Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Of WriteGirls, Elections and Cultivating Meaning

On May 3rd, Pasadena Playhouse joined forces with WriteGirl, a young women’s literacy and mentoring organization, to produce an event called PlayWriteGirl. This was both a large-scale, daytime writing workshop and an evening performance complete with pre- and post-show food and wine receptions. During a grand gathering on our patio, writing generated during the day by young WriteGirls, many of whom were Pasadena-based and attending for the first time, was selected and disbursed to actors who quickly turned around and performed the material that same evening.

I am late with this post.

Initially, I was going to talk about putting the event together and how excited I was to see the Pasadena Playhouse campus literally converted for a day into a wall-to-wall creative space for the mentoring of young women.Then, after May 3 came and went, I was going to write about how much energy was swarming the campus from dawn to dusk – how the first volunteers arrived to set up before 8:30 in the morning, and the last of us didn’t leave the theatre until after 11:00 that same night. How the girls, with much specific guidance, wrote and re-wrote and edited and finessed. I was going to talk about the 70+ young women, the 60+ mentors and guest writers, the 15 celebrity actors, the tremendous food and wine vendors, the countless staff & volunteers from Write Girl and Pasadena Playhouse who were here celebrating the written word, live theatre and fantastic food and drink. I was going to write about all of us coming together as a new community.

But I didn’t.

And today, May 20th, I finally know why I have taken so long to write about this event.

We had a special election yesterday. A special election where every proposition failed by at least 60%, except one: Proposition 1F, which dealt with limitations on the salaries of elected officials in times of state deficit. This one passed with a whopping 73.9%. The message from the citizenry was clear. Now, regardless of your politics, and whether you voted for or against these propositions, as a citizen of this state, you know we are facing some serious challenges – in the arts as well in public education.

Yesterday evening, I attended a parents’ forum that addressed some of the possible consequences of this already-almost-tired economic crisis to our schools. My daughter is barely 2, and I am doing what I can to stay optimistic about her possibilities regarding education, but suffice it to say, it is not a fun time to be a parent trying to figure out what’s best for your kid.

I don’t mean to be bleak, but it’s scary. Scary to think about ratios in classrooms going up to 40:1 and scary to see even further losses of arts and physical education programming, as these are two of the most important elements of quality education in my mind. It’s simple – when students receive more personalized attention, they are more able to reach their potential; if their minds and bodies are creatively and physically challenged and engaged, they learn endurance, ingenuity, team work, comprehensive thinking and problem solving skills.

On May 3rd, on the campus of Pasadena Playhouse, I saw a more stimulating academic environment than I ever could have imagined. Write Girl’s programs focus on one-on-one mentoring. This is how they can boast the shocking statistic that not only do all of their girls’ graduate high school, but also 100% of them go on to college. Pasadena Playhouse boasts an almost 100-year history of producing great theatre, and the same girls who spent the day writing took part later that day in an event where their work was performed, both back to them and to a larger public audience. The stakes were high for them in this extracurricular event, which made it important and meaningful.

Our kids need to be stimulated by understanding themselves and their work as part of a larger collective consciousness. The haphazard community created on the day of PlayWriteGirl sparked one of the young women to tell me “this was the most amazing thing [she’d] ever been a part of and [she] would never forget how it felt to hear someone speak [her] words back to [her] – like it made them really mean something.” In an era where there is so much information and input and “stuff”, to find this “meaning” in one’s work is gold.

I submit that the future of education will still, fundamentally lie in the hands of parents and schools; but community partnerships like the one we experienced here 2 weeks ago will play an increasingly pivotal role in providing students with meaningful educational experiences that fall outside the realm of traditional school curricula. We need to be innovative in the way we are working together to create opportunities for youth. We need to be the facilitators of a-ha moments. We need to encourage the fostering of meaning.

I look forward to our continued collaboration with WriteGirl, as well as our continuing collaborations with other organizations like Phoenix House, West of Broadway and Theatre 360. I also look forward to our work within the schools. As necessity breeds invention, I am eager to see what will come.

Photos: rhe cast and crew of PlayWriteGirl, Alexix Chamow - PPH Education Director.

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