Actress Lily Balsen getting into character before the performance
Written by Tea Carnell, an active Young Audiences board member, Chair of 50,000 Kids Committee, and member of the Literature to Life Fundraising Committee.
Last fall, I was lucky enough to see Literature to Life’s staged presentation of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees in Washington, DC at a fundraiser hosted by Laura Handman, daughter of Literature to Life’s creator, Wynn Handman. Wynn Handman is also one of the founders of The American Place Theatre in New York City. That night, we were raising funds to bring this program to Prince George’s County Public Schools where it was performed last week.
I was moved by The Secret Life of Bees because, among other things, it touches on themes relevant not only to the students, but to everyone: racism and prejudice, the power of women, the vulnerability of women, what is real versus what is presented to us, and guilt and forgiveness. These issues are weighty and the performance compels the audience to confront them, showing that performance can exceed entertainment and that life’s biggest questions and broadest experiences can be captured and expressed. With the leadership of the teaching artist, Literature to Life creates an opportunity for students to consider and reflect. Wynn Handman once said, “There is so much noise in the entertainment world today, but where is the mind? We are not going for noise, we are going for the core. We do things that stay with youth, that get to them in a deep way…. That’s how we connect with youth. There is nowhere to hide from the story once the actor begins.” This opportunity is important for all students. And, it is especially critical for those students who don’t have access to the arts.
The performance of The Secret Life of Bees is accomplished just by one woman, Lily Balsen, playing all of the characters, and using verbatim excerpts from the novel. The actress spins these elements into a seamless production. I was lucky enough to see it again last week, on International Women’s Day. Of course, The Secret Life of Bees is a novel about women, and written by a woman. The date of the showing was a coincidence – a little serendipitous. Young Audiences/Arts for Learning was ‘showing off’ Literature to Life to a Baltimore-based audience interested in, and supportive of, arts in education.
This performance coalesced around the messages I had grown up with and personalized them for me with an immediacy that I had not yet experienced in the suburbs where I was growing up.
As I’ve thought about these wonderful performances, I have been reminded of the impact that a single play had on me as a child. I grew up just outside of Philadelphia in the mid-1970’s. In 1976, my parents took us to see One Acre at a Time at Freedom Theatre. Freedom Theatre is a Philadelphia-based theater company whose mission is “rooted in the African American tradition.” The play was intense, it made me uncomfortable, and the experience left me with lots to think about as a young person. During my childhood, my parents tried to educate me and my brother about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. I always understood what they were telling me and accepted that racism and discrimination were wrong. I don’t remember the specific plot at this point. I do remember the impact of the emotion and passionate expression in the context of historical issues of race in the United States. This performance coalesced around the messages I had grown up with and personalized them for me with an immediacy that I had not yet experienced in the suburbs where I was growing up. That experience sits with me today and has left me with messages I don’t think could have been communicated in a more compelling way.
Literature to Life brought me back to that experience of being a child, moved profoundly and enduringly by a performance. I feel strongly about the power of theatre in the lives of students. Theatre has many layers for students beyond audience: content, expression, production. Children benefit from them all – as young writers, performers, writers, artists, stage crew.
4,000 young people will experience the staged presentation Secret Life of Bees and, afterward, participate in a “talk back” with Young Audience teaching artist Molly Moores and the phenomenal actress Lily Balsen, who travels from New York for these performances. The schools participating in the tour include:
Annapolis Road Academy
Bowie High School
Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. High School
International High School at Langley Park
International High School at Largo
Largo High School
Northwestern High School
Mount Washington School
Southwest Baltimore Charter School
I hope that Literature to Life will find its way to many more Maryland students. To learn more about the program, visit literaturetolife.org.
If you are like me and care about the power of theatre, or more broadly about the power of the arts in our schools, I suggest you get to know more about Young Audiences/Arts for Learning at one of its regular Bright Side events. Bright Side events are not fundraisers, rather they are one-hour, fun, interactive presentations that go more in-depth about our work (including all of our programs beyond theatre with music, visual arts, and dance) and share stories of the people we serve. The next event will be on March 21st at 5:30 pm at Herman, Sessa & Dorsey in Hunt Valley (307 International Circle Suite 280, Hunt Valley, MD 21030). To RSVP for this event, please email Chaz Walters at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pictured from left to right: Nora Dennehy, Young Audiences Program and School Relationship Coordinator; actress Lily Balsen; Young Audiences Board Member, Tea Carnell; and Young Audiences Chief Development Officer, Jennifer Andiorio
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