How many graduation ceremonies have you attended that consisted not of an endless parade of names and mortarboards but a series of original plays, penned by students and performed by professional actors? Or how about a series of insightful, inspiring speeches and discussions among hundreds of budding teenage theatre aficionados?
Such were the elements of a series of recent graduations, as two pathbreaking arts education programs rang out the school year with events as unique and inherently theatrical as their curricula: Open Doors and the Residency Arts Project (RAP), administered by Theatre Development Fund for students and teachers throughout greater New York City.
Open Doors is a year-long mentoring program in which professional mentors-playwrights, designers, directors, performers-attend a series of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions with small groups of high school students, leading them in free-ranging post-show discussions.
At this year's memorable Open Doors graduation, Peter Perez, a senior at Brooklyn's Franklin D. Roosevelt High School, couldn't say enough about how much these discussions opened him up.
"The atmosphere and intimacy of the discussions created a place where it was safe to express myself and reveal personal life experiences," Perez said in his speech, in which also praised his group's mentor, producer Marc Platt. "I felt like such a blabbermouth. I mean, I know I love to talk, but I just couldn't stop. The post-performance discussions helped me discover things about myself I didn't know."
For Monica Ibrahim, a senior at Bayside High School in Queens, the experience began as a diversion and became something deeper.
"Although I was born and raised in New York, I was never exposed to the theatre," said Ibrahim, voicing a common view. "I had no idea what I was missing out on!" But it was her mentor, actor Mo Rocca, who illustrated a more profound lesson, she said. "Thanks to Mo, I was able to see how the theatre lives inside a person and not just in a [building]."
At the ceremony, which featured speeches by mentors James Lapine and Kathleen Marshall and a song performed by Karen Ziemba, two Open Doors alumni proudly shared their post-Open Doors experiences.
For Kenesha Phillip, the program did nothing less than "change my view of the world." Phillip, now a 20-year-old freshman at Lehman College, was mentored by scenic designer Derek McLane in 2004-2005, and has since gone on to become a self-starting mentor to students having trouble adjusting to high school, as she once did. For her, Open Doors "started with a love for theatre, but has grown into much more."
The evening's last speech was particularly memorable. Alec Nguyen was in the inaurugal Open Doors group in 1998, led by the program's founder, Wendy Wasserstein, and Broadway stage manager Roy Harris. And though Nguyen has completed college and is entering the dental program at SUNY Stony Brook, thus fulfilling his immigrant parents' high professional expectations, his exposure to theatre has led him to pursue other avenues of expression: Latin dancing.
"I was instantly hooked by the passion of the music and the energy of the dance," Nguyen effused. Indeed, he's now such a committed salsa dancer that he's adopted a stage name-Alejandro "El Chinito" de Nueva York-and said he is often mistaken for a Hispanic. "All this shows that arts can break through all barriers, especially cultural and ethnic ones, and the idea of this thrills me beyond belief."
Nguyen clearly traced these discoveries to his earlier theatrical awakening: "Open Doors encouraged me to reach beyond my comfort zone and to test the cultural definitions of who I was supposed to be. No matter what, the arts will always be alive in me."
Making the arts live within students is also the goal of the Residency Arts Project, in which teaching artists, in conjunction with high school teachers, instruct students in the basics of playwriting, in a program that culminates at graduation with staged readings of the students' short plays.
"We want students to walk away with an understanding of what makes a play work, and a theatrical vocabulary they didn't have before," said Stephen DiMenna, a senior teaching artist with RAP. Explained teaching artist Kate Bell, who this year worked with students at Marble Hill School for International Studies, "I treat the class as if it's becoming an ensemble. It encourages risk-taking and emotional trust in the classroom, which I don't think the students feel in their other classes."
According to Stephanie Wallgren, a teacher at Washington Irving High School, teaching playwriting accomplishes several other complementary teaching goals. "Students who aren't great analytical writers can write creatively, and then I can get them to analyze that writing by asking, 'Why is your character doing this? What's his motivation?' They're initially more comfortable doing that with their own work, but that prepares them to analyze other work."
For Patricia Bruno, a longtime teacher who this year worked as a RAP teaching artist, the real value is getting students to "go back to the same piece over and over again. When they write an essay, it gets critiqued and they move on. But with their plays, we kept working on them and making them better."
Teaching artist Zakiyyah Alexander stressed a similar approach. "My job is to get them invested in the material and get them to commit to a project," Alexander said. "I want to see drafts and development. I don't put any judgment on the quality of the work, but I want them to get past one-page scenes on a cellphone and learn to maintain dialogue in real time."
For Cara Marcous, a teaching artist, the goal is to "leave students with a toolbox-not something theoretical but something they can use." Similarly, Patricia Bruno characterized her approach to teaching as "getting the students to view themselves as artists, which means they're free to think outside the box, and to value their stories and each others' stories."
Though RAP and Open Doors have very different goals and constituencies, they're linked by this common theme of students awakening to their own sense of possibility, discovering talents and passions they didn't know they had and sharing them with their peers in ways that only theatremaking and theatregoing can.
It turns out that RAP and Open Doors are closely linked in their history. For it was a staged reading of a RAP-developed play by a young playwright, Camille Darby, from the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School that inspired playwright Wendy Wasserstein to start Open Doors back in 1998.
As the story goes, Wasserstein approach Darby after the reading and said, "I feel you're a kindred spirit." Wasserstein went on to create the in-depth mentoring program that is Open Doors, while Darby, encouraged by her RAP experience, went on to earn a degree in playwriting from NYU.
Clearly these programs bear fruit well beyond their memorable graduation ceremonies.