Upcoming Performances in Bristol, UK!

International Youth Theater Project, Bristol

International Youth Theater Project, Bristol

International Youth Theater Project’s inaugural session explodes in performance beginning this Friday, March 14th, at The Station in Bristol! The open-mic style event is a precursor to a showing at the Old Vic March 22  at 2:30 pm, and then a full performance of special invited guests and the general public at The Station Bristol, March 31st at 7 pm. The performance by the Bristol youth will be punctuated by video and audio recordings of their counterparts on the project in Oakland, California. We are thrilled to announce this culmination of dedicated work and immense talent,  and we do hope you will join us if you’re in the area. Tickets are accesible to the general public for £3 and available here!

The International Youth Theater Project is a brand new Applied Theater program which facilitates young people creating theater pieces based on issues they pick. We use a network of international drama and applied theater teachers and practitioners to connect each group’s project with a group of youth facing their own set of issues in another country. We learn and use emerging digital technologies to connect and create meaningful solutions and new perspectives as both groups are facilitated through their creative process.

We here at ATAI provide a forum for public performance and feed-back session with audiences that have an interest in hearing these voices and we help raise that interest as we create our art. As peers, parents, community members, business people and those in local government hear directly from these youth, each project is also connected to a group in another country through digital media, fostering global understanding and community, a digital “study abroad” that actually is working to solve problems on the ground, locally. Here are some shots from the current project’s rehearsals in Bristol and Oakland, who chose to create a theater piece around media representation and violence, respectively.

sologirlbristolphone kids oakK at workgroup bristol

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Poverty, New Media, and the Stage: New-Style Participatory Politics Within Reach?

Reflections on a Bay Area Playwrights Foundation Roundtable

by Jean Johnstone, ATAI Founder/ Exec. Director; Executive Director, Teaching Artists Guild

At play with the International Youth Theater Project, Oakland 2014

At play with the International Youth Theater Project, Oakland 2014, using digital media to connect youth internationally as they devise theater pieces based on a social issue.

This past summer I attended the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation roundtable “Making Theater In A Messed Up World”, moderated by the amazing Velina Brown. It was a moving, engaging, and inspiring three hours. This was what drew me in: “Come and talk with premium political theater makers, playwrights, critics, and pioneers of social justice movements. Talk about making the choice be a social and political activist through theater, and how that expression has transformed in the 21st Century.” My only regret was that it couldn’t last longer and delve deeper into the topics, but with 14 people, including Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, Kinan Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theater, Rhodessa Jones of Cultural Odyssey, Christine Young of USF Department of Theater and Social Justice, Joan Holden, Playwright, Sean San Jose of Intersection+Campo Santo and Lindsay Krumbein of Gritty City Rep, and Michael Gene Sullivan of the SF Mime Troupe, all crammed on stage in the Thick House Theater, little wonder. Velina and BAPF, I look forward to part two!

Let’s continue the dialogue here: I want more conversation about what the newest version of this political theater work really is, this transformation in the 21st century. The last 90 years or so got us out of the theater and back into the plaza, the workers’ field, the park, the prison. We started asking people to describe their own realities, and to bring those to the stage. Now we have a whole digital world to incorporate, and I am SO curious how others are using, not denying, this medium to further their work in the field of theater, and in particular, applied theater. If our goal (and of course this is debatable, but this is my version of it) is to tell stories which, thru the very act of telling, connect people to each other and therefore create a sense of the absolute necessity of action on an issue, why couldn’t digital media, the instant activism vehicle held in hands across the world, help us in this?

This is especially pertinent in reaching and working with rising populations of young people, and young and poor people. We have seen recently how the impact of new media has played out nationally and internationally. According to a recent report by the United Nations, out of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have a mobile phone! However, far fewer (4.5 billion) worldwide have access to proper sanitation, reflecting extreme poverty and inequality. In the US, this project of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth & Participatory Politics on New Media and Youth Political Action reports that, contrary to the notion of the great digital divide, 96% of Latino, 94% of black and 98% of Asian American youth report having access to internet on a computer, while (yes- it’s a lot of statistics but keep reading!) 43% of white, 41% of black, 38 % of Latino, and 36% of Asian American youth engaged in participatory politics via the internet. This is huge news for all of us in the political or educational theater worlds.

Put it all together, and you get an amazing tool for giving voice to the “voiceless”. Speaking of which, here is Mike Rose, in his Summer 2013 article for Dissent Magazine, “The Inner Life of the Poor”, which I think pretty much sums up why many of us in this field do the work we do:

Part of the way we establish our shared humanity is by what we imagine goes on inside the head and the heart of others. If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate. And it is from those attributions that we develop both our personal and public policy responses to poverty.

Hear, hear. He goes on to say:

Because the invisibility of the poor is ultimately a sociological and political phenomenon, I am interested in places or occasions where poor people become more fully present, actors on the societal stage, and their thoughts and feelings play out in ways that can have a positive effect on the direction of their lives. Social movements provide such a space. Cultural projects do as well—in churches and community centers, women’s shelters, prison arts programs.

Me too, Mr. Rose. And another place, or way, is via participatory (or digital) media. Put it all together and what have you got? We don’t know yet, but perhaps something! What are you doing to connect these worlds of stage and web and action? How do you tell your stories? Email or comment to let us know. Let the conversation continue!



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Teachers 4 Social Justice Conference

Contributed by Megan Murphy

There is much to be said about the concentrated energy of people with a shared purpose. I had the opportunity to attend the Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) annual conference this weekend and it was good for my soul. For those who teach, there is a danger of becoming isolated on your own island of a classroom: each day you focus on your lessons for your students and can go days without contact with a teacher in the next room. This T4SJ conference was inspiring in large part because there were so many teachers making contact with each other, renewing each other’s awareness, and focusing on improving our practice.

 The highlight of the day for me was a presentation by three teachers from a school in Watts, California. They were frustrated by the lack of meaningful and rigorous professional development at their site so they developed a process of critical inquiry for themselves. They found the nonfiction texts and theoretical frames with which to challenge their high school students. They developed in-depth curriculum linking assigned literature to real-life contexts. They supported each other and their students in the development of the very critical thinking skills being promoted by the new Common Core Standards. They did all of this on their own time and in their own way because it was what they needed to do as educators.

 In this presentation, attended by a mix of experienced teachers, new teachers, and student teachers, there was a palpable sense of awe as the projects were described. It was humbling to learn these teachers developed rigor for their students because they found studies confirming future success is linked to the style of instruction. It was eye-opening to consider the implications of effective modeling of critical inquiry.

 These teachers shared heart-wrenching stories of violence and loss in their community and the lives of students. They developed lessons that equipped their students with a vocabulary and a practice for analyzing the world in which they live. Ultimately, they created learning experiences in which their students were healed and humanized, yet this same process also humanized them as teachers. No longer isolated on an island or working as a cog in a machine, they made a commitment to create a more just and effective learning model. They found hope in the midst of challenge.

 There is no question that teaching is a challenging career path. As many veterans have told me, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. It is easy to become numb to the worsening conditions and accustomed to the budget cuts. It’s easy to become isolated. Events like T4SJ remind me that I am not along. This conference reminded me that there are others out there giving generously so that others may have some light in the darkness. I am looking forward to returning to work on Monday to pass a little light onto my fellow teachers. Together, we can make genuine change as humans, as educators, as collaborators.

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Learning From Antigone


Antigone cover

As a high school teacher with a background in theater, I am always excited to teach a play in my English classes. It’s always a slightly different experience with each group of students. I always include a bit of context regarding theatrical festivals, Greek gods, and Greek philosophers, but I especially begin with the story of Oedipus. I want my students to have the joy of discovery as they understand references and make connections. I also have realized that this story is an excellent opportunity to introduce the theme of social justice. Similar to the connections I hope my students make between Antigone and its historical moment, I want my students to begin seeing how themes relevant to Antigone may relate to people in the world now.

This year, many students questioned the relevance of the play Antigone by Sophocles. We had this conversation on multiple days over the three weeks we worked with the play. At first, I spoke about the personal choices and experiences of being in conflict with family, with the government, and with the gods. I also told them about a conference on Antigone and social justice that was held at Trinity College Dublin in 2006. My students puzzled over this new information. A few were shocked that people would travel to another country in order to talk about this old play. One young lady, however, said that Antigone’s struggle to do what she believed was right is something that still matters. There was a general agreement that there will always be people in power who want to keep it and who will punish those who are defiant.

At the end of the unit, I asked the students to explain why this play was worth reading. Many students talked about the importance of family and honoring the dead. Some students talked about the importance of following personal beliefs even if there is opposition (especially if the opposition is as mean and biased as Creon). One young man gave a list of specific actions he learned to avoid: marrying your mother and having kids, stabbing out your eyes, refusing to bury the dead, punishing the messenger, rubbing your defiance in the face of the enforcer, ignoring your son when he gives you good advice, and killing yourself while you’re upset instead of waiting for help to arrive. When he read this list, many students laughed with him or made murmurs of agreement. We talked about his list and which lessons were the most meaningful. It seemed that, for this group, the aspects of defiance and giving up hope struck the deepest resonance in their lives.

One of my greatest joys as a teacher is seeing my students overcome initial rejection of difficult texts or concepts. This was most definitely the case with Antigone. Every student has walked away with some kernel of knowledge from this piece of classic literature and performance. Every student has considered the cost of defiance as well as the cost of refusing to hear reason. Most importantly, they got to hear their peers give voice to these characters and embody characteristics of someone a little different and yet, maybe, a little bit the same. They have gotten to see how someone in Ancient Greece could capture essential truths about human interactions that still move us in the US in 2013. When I teach this play again next year, I look forward to supporting and witnessing the discoveries of a new group of students. The cycle of teaching continues so maybe the cycle of injustice can find an end.


megan bio picContributed by Megan Murphy



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Theater Education Drives Innovation: Hong Kong, USA, and the Economics of Arts Education Policy

As a teaching artist, I’ve had the privilege of spending a few years teaching drama, directing performances, and leading workshops in Hong Kong.  It was wonderfully fulfilling, meaningful, and well-compensated work; exactly the sort I struggled to find in the US in enough quantity to make a living in my field. Why is Hong Kong so keen on drama? There are a few reasons arts teachers, and particularly drama teachers, are in demand in Hong Kong.

Language development: Hong Kong’s official languages are Cantonese and English (a legacy of British Colonialism, though the Hand-over, as it is commonly called, from the British back to China occurred in 1997). Cantonese is largely the mother tongue, but as English is typically thought of both as prestigious and necessary to success, it is taught in every school and every grade level. Drama exercises are extremely well suited to language study, practice, and acquisition; many studies support their effectiveness.* For this reason, drama teachers are sought out either for full-time positions in schools, or via other organizations. Here in California, we face a similar challenge in preparing ESL learners to be engaged citizens. It’s interesting, however, thank unlike in Hong Kong, using arts for ESL development seems to be among our lowest public priorities according to our funding patterns.

Innovation mindset: In addition to language acquisition, drama classes help people learn to think “outside the box”. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, led in part by the efforts of Hong Kong Drama/Theater Education Forum and its accumulation of research in the field, have concluded that the skills drama education affords people are those most necessary for success in business and entrepreneurship, as well as for balanced personhood and community involvement. In the Confucian method of education, rote learning plays the leading role, and individualistic creativity is discouraged. As a colony, Hong Kong became a haven for independent thinkers whose lives were put in jeopardy during the cultural revolution. The government of Hong Kong is now leading the Chinese state towards an innovation mindset; recognizing that rigid conformism does not make for successful business people. Spontaneity and free association are a few of the necessary talents developed largely through the arts, and drama in particular. Public speaking and fluency.  A sense of confidence. The ability to work as a team, under pressure.  Creative thinking skills. The ability to innovate. A free imagination.

Americans continue to rationalize our historic economic power and continuing potential using a narrative in which we inhabit an innovator archetype. The conceit holds that simply by being born in the US, a person has a certain ownership of creativity, talent, and the entrepreneurial spirit; and that such characteristics are somehow denied to others born and raised in India, or China.  In reality, these skills and values are developed, not bred, are we are quickly losing our hold on them, while other nations make the choices necessary to invigorate their populaces and economies by funding the arts as a fundamental part of a basic education.

* (Coyle and Bisgyer 1984, DiPietro 1982, 1985, 1987, Green and Harker 1988, Haught 2005, Kao 1992, 1994, 1995, Kramsch 1985, Nunan 1987, Sjorslev 1987, Shacker et al. 1993, Wilburn 1992, Wagner 1988 and more).

Contributed by Jean E. Johnstone


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