Greasing the wheels of creativity

One school was built in the teens – the cornerstone says 1914. It appears from the outside to be a castle, with small turrets at the corners, vaulted windows and pedestals for sculptures – now empty – at regular intervals. As a public high school I wondered: who once stood on those pedestals? The men who built this temple of education? The city fathers who funded it? Or anthropomorphic embodiments of “learning”, “science”, “culture”? Whoever they were, the religious overtones are unmistakable. The building says, come here to have the whole of you attended to in a safe place, protected from the uncertainty of the world. The building says, I am here forever, which is how long my commitment to my mission will last.

Inside, the majesty of its beginning can only be glimpsed behind  layers of poorly funded and barely maintained institutional planning. The vaulted interiors are lowered by dusty white dropped ceilings. The once enormous classrooms have been subdivided. Then giant windows meant to let the sunlight stream in are, for reasons I cannot fathom, almost always covered by paper, or the once clear glass replaced by dim, barely translucent plastic. 

I stood in one of these classrooms yesterday at Frankford High school to speak to the students there about “careers”. I had been asked to represent the possibility of a career in the performing arts. The administrators were mostly black, the teachers mostly white, and the students everything in between. The story of race, public eduction and urban community played out before me in brief clarity. What was I going to say to these kids, for whom this school not only represents education and possibility, but also food – literally food. Breakfast and lunch is what they have here, not at home for some of them, whatever home might be.

I spoke three times to three different classes and I noticed an evolution in what I said. In the first class, I described my own journey, and the possibility having a multi-faceted career in the performing arts right here in Philly. I pointed them to the many institutions which offer classes and internships for young people. But then I thought – internships? For these kids? Why would any of them be interested in an internship when survival is an open question?

And so by the third class, I was having a conversation with them about what a “career” is. I was led to assure them that they don’t need to know right now, that it’s okay to explore, that life is a gift and a journey. I was led to tell them that being a grown up means dealing with disappointment and compromise, which is not the same thing as letting go of your dreams. It’s simply about living life on life’s terms. I said, “We like to think we live our life, but sometimes I feel like my life lives me.” They stared at me like I was from another planet, but they were quiet, focused, a condition their teacher remarked about to me as I left the classroom.

I showed them the White Pines website, described our mission as best I could, handed our brochures on the residency program, and – in one case – found images of myself acting in local productions to share with them. I have grandiose notions about how the arts can save populations like this one, inspired by El Sistema. But I got a good mouthful of reality yesterday and it was daunting. And yet . . .

Not Frankford HS, but what it might have looked like once.

As I left this palace of learning I walked by the auditorium. I glanced in. One of the teachers I met (each of whom struck me as heroic) was the drama teacher. “I used to direct shows here, but due to budget cuts that doesn’t happen anymore” she told me. The auditorium is vast, it has a balcony and fixed wooden seats. It is decked out in the ornate style of those old movie palaces: it is place meant to inspire. It stands empty now, used only for large official gatherings. How would it change the lives of these students, I wondered, if that space was routinely filled by kids and their families watching the performed courage, empathy and creativity theater and dance engender?

It’s on my mind because I have been working in another palace of learning, this one built in 1964, in Cheltenham Township. It is the suburban version of Frankford High School – Cheltenham High School – where for a variety of reasons, they have not had to cut the drama program, yet. I have been hired to direct the spring musical there, which is Grease. It opens tonight and I am proud and excited, wearing the show t-shirt as I write this. We have been working on this show since December. The production team includes four professional designers, professional TD, choreographer, fight choreographer, production manager, me and Ms. Hutton, who is the producer, music director and one full-time faculty member connected to the show. The rest of us are hired as part-time “coaches” (really, that’s what is says on our contracts.) We are getting paid and I am grateful, but no one is getting rich.

Cheltenham High School

These kids are working their asses off on this show. In addition to trying to get into colleges, take AP courses and attend to the rest of their lives, they are learning lines, dances, songs, and in some cases, complex scene changes. I am deeply impressed with them. They make me remember my own beginnings in the 70s and 80s, in Kiss Me Kate, The Crucible, Carousel, The Rimers of Eldridge. For me then, there was almost nothing more important than those shows. I would wake up on the day of opening night and instantly feel sick to my stomach with excitement and anxiety. And I am sure it is the same for them today. At least they have school to got to. I get to sit at home and write on my blog.

Our cast, rehearsing.

Our cast, rehearsing.

The theater at CHS is huge – I call it the airplane hanger. It’s not an exaggeration. You could park a 757 in there. It seats 2,000. Over the next few nights it will be nearly, if not completely full. The entire community turns out for this show. Why? Because they are going to see the world’s best production of Grease? No silly. Such a production doesn’t exist and never has. They are turning out to celebrate their children, and by extension, themselves. Look at them! they will think. And look at us! At what we have built! Look at the promise of our future. Maybe we’re all going to be okay after all.

It’s a moment the families at Frankford High School have been deprived of.

I was asked to write director’s notes for the program for Grease. Here they are:

Marty and Frenchie

Marty and Frenchie

I have an unusual notion about theater, especially coming from someone who’s been working professionally in theater since 1989. It’s this: there is no such thing as good theater and no such thing as bad theater. These are merely subjective judgments we apply which reflect our own tastes, and don’t really say anything useful about art or creativity. When you abandon the “good” and “bad” dichotomy, some interesting things happen. One of them is that the most important theater you have to make becomes the theater you are working on now, regardless of the genre or the partners you are working with. And so, for me, this production of Grease has been the most important theater in my life over the last few months.

And yet, ambition is important. Reaching high is important. Striving for excellence is important. So I said to the cast on the first day of rehearsal: you have a choice to make. You can coast and we can make a serviceable production of Grease. Or we can figure out together what we have to do to dig deeper, sing with more passion, dance with more energy, act with more commitment to make this production something special. And your kids said, let’s do it. Tonight, you are seeing the result of three months of our joyful, challenging and creative work together. It has been my privilege to partner with this cast, the student crew and the professional artists who have brought this production to life.

One of the ways we decided not to coast, is to deal honestly with the darker and more difficult aspects of  this story. The kids in Grease smoke, drink, worry that they’re pregnant, and search for a true identity in that tempestuous place known as high school. We discovered that by making those journeys real for us, we fell in love with our characters more deeply, and the story became more important to us. We discovered that the joy and release of the songs was more intense, if we were honest about the difficulties these kids are wrestling with. We discovered that then, as now, they find salvation in each other.

Grease at Cheltenham High School

Kenicke and Greased Lightening

Kenicke and Greased Lightening