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Chalk Circle at CPT

June 14th, 2007 No comments

Keeping in STEP with today’s theater students

Joella Blount smiles her broad smile. Well, I was thinkin’ about goin’ to the Army. But I don’t think I am anymore. I plan to work for a while and I want to save up money to go to college. Her smile broadens and she laughs at the irony: that she has been considering joining the army and yet the training program at the Cleveland Public Theatre’s STEP program is wearing her out.

Joella will be a senior this coming school year and this is likely her last year in the Student Theatre Enrichment Program (STEP). She also has the lead role of Keisha in CPT‘s production of Chalk Circle, in which the fate of a child prince is divided between the biological mother, the queen, who callously abandons him, and the adoptive mother, a servant girl, Keisha, who gives him love and protection.

To those with no experience in the theater, putting up a play may not seem like all that much work. But to the students in the STEP program this summer there’s no doubt about it: it is work–good work–but the young actors still must spend an intense five to seven hours every weekday to stage their play. Each day begins with a demanding round of exercises, stretches, and running activities, and ends with rigorous rehearsals which include an excruciating repetition of carefully choreographed scenes.

The process of generating material for the play starts early in the summer and is slowly and meticulously guided by Raymond Bobgan, Education Director, [now Executive Artistic Director] and Chris Seibert, Director of Education.

One of the first material elements generated for the Chalk Circle was a series of spontaneously generated motions with a wooden stool. Each young actor created three actions with his or her stool, and later certain of these were formalized and then incorporated into the final performance. In fact, the final performance features a stunning utilization of the stools as musical instruments, props for swinging and tossing, and a harrowing scene in which stools are dynamically moved elliptically, like the tread on a Caterpillar bull-dozer, as Joella walks across the stool-tops; her character, Keisha, threading the top of a mountain peak.

“I just enjoy how they fit an action, like the action that we do with the stools, how we started off just messing around with it and they incorporated that into the play, I just love the way they do it,” says Anthony Brooks, who plays the part of Simon, a young warrior whose love for Keisha is in conflict with his service to the queen.

Another element of the play that is generated early on is the text or script. Prompted by Chris Seibert, the students are fed single words or single sentences in carefully designed stream of consciousness writing exercises. During these sessions, each participant generates material from his or her own life and experience and, very like the activities with the stools described above, the written material is incorporated as part of the play.

For Gina Ferguson, playing the part of the queen, this style of creating a script presents an opportunity to shine. “[We are given] a line or something to write down, you write and you think–this is never gonna get put in the play, this is never gonna get put in the play, and then it might turn out to be one of your own lines, then it’s like, ‘I wrote this,’ so it’s exciting, knowing one of the first lines in the play is something I wrote. So, it’s like–it feels good seein’ something that I wrote in the play. So it encourages us to keep writing and just be open and don’t stop.”

Taking advantage of the skilled eye of Raymond Bobgan, Director of Blue Sky Transmission and Assistant Director in the Tony Award-winning production of Death of a Salesman, the play utilizes a startling array of movements, materials and props, which, besides the stools, include activities with flags, vocal performances, choral arrangements that are very like the strophe and antistrophe in Greek theater, and precisely choreographed dance: each element building to create an aesthetic theater that is very fulfilling and highly engaging.

“Out of the many years that I’ve been doing theater, I’ve never seen anything like this. The movements are so timed and detailed, the people are dedicated to the point where, thankfully, every day, faithfully they’re doing something, changing something, adding new ideas–So, seeing these guys come out here, the movement with the stools, the eye contact, the camaraderie on stage between them, it’s just amazing, it’s magical–it’s 100% art; it’s what art is,” says Quinton Perry, a veteran of the STEP Program and an assistant to Chris and Raymond.

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

Chalk Circle has several iterations in literature, and it is difficult to pinpoint which is the origin. The Chalk Circle is both a Chinese tale and a biblical story of Solomon from 1 Kings 3: 16-28. The Chalk Circle for STEP is based on a combination of the Chinese tale and Bertolt Brecht Caucasian Chalk Circle. But the adaptation is wholly that of the STEP participants, made all the more real by the choreographed creations, vocal arrangements, and student writings.

For Raymond and Chris the choice of the play is as much about fitting the subject with the young actors as it is about choosing a ‘literary’ piece of theater. And the wisdom of their choice shows: the Chalk Circle touches a chord with the students, who see in the struggle of the young prince to discover his true identity a theme that is painfully familiar to them as young adults.

Todd Siwik, who plays both a doctor and lawyer in Chalk Circle agrees: “I think the whole question of ‘who am I?’ That’s probably what the play’s on. It’s [a question] a lot of people have, or what they want to do in life, where they came from, and the play has a lot to do with that.”

“It reminds me of the movie Big Fish,” says Quinton, smiling from under his New York Yankees hat. “It’s the story of a boy trying to learn exactly who his father is.”

Tyler Slaughter, who plays the prince as a grown young man, feels that the story resonates with him, too. “I guess what you can say with me, like, with my character trying to find his way, and trying to figure out where he came from; I’m somewhat trying to just figure out what I’m going to do with my life, you know? How am I gonna catch the bus tomorrow or somethin’ like that, that is just tryin’ to find my way.”

Theater has the power to transform lives

The STEP Program at CPT is now in its twelfth year, and has grown from a summertime program to a year-round, long-term theater program for at-risk teens. Throughout the year students from all over Cleveland come to CPT to learn the craft of theater from professional artists.

The benefits of the program are well-documented. Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts generated Champions of Change, a report that summarizes education research from across the country. This report, available online through the Arts Education Partnership (, demonstrates that arts programs make a significant impact in bridging the gap in academic and job performance between children in inner-city disadvantaged school systems and those in more affluent programs. The report also showed that low-performing students demonstrate significant growth in achievements after becoming involved in arts programs.

Fittingly, the STEP Program is itself a sort of Chalk Circle. Like Keisha picking up the abandoned prince, STEP provides marginalized students with an opportunity and a chance at artistic fulfillment and expressive participation. But more than that, it provides participants with a sense of community that may be lacking elsewhere.

“I have enjoyed being a friend–to mainly everybody, like when they’re sad or something I can come to them or they can come to me and we can cheer each other up, give each other hugs, or words of encouragement. And my scene partners, we could go over our lines, go over our things together, that’s what I really liked,” says Joella. And the strength and opportunity for friendship is a sentiment that is echoed by nearly all the students who participate in the program.

But to focus exclusively on the educational benefits of the STEP Program is to trivialize the role that each student plays as a professional actor, for each young performer takes his or her role very seriously, with a dedication in time and energy that even a corner-office CEO in Key Tower would admire.

“I like how they tell me to do it over again, it gets me more energized and, you know, sometimes it’ll get me real tired and exhausted but I keep going–it’s understandable, ’cause I see that they want the play to be perfect,” says Samantha Robinson, who plays opposite Todd Siwik as the second lawyer and doctor.

Coming to a theater–or a park–near you

The Cleveland Public Theatre provides Cleveland residents with many opportunities to see the plays that STEP puts up. The Chalk Circle alone will have nine performances at nine separate locations throughout the city: seven at public parks and two in downtown Cleveland. The final performance of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is Friday, September 2nd, [2005] at Public Square during InGenuity Cleveland (, A Festival of Art and Technology.

By taking theater on the road, the STEP program aggressively asserts not only the importance of having its productions seen, but the importance of bringing theater to the community, to making it available in the places where people live and work and play. Often nowadays, there is a disconnect between what people think theater is: a highbrow form of entertainment often following a wine and cheese tasting, and the reality of a theater that can relate to their everyday lives.

The STEP program actively confronts this notion by using the actions and words of its students to create its plays and by choosing subjects that are of material importance to every person in the community: Who am I? Where I am I going? What does this life I’m living mean?

“I think a lot of people can relate to it,” Joella says when asked why people should come to see Chalk Circle. “If there’s somebody and they’re kind of lost in who they are–maybe they can come to the play and it could give them ideas, like what should they do if they wanna know. And plus it’s a bunch of teens–and I know a lot of people are saying that teenagers are just problem-causers, you know, they just cause problems–but we show that it’s not really true, there is some teens out there that like to do something with their summer, instead of just hanging out with their friends. They made a commitment to be here, to perform in front of them, so that they can enjoy themselves, and we can enjoy ourselves.”

But perhaps more importantly, as Joella points out, the STEP program provides Clevelanders a chance to experience the creativity, imagination, and energy of the youth of their community, to participate in the magical transformation of their youthful life experience and energy into a story that transcends time.


November 12th, 2010 No comments

Mayannah, Rosemary, and Ani prepare to dine.

Went and saw Brainpeople at convergence last Thursday night.  I must admit that I don’t know how to feel about it.  I take that back, I do know how I feel about it; I just…as I so often do…question whether my impression is correct.  I suppose it’s silly, really.  After all, one’s impression is one’s own and needn’t seek any external validation; however, one can be off-base in the variables one puts in one’s calculations, and that is what I fear.  Regardless, this is just an avoidably long way around saying that I thought it was a not very good play. In fact, a bad play.

While no expert, I am familiar with Jose Rivera: References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Marisol, and I listened and laughed as he described the insults and stupidities endured as a Hollywood screenwriter in Tales from the Script. So I am still a bit shocked.

First, let me disclaim a few things.  The convergence production was very good:  I’m assuming (having not seen it anywhere else).  That is, the set was sumptuous.  The atmosphere was wonderful (lighting, sound).  It was storming when I went to see it and you could hear the rain pounding on the roof which added to the eerie effect of the thing; and the effect of the dystopian environment and fear of a police state was effective.  I thought the acting was terrific, especially that of Kristi Little, which frankly blew me away and was worth the whole trip.  Her portrayal of Rosemary, and her deft powerful shifts through multiple personalities was both terrifying and exhilarating.

The problem I have is with the play itself.  And it could be that I’m in this phase where I’m obsessing with Eric Overmyer and Len Jenkin and the Wooster Group and Megan Terry and reading Brecht and Artaud and Ionesco, in short, dealing with playwrights who are challenging form and structure and authorial position.  But, I was just shocked that here is a very, very good playwright who has three women on the stage and the majority of the play is monologs.  That was just flabbergasting.  And one significant piece of the play has a major character (Rosemary) catatonic on a chair periodically chirping pieces of a rather predictable sentence.  I just could not believe that I was watching a Jose Rivera play (whose past character lists include a coyote , a cat, madmen, guardian angels).  I couldn’t believe that Rivera would handle three characters like playwriting students in a 101 class.  And to make the characters more effective within this stultifying mold, he just gave them quirks which seemed more contrived to me than anything fundamentally real at their core.  I felt, more than once, that the choices Rivera made were intentional and contrived (not developing naturally out of the writing) and pushed in place to serve the plot’s outcome, not, again, any sort of organic meaning from the writing or meaning that rises up out of the unconscious.

The plot is that one woman (Mayannah, played by Laurel Johnson) lures two other women (Rosemary and Ani, played by Laura Starnik) to her house with the offer of $20,000 if they can make it through dinner.  This is one of the plots.  The other plot uses the literal presumption that you are what you eat to suggest that you literally can experience the memories, feelings, etc., of whatever creature it is that you have consumed; this theory is key to Mayannah whose parents were eaten by a Tiger when she was 8 years old.  By eating Tiger every year at this strange dinner, Mayannah hopes to be able to find her parents via one of her guests.  In this case, Rosemary, whose multiple personalities make her susceptible, apparently, to channeling Mayannah’s consumed parents.  Interesting as all this is, I could only see a re-hashing of Hollywood plots.  Since every pitch for a screenplay is supposed to be a combination of two movies in some way, Brainpeople is House on Haunted Hill meets Altered States.

One of my professors, David Todd, has mentioned in passing, and I’m paraphrasing, that once you become a playwright and sit through enough plays there comes a point when you can pretty much see how a play is going to play out right off the bat.  And there are two outcomes for this: one is that you become very cynical about what you’re seeing and the second is that you begin to develop a taste for stuff that really challenges you in new ways–or stuff that is surprising or occasionally you get surprised by more traditional fare that is really, really good.  Unfortunately, with this play, I found myself in the cynical position.  It was very hard for me to be there after a certain point.  Once I realized how this play was working I was just dispirited. Dispirited, I think, by the fact that meaning was going to be handed to me in this utterly conventional way.  There was a clock on a table on the set facing the audience and I found myself staring at the hands while time passed in five minute increments.  The only place that really blew me away was when Rosemary told her story and there I was overcome by Little’s acting which was just flat out great.  I’m certain, too, that some credit is due Clyde Simon’s direction in keeping Little’s transformations on edge like that.  Starnik had her moments as well, describing her love affair with Mayannah’s father through the television, which demonstrated glimpses of Rivera’s sense of humor and the bizarre, which were unfortunately missing from most of the play. Johnson got a moment, too, describing her first communion gone awry.  Regardless, other than those few points, the seams and mechanics of Brainpeople, the formal strategies and plot points, were just way too visible and the rotation of monologs among the women, some of which nearly turned the characters into cartoons, were just disappointing.

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