“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

YA Forges New Arts Integration Partnership

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

A teacher from Oxon Hill Middle School personally thanked Young Audiences during a post-event gathering for bringing the Literature to Life program to Prince George’s schools. After a performance of “Black Boy,” a verbatim adaptation and stage performance of the classic American literary work by Richard Wright, he said he saw one of his students carrying around the Richard Wright book. When he asked the student about it, the student said he decided to read it after seeing the performance.  The teacher noted that he didn’t read that book until college and said, “This is what Young Audiences does for our students.”

On November 17, Young Audiences of Maryland and Dr. Kevin Maxwell, CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), announced the launch of a new arts integration partnership at a press conference held at Oxon Hill Middle School.

This new initiative will benefit more than 15,000 Prince George’s County Public School students in the 2015-2016 school year and dramatically increase student student access to the arts.

Dozens of teachers, principals, and PTA members were in attendance, along with school board members and PGCPS district office personnel. The event attracted the attention of local media outlets, including WUSA, a CBS news affiliate station in Washington, D.C., who ran a segment on the new partnership during their morning news coverage on November 17.

006

In the true spirit of Young Audiences, this was not your typical “black-tie” press conference. The room was filled with music, dance, laughter, and inspiring stories. Student performances from Oxon Hill Middle School’s Performing Arts Academy opened the event, showcasing the talents of the school’s students through music and dance performances. Young Audiences’ teaching artist Ssuuna engaged the audience in an interactive, call-and-response performance of music from his native Uganda with authentic African instruments.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

With media cameras rolling, Dr. Maxwell spoke passionately about the importance of partnering with Young Audiences to bring high-quality arts programs to more PGCPS students. Integrating the arts into classrooms is not only critical to increasing student achievement and engagement; it is an essential component of every student’s education and maximizes the talents of all students.  Dr. Maxwell’s belief in the importance of the arts-in-education—and the exceptional teaching artists and arts-in-education programs that Young Audiences provides—will ensure that all students have the opportunity to experience this critical part of their education.

Stacie Evans, Young Audiences’ Executive Director, echoed Dr. Maxwell’s remarks, saying:

We believe that artists are catalysts in our schools. Through their art form they develop new approaches to teaching the curriculum. They inspire children. They help reach the most reluctant and struggling learners. From the beginning, Dr. Maxwell made it clear that the arts are a priority and he welcomed community partners to be part of the solution to ensure that our kids receive a complete education.  As a result, 15,000 more students are benefiting from Young Audiences programs this school year alone.

Additional speakers included Mr. Wendell Coleman, Oxon Hill Middle School Principal; John Ceschini, Arts Integration Officer for PGCPS; and Tracey Cooper, Oxon Hill Middle School science teacher.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

Young Audiences’ teaching artist Kevin Martin closed out the event with a steel drum ensemble of Oxon Hill Middle School students.  These students—who jumped on stage to perform just hours after learning to play the steel drums—soon became the teachers. The steel drum performance culminated with Kevin inviting audience members, including Dr. Maxwell, to join a student at their drum and follow the student’s lead in learning the song.

A teacher from Oxon Hill Middle School personally thanked Young Audiences during a post-event gathering for bringing the Literature to Life program to Prince George’s schools. After a performance of “Black Boy,” a verbatim adaptation and stage performance of the classic American literary work by Richard Wright, he said he saw one of his students carrying around the Richard Wright book. When he asked the student about it, the student said he decided to read it after seeing the performance.  The teacher noted that he didn’t read that book until college and said, “This is what Young Audiences does for our students.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership

From theatrical productions that bring American literary masterpieces to life, to artist residencies for kindergarten students that inspire environmental citizenship, this new partnership with Prince George’s County Schools significantly increases access to arts learning for thousands of PGCPS students and leverages the talent of 20 teaching artists, the resources of six private and public funders, and advances the goals of PGCPS and YA to transform the lives and education of all students through the arts.

Research shows a direct connection between participation in the arts and student achievement. Research also shows having the arts in schools contributes to positive school culture and builds the creative and critical thinking skills that our workforce needs. Despite these benefits, student access to the arts as part of their education has declined. Young Audiences is honored to partner with Dr. Kevin Maxwell, named a Champion of Change by President Obama for his dedication to the arts, because he is committed to ensuring that PGPCS students are not denied the arts as part of a complete education.

Powering Arts Integration with Innovative Programming
Young Audiences’ programming for PGCPS will combine arts learning with traditional subjects such as science, math, and reading, expand in-school opportunities for professional teaching artists, and include further arts integration advancement through strengthening teacher preparation and professional development. Program areas to include:

GROWING UP GREEN
A Kindergarten-level environmental literacy program that supports a thematic approach and addresses the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum Standards. Curriculum will be developed collaboratively among partner organizations and, following a successful pilot of the program, will later be infused into the kindergarten science and social studies core content areas. Financial support provided by BGE, Chesapeake Bay Trust and Maryland State Arts Council Artist in Residence Program.

LITERATURE TO LIFE
Through our unique combination of interactive theater, literature, and education, Literature to Life brings American literary masterpieces to life —giving voice to words and inspiring young people to find their own voice. Financial support provided by Laura Handman and Harold Ickes, Lisa and Porter Dawson, and other generous supporters.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
A series of professional development workshops designed for schools in their first year of joining the “Arts Integration” initiative. Educators will define and discuss the benefits of arts integrated teaching. After experiencing a sample drama and language arts lesson, teachers will brainstorm and apply creative challenges in their specific curriculum area. Program facilitated by Teaching Artist Institute.

Young Audiences and Prince George's County Public Schools Forge New Arts Integration Partnership