Everyone there was under pressure.
It was palpable. Hordes of waiters, caterers, volunteers, not to mention the folks who put the whole thing on, were running around making sure everything was just so before the floodgates were opened to the battery of high-profile guests of the gala. Months of intricate planning were relying on snap judgments. Everybody is under stress. And why shouldn’t they be? The stakes are high.
Every year, Opening Act, a Brooklyn-based non-profit arts organization, holds a play reading to help fund its mission of providing arts programs to some of New York City’s most underserved high schools. Through this one event alone, Opening Act’s Executive Director Suzy Myers Jackson tells me, “we’re raising about a quarter of our annual budget.”
For those unfamiliar, a brief primer before moving on: Opening Act provides the most underserved New York City public high schools (currently operating in 39 schools throughout the city) with free after-school arts programs, with a focus on improvisation and devised theatre. Obviously, that’s a lot to unpack, and we’ll get to that in a moment. First, a few more words on the play reading:
The 10th Annual Benefit Play Reading is a major production, bringing together prominent members of the New York theatre scene. The star-studded cast of the reading, which this year was of Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Story, an exploration of how race and class are portrayed and distorted by the media and originally premiered in 2003 at the Public Theater in downtown New York City, contained such notables as Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away with Murder), Dulé Hill (The West Wing), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Peter and the Starcatcher), and more, including current Opening Act student Brittany Adebumola. Of course, this all goes without mentioning that the reading was directed by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon (2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, The Wiz LIVE!).
In addition to the reading itself, if you wandered into the event, held at New World Stages on May 3rd, you would have been treated to hors d’oeuvres and wine, with a chance to mosey on over to the silent auction to win a number of high-ticket items.
It was as much a red carpet event as I’ve ever been to, with stars packing the lobby of the theatre.
But all the glitz and the glamor is in the service of one thing, the great unifier of the New York theatre world that evening: the underserved students of New York City.
“New York, as a state, has the most segregated school system in the country, in terms of race and income,” Suzy explains. “It’s dipped down to levels in terms of segregation that it was in the ‘60s. And that creates a lot of inequality and inequity in our school systems, because separate is not equal.” And many of these schools are struggling, with low graduation rates (as low as 33%) and little-to-no arts programming and facilities that are not up to par. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between student body income levels and availability of arts programs: the higher the income level, the more arts programs, and likewise the other way around.
These low-income schools, the schools that are the most neglected and ignored and face significant challenges, are the schools Opening Act reaches out to to provide desperately needed arts programming.
Opening Act Program Director Cathleen Carr recounted an experience she had teaching in a New York City high school:
“I was working for Opening Act . . . and I went from this experience of teaching at Stuyvesant High School, which is, you know, a premier New York City public high school, and then going all the way out to east New York the same afternoon to teach an Opening Act workshop in a room that I had to find a key to unlock, and then clean up the trash and set the classroom up. And it really hit home to me that that’s just unacceptable. Everyone in this city — every young person — should have access to the arts that is afforded to the better high schools. Without question.”
Being without a voice can be debilitating. Scratch that: there’s no question that being without a voice is debilitating. It’s very easy to learn to not say anything when you feel no one’s listening. That’s what Opening Act strives to do: give students a chance to tell their stories.
In each school in which they operate, Opening Act offers a free year-long after-school program. These students meet once a week and, as an ensemble, explore topics and ideas important to them. Here’s Suzy Myers Jackson again:
“[The students] select the themes they want to explore, topics they have opinions on that they want to put out to the world. And then they create plays around those things. So topics range from police brutality to high school love triangles.”
Brittany Adebumola, the current student who performed in the reading of The Story, backed this up when I spoke to her. “I remember my freshman year we did a show about utopian society,” she said. “Then the following year it was about love, and then the last one was about police brutality. And this year our show is about the history of black women.”
“So whatever they want to explore” (Suzy again) “we say yes to that and help them create a play that they then perform in professional Off-Broadway theaters.”
Not only, then, are the students’ experiences validated in the private sphere of the classroom with Opening Act staff, they are validated in the public sphere of a major stage. This year, Opening Act’s YESfest, the culmination of all the high schools’ projects, was held at New York Live Arts, a major Off-Broadway theater dedicated to fostering original works. For the students to see their work come to fruition after a year of hard work in the space of idols and role models, to be in the same position as those in the public eye with the perceived cultural power and influence, indicates to them that what they have to say matters to a wide audience; that what they have to say is important and as universal as it is personal.
At the play reading gala, those in attendance got a taste of what the students of Opening Act come up with:
Before the main presentation of The Story, a group of Opening Act students performed their original piece The Me You Don’t See, which premiered back in November at HBO Headquarters in Manhattan. The piece was immensely powerful, an exploration of social expectations and assumptions as seen in the simple setting of a New York City subway car.
The sheer depth of thought and exploration in the show was astonishing, rivaling much of what I’ve seen from seasoned playwrights.
But, of course, it’s not all about the product. In fact, according to some drama-in-education theorists, the product is the least important aspect of the work. While I’ll leave that particular discussion for academics, I will say that the arts provides young people an opportunity to discover their voice and feel more confident in themselves through the process of self-expression. The arts have a unique way of putting folks in touch with the world around them.
The impact Opening Act has is very real. During our discussion, Suzy Myers Jackson told me that she’s heard time and time again from teachers and parents how the kids changed after being a part of Opening Act. In fact, they even hear as much from the students themselves. Of a freshman in one of her classes this year, Suzy said:
“At the end [of the first class] she came up . . . and she said, ‘This is really cool. You know, I’m an artist, I like to paint and draw, but I thought acting could be fun too.’ And then she said, ‘I can already tell this is going to make me raise my hand in class more.’”
The organization also has some pretty astonishing statistics to show numerically the impact the arts have on the lives of young people (statistics quoted from Opening Act’s website): 96% of students say they are better able to understand how others think; 95% showed increased self-confidence; and 94% indicated that Opening Act motivated them to attend school.
Opening Act undeniably fills a need for arts in New York City public schools. Not only do the teaching artists help the kids find their voice, they are shown that there’s someone who wants to listen to all that they have to say. While, yes, all children in New York deserve arts education, the educational world doesn’t end at the city limits. Schools throughout the country are facing dire prospects when it comes to the arts; schools throughout the country are becoming increasingly segregated and neglected, especially in the wake of the increased expansion of charter schools and the swelling rate of urban abandonment by the affluent.
Now, these are complex problems that have no easy solution, so I dare not propose one here. All I will say is that, in terms of serving the schools ignored by their own districts, Opening Act is setting an example, showing once and for all the need for arts in education.
But don’t just take my word for it: ask all those who attended the play reading.
All photographs used with permission from Opening Act. Cover photo credit: Copyright 2016 Opening Act/Benjamin Lundberg