Monthly Archives: September 2016

Behind the stage

Mosaic, a theater in Detroit that will celebrate its 25th year in 2017, provides a learning environment that offers young people (from grade five forward) the opportunity to learn and work in either music or acting.  In their shows presented each year in the auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, the young actors and singers create shows that recap the history of Detroit and its music as well as its ways of celebrating the Christmas holidays.

Mosaic at the Apollo
Mosaic at the Apollo

Recently, Rick Sperling, founder and artistic director, joined with leaders of The Public Theater in New York to think of ways to help Mosaic youth think deeply about what lies behind what audiences see and actors/singers feel on the stage.
Together, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, and Rick began in this summer of 2016 a program in New York that brings Mosaic’s most senior actors to New York to begin to learn what it takes to run a non-profit theater.  Producers, finance directors, and members of departments handling props, costumes, and scenery met with the young actors to open windows into how non-profit theaters run.  The young people got it!  Did they ever!

oskar eustis with mosaic
Oskar Eustis

In their letters written to the staff of The Public Theater, they made clear how their thinking about a future in the world of theater was undergoing shifts. Their observations portrayed their ways of thinking toward a future for themselves as they move toward selecting courses in higher education.
“When people think theater, they think actor, singer, dancer, performer….They think show tunes and kick lines.  But I didn’t always feel that was where I belonged.  That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy being on stage performing, or that I don’t like the sound of applause.  It’s just that I felt much more comfortable in shadows clad in black:  a ghost making sure that everything ran smooth behind scenes, so that from top of show to the final bow, we could tell the best story possible, despite not being on stage.”

Mosaic theatre troupe
Mosaic Troupe

“Do you know how there are things you know but you never really considered applied to you?  I know actors and actresses aren’t born great or famous, but I never considered that I could be…great, at least not until this trip.”
“Talking to your staff reminded me that I can still be involved in the theatre world, even if I’m not on stage acting.”
“Artistically, I took so many skills back home with me.  A quote that stood out to me was ‘Other people’s success is not our failure.’  I learned that when I don’t get a role, or when something doesn’t go my way, I can use that experience to allow myself to grow and become better than I was before as an actress and a person. The most important thing that I learned on this trip is that I have to put myself out there in ways that I was never comfortable with in order to go the extra mile and get what I want.  I have to stay focused on my goals and remember to trust myself in all that I’m doing.”
As researcher on this project, I selected these quotes not because they were exceptional or stood out from all the others that I might have pulled from the letters sent to Oskar Eustis by the young actors.  Instead, I selected these to indicate the various ways in which entering into a world completely unknown in the previous work of the young actors opened their thinking about their future.

Mosaic on stage
Today’s popular thinking often charges young people with not thinking ahead, knowing how to plan, or being willing to self-assess. Each one of the letters received by The Public Theater staff reflected in one or another way evidence that unexpected openings into new learning environments can most certainly help young actors think ahead, plan, and self-assess.
In coming months, the actors and singers of Mosaic will be featured in one way or another in my blogs.  They are moving forward, knowing that in the summer of 2017, they will create and perform a show inside The Public Theater to celebrate their 25th year.  Moreover, they will be immersed within this theater’s ongoing life for a stretch of days following their show, with several interns shadowing for a subsequent block of time a chosen staff member, ranging from costuming to set design to production.  As one young actor noted:  “It’s so amazing to see how theatre runs in places we can’t ordinarily see!”

Sublime Surprises

Surprises… when no help is in sight
Photographs and stories that tell of the suffering of refugees come to us on a daily basis.  Institutions and organizations fail to act. Responsiveness seems frozen in disbelief and a sense of “what can we do?”  The facts surrounding the suffering and carnage bring to mind strong parallels with the failure of nations around the world to act in response to the Nazi horrors.
In coming months, this blog will turn our attention to surprises that come from central cultural organizations in different parts of the world.  Theaters, symphonies, and art museums now directly address needs surrounding new immigrants, those recently released from prison, veterans striving to re-enter civilian life, and refugees fleeing war and destruction of their homeland.
The Los Angeles Symphony now sponsors four youth symphony programs that bring into ensemble music children and adolescents from immigrant families.  Young musicians practice hours each week, often with their parents listening and watching.  Their parents can often attend sessions in which speakers of their own languages explain the origins, structures, and history of pieces scheduled for the next concert.
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, located just outside Copenhagen, Denmark, includes in its busy schedule a learning project for refugee orphans.  From their housing center with the International Red Cross, the young come to the museum at intervals to observe and study exhibitions from artists around the world.   Many hold sketch pads and art tools for the first time in their lives. They can sit before works by artists from around the world:  Poul Gernes, Daniel Richter, and Louise Bourgeois.  They can wander in the museum’s garden in the midst of sculptures by Henri Moore and Alexander Calder. In spite of having no more than a smattering of English in some cases, the young learn through watching their teaching artists demonstrate and gesture and also through having ample time to study the museum’s art exhibitions.  Though it is rare to have more than a few speakers of any one language, the group joins together to create through hand and eye.
In New York City, and soon in Seattle, Washington and Dallas, Texas, top theaters include a program called PUBLIC WORKS.  Through this program, community organizations that serve disenfranchised populations, including foster children, recent immigrants, and those who work in menial jobs throughout these cities enter the world of theater as participants.  Each year, theater staff, particularly teaching artists, work on site in communities to provide classes requested by local members.  These include acting, dance and music, poetry and script reading and writing, and other aspects of what it takes to put a show on stage.  Once each year, members from all the community organizations audition for parts in a coming play, usually a work by Shakespeare, and a community ensemble is formed.  A handful of Equity Actors join the ensemble in creating the musical, putting Shakespeare’s words into an annual work of musical theater.
Originating from The Public Theater in New York City, Public Works reflects the foundational principles of Joseph Papp:  theater is of, for, by, and with everyone—not just the privileged.  The Public Theater offers free entrance to its Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater each summer.  Since 2013, the summer season in the Park has come to a close with four nights of musical theater performed by the community ensemble of 200 performers on stage with Equity Actors in a Shakespearean production.
In an era of turning aside from the suffering of displaced and disenfranchised populations, cultural organizations around the world are creating surprises for today’s world.  The goal is simple: include participants from ALL communities of a city and stretch the creative reach of directors, actors, composers, and choreographers.  Bring on stage and into audiences individuals without direct prior knowledge of the world of theater.  In earlier periods of history, the Greeks, Scandinavians, and citizens of Elizabethan England found theater in the midst of their markets days and on make-shift stages in small towns, as well as in massive theaters built to serve as many onlookers as possible.  Democracy, literacy, and citizen awareness of the rewards of participation followed.   Today’s models in symphonies, museums, and theaters will do no less, and perhaps surprise the world by becoming a strong socialization force for democracy.