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A Class Act

Date: Nov 28, 2006

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It seems that Nilaja Sun's work is never done. After spending many of her days as a teaching artist, bringing theatre arts to under-served public schools in the New York area, at night she goes to perform her self-penned solo show, No Child… And though the well-reviewed show keeps drawing enthusiastic audiences to the Barrow Street Theatre even after running for seven months, Sun often finds Off-Broadway audiences as tough a crowd as her students.

"When the show started out, it was kind of hidden," Sun recalled in a recent interview. "But the more I become known, more people are showing up expecting it to be a mainstream show. Then they show up and see the set and think, 'Oh, no--this is what I'm getting in for?' Some of them look really scared to laugh when the kids [in the play] make fun of each other. Then eventually I get them. It's an adult conversation, and people start to get connected."

No Child…, which follows Sun and a class through a six-week drama program at the fictional Malcolm X High in the Bronx, started with a commission from the New York State Council of the Arts. But its inspiration comes from Sun's own discovery, some years ago, of a "day job" that could both draw on and feed back into her theatrical craft.

"I was working as an actor and it wasn't paying the bills," Sun recounted. "I was waiting tables, even bartending at Broadway shows." Then she answered an ad for the National Shakespeare Company, a New York-based organization that sends actors to schools to introduce the Bard's work through theatre arts. "I started to fall in love with teaching, and I got known as a teaching artist people could call on."

By the time the commission from NYSCA came, Sun had been working as a teaching artist for some time. And despite her love for the work, Sun had accumulated some dramatic, even tragic tales from her experiences that weren't written by Shakespeare.

"There are a lot of different kinds of challenges, from something as small as the kids drinking Red Bull first thing in the morning, which gets them crazy, to something as large as them having seven different teachers in five months," Sun said. "That kind of irregularity affects their self-esteem, from what I can see."

Her advice for other teaching artists?

"Don't be afraid of discipline," Sun said. "A lot of teaching artists fear that if they're too hard on the kids, their art won't be able to bloom like flowers. But the kids need to feel comfortable enough that other kids won't make fun of them, and they won't feel the beauty of their artistic selves if they're so worried what their friends are gonna say. You have a certain window in which you've gotta create the magic, and then the bell goes off.

"Also, there's a certain expectation that teenagers can only handle shallow stuff. Don't be afraid to challenge them. Keep an open dialogue with the teacher you're working with. Keep an open dialogue with the school administration."

Though No Child… is a bona fide hit, Sun didn't conceive it as her a ticket to the big-time and away from her teaching work.

"I can never think I'm going to do a show and make my living," Sun said, reflecting the career reality of all too many theatre artists. "I expected to do this for three weeks. Now it's seven months later--that's some serious employment. That's really big for me." But from the start her only motivation was to share her story: "Truthfully, I wanted a lot of theatregoers who've never been in schools before to see what goes on there." And she has no equivocation about her future, with or without a hit show: "I'll always be working in the schools."

Or, as in the case of No Child…, turning the stage into the best kind of classroom.

Photos by Dixie Sheridan

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