“We are not going for noise, we are going for the core.”

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 chaz@yamd.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
pam negrin creative stitching

Honoring Black Women in Science

pam negrin creative stitching

At the oldest public all-girls high school in the United States, students recently had the opportunity to work with fiber artist Pam Negrin to stitch the likenesses of important, black, female scientists onto one collaborative work of art. Along with partner teacher Jennifer Becker, and with help from both the science and graphic design departments, Pam worked with Western High School students on the large project from conception to realization.

pam negrin creative stitchingpam negrin creative stitchingpam negrin creative stitching pam negrin creative stitching

Many of these women truly were ‘hidden figures’ and one of the scientists, Stephanie Hill, was a Western alumna!”

pam negrin creative stitchingDrawing inspiration from the New York Times best-selling book, Women in Science, the group of students and teachers approached the project with reverence.We lovingly call it our ‘Women in Science Mural’,” Mrs. Becker says of the artwork depicting portraits of women who paved the way for her students. “Many of these women truly were ‘hidden figures’ and one of the scientists, Stephanie Hill, is a Western alumna!”

Three different classes participated in this exciting project. “First, Western’s lead science teacher, Ms. Washington, came up with a list of 25 women who have made important contributions in STEM fields,” Mrs. Becker explained. “Graphic design students were tasked to research each of the 25 scientists, then collaborated with another group of students in a fine art class to turn these women into beautiful embroidered portraits.”

pam negrin creative stitching

pam negrin creative stitching

pam negrin creative stitchingPam taught the students how to project drawings onto fabric to create their own patterns. They learned various embroidery stitches to create different textures for hair, clothes, skin, and even a stitch for teeth! “Pam Negrin’s residency was the highlight of our year. The students are eager to see their finished artwork on permanent display in the Science department.”

pam negrin creative stitching pam negrin creative stitching

Young Audiences' Sun

Pam Negrin’s artwork includes embroidery, appliqué, drawing, collage, improvisational quilting, printmaking and sculpture. Her residencies transform classrooms into creative and collaborative handwork studios where students create something beautiful together. Schedule one of Pam’s residencies for your classroom.