Yes, it is about my life in transition - in far more transition than I thought it would be when I started it a mere few months ago - but it also includes theater reviews and more abstract musings as well.
At first I thought this was a problem. It certainly is a problem if I'm trying to create a mass following blog that is clear, concise, witty, etc. But the fact is what I'm doing here except keeping a relatively accurate realtime - albeit public - record of what I am doing, seeing, feeling, thinking.
And I realized today, what this blog is like: it's like my notebooks. I always Try to keep parts of my life discrete: this is my journal notebook, this is my directing notebook, this is my teaching notebook, this is my writing notebook, etc. But in reality what happens is: they all get jumbled up.
Diary entries in so-called directing notebooks or teaching notebooks. Teaching notes in a the writing book. Writing in the directing book...etc.
So, this blog is like I am, for real...not the neat little notebooks organized just so.
Is that good enough?
I don't know.
What I do know is that I have had the experience many times over the years of wishing I had had confidence in what I was doing when I was doing it rather than throwing it away. Because the stuff I threw away or dismissed 10 years earlier seems to be published, produced or directed by someone else 10 years later. I don't mean anyone stole my writing or ideas, no. What I mean is that the very way I was writing or thinking that was not trendy at the time, becomes popular or at least accepted later on and because I lost faith in my own project at some point, my version is stored in a box.
So at least with the blog, it's out and in the world. It may never be popular or mainstream - I would be shocked if it was - but at least it's not in a box...
OK, now, to the point of this post, which is a review of The Chalkboard Trilogy, which was produced by UP Theater Company - a theater company that has formed up here in Inwood, my new hood. I found out about it because one of the founders is someone I knew from The Present Company back in the 90s, Rik Walters. He's been a clued-up Inwood native for years. He kept his mouth shut about this area, which I probably should be doing, too. It has remained for years a well-kept secret and I fear I'm doing the worst thing possible telling you all how cool it actually is. So, like, keep it to yourselves OK?
UP Theater produces work by local residents, which is a great idea, because there are a lot of locals who are accomplished theater folks, like the writer Nancy Nevarez, a playwright who has won many awards and fellowships and had her work widely produced. She was also, clearly, a teacher at some point, as she wrote this series of plays as it says in her bio "in homage to her years of work in the education field."
And that is exactly how this evening feels: a love letter to teachers everywhere. As anyone who has been reading this blog can guess, this subject is close to my heart right now.
There were three sections, one about a classroom on John's Island 1957 (South Carolina - before the civil rights movement began in earnest - events leading up to it), another about a tutor helping a remedial reading student in NYC, probably the Bronx or Washington Heights in contemporary times, and the final section in a basement in Kabul in the early 2000s.
The most accessible section, and the one that clearly was based on the writer's own life was the second section. As it dealt with a student who could have easily been the grade school version of one of my BCC students, it was also easy for me to identify. There were other teachers in the audience, which I began to suspect by the involuntary gasps and laughter of recognition we shared in moments of the play. Afterward, my suspicion was confirmed through introduction and anecdote, a lot of teachers were there.
The acting in general was strong, but there were stand-outs, especially Suni Reyes as Ms. Alex, the NYC tutor. She was entirely believable throughout, in a very intimate theater setting (a classroom that sat about 25-30 people) and compelling to watch. This section worked the best because not only was it believable and nuanced but also because the tutor learns as much as the student and therefore does not read so much as a parable of good versus evil. The actor playing opposite Stewart Villilo did well with a very difficult role wherein he was meant to play a range of age 11-17, which is close to impossible. Because the production choice was to have the character played by the same person, perhaps a more impressionistic decision about props and settings (see mini-diatribe below) would have been appropriate. However, as with the issue of settings, the lack of clarity of whether he was meant to appear his various younger ages, was a bit off-putting.
Nonetheless, the section effectively showed the difficulties of teaching in settings where students are not given enough resources and have little help from home or school. It also showed the benefit of trying, how one person can make a difference and that teaching can matter a great deal. As mentioned earlier, it showed the tutor herself learning from her student, which was important.
Because of the nature of the scene shifts, however, I did wonder, as I did throughout the evening, whether this would be better off as a film or TV show. I should admit that I have a prejudice against episodic, naturalistic story telling in theater. However, there was something satisfying about watching the story unfold in front of us in a classroom setting.
The first piece, which followed the successful attempt of one teacher to help two students be able to register to vote (even though in doing so they were all risking arrest or losing their jobs, which the young woman does) was affecting in large part due to the singing, which every time it started, I thought - oh no, singing - and then when they were singing, I felt myself affected more than I would have thought possible. I think this is because singing is something that brings us into the theater together (and therefore answers the question: why is this happening in a theater and not on film), the resonance of voices and the ritual sense that it evokes. The singing also answers the question through action that no kind of logical sense ever does, namely, how on earth do people who are subjugated for so long even survive? In these days of Occupy Wall Street, seeing the beginning of what would become the civil rights movement, that did in large part eventually succeed, was quite heartening and a good reminder that systems that seem immovable can and do move, but only with effort and when people commit to making that happens.
However, there was one scene of discovery between the uncle and his niece (the two students), which was done in mime with recorded music over it. This seemed like a staged version of a scene from a movie. Again, this is a moment where I think: why I am watching this in a theater? Because so many of the other vignettes in this section were not like that, it stood out in a not so great way for me.
The last piece, set in Kabul, was not as successful as the first two, simply because the space was tiny and attempting to show extreme violence or a bomb falling in any realistic way is simply not going to work. Perhaps the best way to convey this would have been more impressionistically. The writer could perhaps have done more research, because I have heard women speak who have experienced these teaching situations, and their experiences are nuanced and human-scale. This piece was brief and simply showed women being brutalized for trying to teach and learn. While I am certain this happens, the women were never allowed to be shown as people, simply as objects suffering, which is kind of how we see them on TV, and I'm not sure brings our understanding any further. Also, it would be interesting to know, even if clearly I disagree with them, why some men feel it is so threatening for these women to learn.
The setting for most of the scenes in the play and the production itself was a real classroom. This was a good production decision and the various scenes were created relatively convincingly, but unfortunately the props were more rehearsal props than accurate renditions or replicas. As the aesthetic was both realistic and not-quite-realistic, this failed. If the idea had been to be impressionistic in some way, that would have been OK, but in the event, it seemed kind of sloppy. This was an unfortunate and avoidable problem. Especially if you are in a small, intimate space, you need to take care of these details.
The music used for transitions was effective, but again I do wonder about the use of recorded music in live theater - is there perhaps room for use of live sound? Something which can bring us into the space together - like the live singing in the first section?
I want to emphasize, however, that this project as a whole should be commended and I am glad to have seen the show. The subject is important, because teaching is important and the ways in which so many people, because of racism, sexism and classism are denied real education is not spoken of enough.
I recommend the show to any and all teachers. You will leave feeling somewhat heroic, which - as we who teach in challenging environments all know - is a rare feeling indeed. I also recommend this show to any and all students, so you can see how valuable it is to have space and time to learn, how much so many teachers do care about you and how valuable you, too, could be to the world as a teacher.
Finally, I hope the UP Theater Company continues its good work. This is their second show, and I have every confidence they will continue to grow. They had a very nice audience last night, and I am sure there are many people who will be happy to have professional theater at their doorstep.
And now for a real time life comment: Oh My God: It's SNOWING!!!! It's October 29. It's snowing. Snowing.....
Oh and I keep tweeting stuff about politics and OWS, so not writing a lot about that here, as it seems so real-time. If you want to 'follow me' on twitter, you can. I'm listed under my pseudonym Wilhelmina Pitfall @wilhelminapitfa. I created her for a writing contest, which is mercifully over so she can come out of the closet now. I love her - she has confidence and panache and is a star. I will live through her as much as possible. She also apparently follows politics...and whether she likes it or not is part of the 99%.