Arts Ed: Watching Students Grow, as Young People and as Writers

Pacoima Middle School – Culmination Night. Michael Farmer Photography

Antaeus Arts Education Outreach had the privilege – and the fun –  of being part of Center Theater Group’s Middle School Playwriting Program (MSPP), which wrapped up in April. The program was launched in the 2009-10 school year, in ten diverse schools from the Los Angeles, Inglewood, Pacoima, Burbank and Santa Monica school districts.

Paula Solano with Rob Nagle & Pacoima student. Michael Farmer Photography.

At each school, a CTG teaching artist partnered with one English teacher each year to provide theater and playwriting instruction to one class of students in their 6th, then 7th, then 8th grade English class.. A local theater company was engaged in each residency, providing professional actor/teaching artists to perform the students’ work in a workshop setting. Antaeus participated with CTG teaching artist, Paula Solano, at Luther Burbank Middle School and Pacoima Middle School. We worked with Paula in all three years of the program.

The opportunity to watch students grow over three years – not just physically, but also emotionally, intellectually and creatively – was unique in my Arts Education Teaching Artist experience, and very rewarding. At our first session with our CTG Lead Teaching Artist it was clear that we were involved in a strong alliance in line with Antaeus’ artistic priority of focusing on Text, Process, and Collaboration.

Janellen Steininger, Ramon De Ocampo & Rob Nagle. Michael Farmer Photography

In the sixth grade, the students were guided through writing monologues rooted in personal experiences.  These pieces were largely either self-conscious, or self-centered, or reflective of fantasy interactive video games. The pieces were sometimes timid, sometimes dark, and sometimes hilarious.  The first sign of the actor visit impact in the process emerged with the very first monologues performed.  The students’ work became startling alive for them for the first time.  They were amazed to hear the words they wrote turned into characters.  They saw through the actor’s attention to and respect for the text, how pivotal their words were.

Joe Delafield, Linda Park & Rebecca Mozo. Michael Farmer Photography

The second year was devoted to scenes, and we demonstrated to the writers how characters act with each other, and how important those relationships are.  The writers also saw through the actors the variety of ways to articulate their plots and their characters through the actions the actors expressed. The students began to flesh out their characters with inner lives and outward physical traits, which sometimes included accents and physical peculiarities.

 Michael Farmer Photography

In the third year, the students collaborated with each other in various teams to co-write ten-minute plays. By this time, various students were writing roles specifically for some Antaeans, as they became more familiar with our work. The eighth graders tackled such topics as dyslexia, an abusive parent’s remorse, the friendship of an immigrant 7-11 manager and two homeless adults caught in tough times, pursuing post-high school studies, not to mention some quite sophisticated and modulated hilarious comedy. The students’ eyes had opened up to the world as well as to their own situations.  They added research to their own insight. We joined the process with improvisation on the texts, and with suggestions relating to the clarity and specifics that actors (and directors) need to really make the scripts come alive.  Trust and mutual respect had grown over the years of the program, and by the 8th grade the students were ready to take chances, to improvise with us, to dig deeper.

Paula Solano, our CTG Lead Teaching Artist, shared her talent and skill as a writer with the students twice a week for several weeks at each school year.  Many of the students started not having had any experience of theater.  By the end of the program all of the students had developed an interest in and appreciation for theater.  And a few budding dramatists were born!

Ramon De Ocampo, Joe Delafield, Linda Park, Rebecca Mozo & Rob Nagle. Michael Farmer Photography

We actors visited each school 3-4 times each year, as first drafts were written and then revised. I observed the primary consequences of the actor visits to be the illumination of the actor’s respect for the text, and the demonstration of the power of a playwright’s writing to create vivid characters and stories that can be realized on stage. It was a singularly stimulating and memorable experience to have participated in the first three pilot years of this remarkable program.  Our group of Antaeans included: Ramon De Ocampo, Rob Nagle, Rebecca Mozo, John Sloan, Joe Delafield, Linda Park, Gabe Diani and myself. We have grown as an ensemble, and we have all individually evolved as teaching artists.  We look forward to collaboration with CTG on future playwriting programs.

Antaean Janellen Steininger looks back on 3 years of the CTG Middle School Playwriting Program.  She is also Chair of the Arts Ed Committee.  Information coming to mailboxes soon on how you can support our Arts Ed Programming.