Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Power of Art to Educate

Not every child grows up in a home where parents can afford to nourish a talent or interest in the arts. Despite the continued threat to cut funding for arts programs in the schools (as well as for the National Endowment for the Arts), many teachers strive to find ways that will keep their students interested and involved in school projects.

Some purchase classroom supplies that their school district cannot afford. Others try to create games which will help students build a link between telling stories and solving problems. With so many nonprofit arts organizations doing educational outreach work, some remarkable projects (which would have been unthinkable 50 years ago) now offer artists as well as youngsters meaningful opportunities which let the arts broaden their lives. This video clip of dancers from the New York City Ballet interacting with children with disabilities is a perfect example.


A recent article on AMNY.com entitled New York Subway Station Exhibit Devoted to David Bowie highlighted Spotify's coverage of a project at the Broadway-Lafayette Street/Bleecker Street subway station that was inspired by the Brooklyn Museum's "David Bowie Is" exhibit.

Part of the David Bowie exhibit at the Broadway-Lafayette train station
(Photo credit: Spotify)

The truth is that art is everywhere we look, whether one stares at a tree, a statue, or the setting sun. What's more, the arts can teach people all kinds of important life lessons. As part of their vocal training, aspiring opera singers learn that they must be fluent in the language they are singing, understand the proper usage of certain words in the libretto, and grasp how their character's behavior is affected in the context of the story. Above all, they learn that opera and acting are collaborative art forms which rely on a group dynamic. Rehearsals and performances are not about "I" but about the collective "we."

A short film being shown at CAAMFest 2018 stands out for the way it turns the standard arguments about color-blind casting, cultural appropriation, political correctness, and American exceptionalism upside down and inside out. Written and directed by Theodore A. Adams III, Othello-san focuses on Jason Brown (Theo Adams IV), a young African American actor who graduated from the Yale School of Drama and has performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.

Far more focused on building his career than honing his craft, Jason has enrolled in Japan's most prestigious acting school with the goal of playing the title role in a Japanese language version of Shakespeare's 1603 tragedy, Othello (The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice). His assumption is that he's a natural choice for the role because he has dark skin and has already appeared as Othello on Broadway.


Research and process, however, are not Jason's strong points. At the first table reading it becomes obvious to the director, Yamada (Yuki Matsuzaki), that the young actor is not yet "off book." Nor has he learned the proper pronunciation of certain Japanese words. When asked who he thinks Othello is and why he wants to portray the Moor, Jason's answers are all about himself -- how this would be a logical stepping stone in his career that might help him get work in Japan. As the filmmaker notes:
"Othello-san challenges the audience to consider the fundamental concept of perspective. Each character brings a heavy dose of self-perspective to the story that causes a tremendous disconnect. The film demands an examination of race, gender, religion, nationality and culture. It uncovers deep-seated differences that will either bridge gaps or reinforce century-old barriers and misconceptions of two highly celebrated social groups. In the end, it may end up asking more questions than providing answers, but the ultimate goal is to start a dialogue, and from that discover a collective truth."

I was deeply impressed by Othello-san, and not just for Kunitaro Ohi's stark yet remarkably effective cinematography. The filmmaker's tightly-crafted script does a splendid job of emphasizing the distinction between approaching one's art as a business plan or treating one's relationships with professional colleagues as part of an actor's never-ending quest to learn from others. This short offers fascinating insights into what it means to learn how to build respect for one's craft, one's colleagues, and how to find and build character in one's roles as well as one's life. Here's the trailer:


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While documentary film has evolved into a powerful genre for examining stories that have been ignored, neglected, or intentionally buried (anyone for corporate and governmental obfuscation?), documentary theatre is an extremely different phenomenon. Although viewers may be able to sit back and watch a documentary film in a movie theatre, on television, or on a computer monitor, they remain safely -- and physically -- detached from the narrative unfolding in front of them. Documentary theatre makes them vulnerable to the presence of live actors and the collective responses of an engaged audience.

The Tectonic Theater Project recently announced the release of a book about the company entitled Moment Work: Tectonic Theater Project's Process of Devising Theater. Written by artistic director Mois├ęs Kaufman and Barbara Pitts McAdams (along with members Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Kelli Simpkins, Jimmy Maize, and Scott Barrow), the book offers a guide to the collaborative method the company developed during its work on such productions as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, I Am My Own Wife, and The Laramie Project.

Matthew Shepard on a 1995 school trip to Morocco where
he was beaten and raped (Photo by Gina van Hoof)

For those who don't know, The Laramie Project is a powerful piece of verbatim theatre that was created by the Tectonic Theatre Project in the wake of the sadistic attack on Matthew Shepard (a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie) on October 6, 1998 that resulted in Shepard's death at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado on October 12. Not only did Shepard's murder give the world a grisly picture of what a homophobic hate crime looks like, on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. Shepard's mother subsequently founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which focuses on educational outreach and advocacy programs aimed at preventing violence and combating homophobia.

Poster art for The Laramie Project

First performed by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February of 2000, The Laramie Project was performed in Laramie in 2002 (the same year that HBO commissioned a film version of The Laramie Project that was also written by Moises Kaufman). To mark the 20th anniversary of Shepard's death, San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company recently staged a production of The Laramie Project directed by Stuart Bousel. The program contained the following explanatory statement from the playwright:
The Laramie Project was written through a unique collaboration by Tectonic Theatre Project. During the year-and-a-half development of the play, members of the company and I traveled to Laramie six times to conduct interviews with the people of the town. We transcribed and edited the interviews, then conducted several workshops in which the members of the company presented material and acted as dramaturgs in the creation of the play.”
Steve Mallers as Aaron McKinney in a scene from
The Laramie Project (Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)
“As the volume of material grew with each additional trip to Laramie, a small writers’ group from within the company began to work more closely to further organize and edit the material, conduct additional research in Laramie, and collaborated in the writing of the play. This group was led by Leigh Fondakowski as head writer, with Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti as associate writers. As we got closer to the play’s first production in Denver, the actors (including Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti) turned their focus to performance while Leigh Fondakowski continued to work with me on drafts of the play, as did Stephen Wangh, who by then had joined us as an associate writer and ‘bench coach.’"
Terry Maloney Haley in a scene from The Laramie Project
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)

On April 22, LCTC will stage a one-night-only reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later as a fundraiser. As noted on Wikipedia:
"Ten years after Shepard's murder, members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to conduct follow-up interviews with residents featured in the play. Those interviews were turned into a companion piece, entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The play debuted as a reading at nearly 150 theatres across the United States and internationally on October 12, 2009 -- the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, most whose opening was linked by webcam to New York City where Judy Shepard and the play's producers and writers gave an opening speech, followed by an address by Glenn Close."


Watching Left Coast Theatre Company's production of The Laramie Project in the intimate confines of the EXIT Stage Left venue proved to be a fascinating experience for reasons I had not anticipated. I had never attended a performance of the play before, which made it a refreshing night of theatre. And, because the past 20 years have witnessed a great deal of progress for LGBT rights (as well as progress in battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic), certain clouds of depression were not weighing as heavily on me as they might have at the time of the show's world premiere.

Even with a rise in homophobia aided and abetted by key figures in the Trump administration, the combined effect of Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, teachers' strikes around the nation, and new waves of activism inspired by the Parkland students, seem to have fostered a greater sense of collective hope and determination. Having spent many hours during my career transcribing interviews I've recorded with artists and opera singers, I found myself in awe of the way Kaufman and his colleagues at Tectonic Theatre Project wove together an oral tapestry from the verbatim transcripts of their interviews as well as the transcripts of court proceedings against Shepard's murderers.

Tim Garcia as Fred Phelps in a scene from The Laramie Project
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wollins)

Seated beside me was a woman who had brought her teenage son with her to the performance. As we chatted during intermission, she told me what a godsend it was that her son (a senior in high school) was lucky enough to find a good program at his school for kids who are interested in theatre. When I told her how fortunate she is to be able to share her passion for theatre with a teenager (who showed no signs of the sullen behavior one often associates with kids that age), she confessed how grateful she was that she didn't have to spend three years going to football games.

Although The Laramie Project is written to be performed by anywhere from 8 to 100 actors, Bousel chose to work with an ensemble of 10 (Erica Andracchio, Megan Briggs, Andrew Calabrese, Ellen Dunphy, Tim Garcia, Terry Maloney Haley, Steve Mallers, Laylah Muran de Assereto, Alejandro Torres, and Wera von Wulfen) who tackle multiple roles during brief vignettes in which residents of Laramie (as well as the two murderers -- Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney) are questioned about their feelings and what they actually know about the tragic events that led to Shepard's death. As the show's director, Bousel kept the performance moving at a rapid clip without ever losing any of its dramatic momentum or depriving moments of the breathing space they required for maximum impact.

In case there are no theatres or community groups performing The Laramie Project where you live, HBO's film adaptation (with an amazing cast) is available for viewing on YouTube.

1 comment:

Art Maddox said...

Wonderful stuff, George, as usual. Thank you!