Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Students Speak!

What a whirlwind of a week!
What happens when you bring an expert in classroom management and team building into the classroom? A LOT!
I watched a group of students, known as the “tough group” come together and work as a team, solve problems and show their teacher they had learned the material! What a proud moment for a teacher.

It was really exciting to have Sean Layne, a visiting artist from the Kennedy Center, back with us, leading a workshop for teachers and practicing demonstration teaching in the classrooms. I really loved to hear the student reflections when Sean asked, "Why am I doing this? Your teacher must think I'm wasting time".

What did the students say?

“ It was challenging and I like challenges”. -6th grade
“It helps us learn vocabulary better because it helps us learn synonyms of the words”. -6th grade
“We worked together and cooperated as a team”. -7th grade
“We get to get up and move”. -3rd grade
“It helps us focus”. -3rd grade
“We worked on the length of our sentences”. -6th grade
“It lets us know if we are in symphony with the rest of the group”. -6th grade

What more can we ask for? A group of students engaged, working as a community, being recognized, listening and being listened to and learning more effectively.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Agony & the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey and the Theater

I wrote most of this update last week, just after seeing Mike Daisey's "The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at the Public Theater in New York.

Wish I'd posted it then. Because for some reason I couldn't put my finger on at the time, I just didn't like the show. I went in thinking I'd be wild about it: I'm a bit of a techno-geek, Apple fan, theater producer and political activist all rolled into one. I went to see it thinking I might direct it as part of OHA's "Our Own Community Playreading Series."

I still might. But the unfolding events around Daisey and this monologue during the past few days have helped me to place what I didn't quite like about the work to begin with.

We OHAGs were in town for our first-ever series of NYC board meetings. Judith and I had researched downtown shows to take our board members to, wanting to expose them to something Off Broadway. We'd considered Daisey's show because he is a native Mainer and a solo performer--both of which make him a potential Opera House performer. And more importantly, his theatrical monologue was making a real difference in the world: people were taking action to protest worker conditions in Apple's China supply chain. Ultimately it seemed the show would be closed by the time we arrived, and instead we (very happily) ended up attending "An Iliad" at New York Theater Workshop (see earlier post, below).

From theater to direct action to make the world a better place: this is a kind of mainlining Opera House Arts' mission. As Scott Rosenberg, former theater critic and co-founder of Salon.com, has written, "Theater can do journalism; it can do activism; it can do anything." Right on.

Rosenberg goes on to say, "What it must do first to do any of these effectively is to establish some kind of trust." Exactly.

Except it turns out Daisey has lied to his audiences--both in the theater and on the radio, for "This American Life." He undertook a grand charade, masquerading his very strong but fictionalized piece on his trip to China as documentary journalism--and even vouching for it as such with "This American Life"'s fact checkers.

He didn't need to do this for the piece to have such power. Daisey could have said, "I went to China, I did some research, and here is how I am going to present this to you, as a fictionalized collection of real facts." He could have kept it away from fact checkers and the news reporters of "This American Life." But I suspect he was having too much fun mocking journalists--which he does in the piece itself, and is probably one of the reasons I didn't like it--and being too carried away with the power his own words were having to set in motion action--to put the brakes on it. And all of this is what I didn't like about the performance itself: it had just enough edge of self-righteousness, of "nobody else would do this except for me"-ism about it, to give it the pure power Daisey hoped for and for which I was looking (and which many others apparently found in it). It felt, in fact, a bit like a movie--and it turns out it is exactly like a movie, in which the director works to heighten the drama and put the screws to your emotions in order to achieve the external result s/he desires.

Oh, right: this is called propaganda.

In many ways, all of this makes the piece even more fascinating to do. Daisey made the script available free for download and performance after the "This American Life" episode, one of the most listened to in the show's history. And in considering casting what is written as a monologue among a group of community members, we'd automatically take the "personal memoir" element out of the production.

So let's discuss: theater is supposed to move us, and has the capacity to move us to action. Knowing in retrospect that what Daisey performs as his experience is in many ways a fiction--but that the underlying facts of the oppression of Apple's China workforce are true--should we view it differently? How will this experience affect our ability to be moved by future theater performances? Will we simply return to blind consumption of our beloved, sleek, beautiful Apple goods?

Is "The Agony & the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" good theater? Bad journalism? A lie? Propaganda? Good propaganda or bad propaganda? Want to grapple with all of these issues as part of a community-based production at the Opera House? Let us hear from you!

Read more about it all here:
"This American Life" retraction
Mike Daisey's Blog response to "This American Life"'s retraction
the facts in Apple's Chinese factories: "The I-Economy" by the NYTimes
"With 'Agony' Fabrications Exposed, Theater Artists React," Wall Street Journal March 19
Mr. Daisey and the Fact Factory, by Scott Rosenberg
etc. etc. etc.