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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.

Our Town

June 9th, 2008 No comments

I’ve just finished reading the article in American Theatre this month regarding Thorton Wilder’s) famous play.

The author of the article, Lori Ann Laster, begins the journey in her pre-teens inside her middle school gymnasium, with the broad statement: “Like many Americans…” I guess, I’m not in that group. I don’t know whether to feel gypped or not. I also don’t know why my all-American hometown, which it was—Fredericktown, Ohio—home of the FFA Jacket—failed to deliver on this one. I think I do feel gypped. Regardless, I digress into another small instance of my all-too-familiar penchant for simmering injustice. That is to say, I didn’t see the play in my pre-teens. In fact, I had no encounter with the play at all until 2007 at Cleveland Public Theatre—actually, that isn’t wholly true—my teacher and mentor, Mike Geither, virtually insisted to one class that we watch Spalding Gray in the video version, which I now have (but haven’t watched—maybe I’ll do that tonight)—but that really doesn’t count as that’s only hearing about the play, not experiencing it.

In reviewing my blog, I find that I did no review of that 2007 performance, which really shocks me. The performance was rated the “most lyrical staging” of 2007 by Scene and was, in fact, really stark and terrific for a host of reasons. Chris Seibert played the part of Emily Webb with a deep earnestness that I’ll not soon forget—and which sent me spiraling back to those terrible days of urgent adolescent yearning that were emotionally and, in certain places, physically painful. George Gibbs, played by Len Lieber, did an equally fantastic job in his earnest portrayal.

In reflecting on the piece I’ve had to dig about on he web. I found the one positive review above and then one negative review in the Free Times by James Damico, who must have some personal dislike of Bobgan as his review is so sharply hysterical. There must be some deep impulse to love Thorton Wilder’s) purely and some desire to be touched on his quivering breast by Wilder’s “superior intellect.” I, for one, was able to see beyond such shallowness as the casting and into the emotion of the piece and production; else Damico just likes create a certain high-pitched hysteria, as he clearly likes boasting and ego flashing: demonstrated by his cheap sarcasm obnoxiously brought to the fore by his unnecessary recitation of musical fodder regarding a hypothetical staging by Cleveland Orchestra of Pomp and Circumstance. As well, it’s clear; he couldn’t resist the inappropriateness of stirring in disgusting suggestions of pedophilia. In fact, it’s amazing how much sexual repression I’ve picked up on in so short a review as that by Mr. Damico; perhaps this observation points to the source of the high-pitched hysteria? It’s also nice and lovely to get Mr. Damico’s authentic praxis on how Our Town should be staged, complete with a recitation of pages 24-25 of his Our Town Staging Guide, 2nd Edition, on the “specific gravity” of the Stage Manager: because, God-knows both the “genuine and would-be” theater critic is the true knower of all things playwriting, play-building, and play-producing—(as demonstrated, no doubt, by the number of directing awards on his desk).

I since have found another negative review, though less prurient.

There was much physical movement in the production at CPT that included the use of chairs and ladders and a bare set. The movement of chairs, to my mind, was exceptional in that the movement very nearly effected what I would suggest as “camera angles” on the stage: one moment Emily was at stage right and George was at stage left, a quick few movements and all was reversed. For a “theater in the round” as was sort of instantiated at CPT for this play, I thought the “camera angles” were extraordinary and the movement gave a vitality to the piece. It also, for me, was in keeping with Bobgan and Seibert’s use of stools in their production of Caucasian Chalk Circle for STEP. I later learned, of course, that the starkness of the set, the chairs, and even the ladders were a part of Wilder’s directions. And, of course, learned that this was perhaps the crowning achievement of the piece—or one of them, certainly at the time it was written.

As the American Theatre article discusses, the stage in mid- to late-Thirties was “stuck” in trenchant “realism”—massive sets, the well-made play. As Laster writes:

A bare stage, no props, the use of mime, breaking the fourth wall, dismantling the unities of time and place—these were radically innovative devices that astounded audiences at the time when kitchen-sink realism dominated the serious stage, and boulevard comedies and melodrama proliferated…It was by removing the diversion of realistic clutter and tapping into the imagination of audiences that Wilder strove to make what was on the stage reflect the verities of life: “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in scenery.” 25

The CPT production shocked and stunned me, but more to the point perhaps, I was stunned by Wilder. I am still amazed at the effect of all the component parts put together in three acts led to that transcendence. The New York Times in 1938 wrote, “under the leisurely monotone of the production there is a fragment of immortal truth,” which still came through in 2007, demonstrating the power that Wilder cast up through his piece.

The article in American Theatre goes on to discuss the productions of Our Town at four theatres in the U.S. this year, and some in the past, including the variety of methods being used in the staging to re-create the production for modern audiences—all of which, of course, would be repellant to Mr. Damico, violating pages 1-5 of his Our Town Staging Guide, 2nd Edition, on the “purity of production values” and “reverence for superior intellects.” Of course, the use of bunraku-style puppets at Two River Theater Company would send Damico stark-raving mad and he’d no doubt rush the stage in a frothy-mouthed ecstasy screaming something about the trauma done to the “timeless nature of small-town existence” by the use of puppetry.

Laster ends her discussion of Our Town by drawing our attention to when it was written and what was happening in the world, and notes that a certain resurgence of the piece may be due to a similar impulse in our own time—a yearning for a simpler, more pure time in our American past—that small Grover’s Corners in our idyllic dream of America. Although the great grandson of Wilder is quoted speculating that Our Town is staged every night somewhere in America. How accurate that speculation is difficult to gauge.

An interesting commentary by Mike Harden in the Metro section of the Columbus Dispatch which I saw this weekend while visiting my parents drew another possibility, as one message of Our Town, certainly one drawn from Emily Webb’s visitation of her family after she had shuffled off her mortal coil, is to live life in the present, to not allow pettiness and selfish focus to cause you to overlook the wonderful life you have in front of you right now. A certain, strong, Buddhist metaphysics indeed.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, at least in passing, the similarity between Our Town and Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, both plays that draw as their subject the life of a town and its inhabitants. Perhaps sometime I’ll discuss this one a bit more as Geither turned me on to it and I found Thomas’ piece equally as compelling as Wilder’s.

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