field at night. But if we catch one—if our craft proves worthy of our story and we connect with the oldest and deepest parts of ourselves—I can promise you this: the perfect audience awaits.
Steven Dietz is a nationally-produced playwright. He is the author of more than 30 plays, including Lonely Planet produced by the Fountain Theatre in 1996.