CEC Journal: Issue 2

Solving for X: How Working Classroom Trains Young Artists to Make Theater for the Future

Working Classroom (WC) is a non-profit in Albuquerque, New Mexico (NM) that nurtures the artistic, civic and academic minds of historically ignored youth through in depth art, theater and new media projects that cultivate diverse voices in the arts and demand a more equitable society. For the past 28 years we have provided artists aged 11 and up with the opportunity to learn from guest artists from around the globe, to develop professionally and academically, to prepare for college, and to participate in paid internships. Additionally, we teach our cohort what it means to be a citizen: this includes attending government meetings, participating in protests, and traveling throughout New Mexico as well as places like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  While WC serves a seemingly small number of 175 students a year, it is our commitment to deep learning, artistic excellence, and connection to a worldview that make our model stand out. 
Three years ago I moved from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, site unseen, because I was deeply compelled by WC’s mission and model. Having long been committed to theater for social change, I had never seen such an inspiring approach to training young artists as WC; where I now serve as the Theater Conservatory Director. My duties include, but are in no way limited to, mentoring our students, dreaming up projects, contracting guest artists, developing community partnerships, writing grants, and teaching improvisation, clowning and Theater of the Oppressed. I also serve on our board of directors as Secretary. Being a part of the WC community has pushed me to grow and learn in profound ways, with my favorite teachers being the students themselves. 

The Dream 

At Working Classroom we aim to shatter the misconception that adults are the teachers and that students can only learn from us. We know young people have a powerful voice that too often gets silenced or condescended to. This article focuses on a yearlong project devoted to bringing a face and voice to educational equity in Albuquerque, New Mexico and it is a narrative that illustrates how WC practices the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For this project, WC’s theater ensemble collaborates with Scott Barrow of Tectonic Theater Project and guest director/playwright Milta Ortiz, of Borderlands Theater in Arizona, to create Solving for X: The Education Project (The Education Project) - an original, immersive, bilingual performance inspired by interviews from students, parents, teachers, policy makers, and other educational stakeholders, as well as research and theatrical experimentation.
The seeds for The Education Project began two years ago, when the former Executive Director of WC posed the question: “What issue can you spend two years of your life talking about, and not get tired of?” The only answer, as far as I was concerned, was education. My passion for the subject began when I was still going through the school system. It became clear early on that the system often fails the students at the top of the class, but nearly always fails those at the bottom. This was made especially clear by the time I was a sophomore in high school and was assigned by a guidance counselor to tutor a senior in English. I was shocked to learn how large the gaps were in the education she received being in a low track compared to what I had already learned in my honors classes. It made me angry that she had never been taught how to do research, or to write a simple outline. She was also terrified to ask teachers for help stating that any time she had, the teachers simply dismissed her by saying that they had already explained whatever it was she was asking about, and she would know that if she was paying attention. The situation reached a crisis when I approached her English teacher to clarify some questions about her assignments and was met with a threat from the teacher that if I helped her with her paper, he would automatically fail her; because my help was the same as cheating. Since then I’ve been reminded again and again how big the gaps are in public education and now that I live in New Mexico, the subject has never been more important to me. 
NM ranks first in highest rates of poverty (Brauer, 2014),  49th in the country for child well-being (Willis, 2016), and has one of the highest rates of child abuse nationwide (Rocheleau and Rosen, 2016). A new national survey says NM’s graduation rate is the country’s worst (Willis, 2016). The statistics present a bleak picture but what the statistics won’t show you is the resilience of WC’s students who refuse to let where NM falls on a list to determine their self worth. At WC I teach/have taught the brightest, most passionate students of my career: they are natural collaborators, curious, and imaginative. My students live the issues that are dealt with in Solving for X: The Education Project every day of their lives and were immediately on board to make this new play a reality.
Once the topic was chosen, I began to dream. I built the project based on what I would have wanted for myself in high school. Maybe not what I could have imagined for myself, but what ‘present me’ wishes ‘past me’ would have had the opportunity to do. My dream involved a year-long dive into a world of exploration and detective work, unraveling a topic that touches everyone’s lives: education. I wanted to give WC students the opportunity to work with professionals from two different – and well renowned -- theater companies from opposite sides of the country. 

The Process 

In February 2016 WC held auditions for the internship connected to The Education Project. The students were given two months from the announcement to prepare for the audition, which consisted of an application that asked each applicant to answer a few questions about their interest in the project, as well as the issues in education that they most wanted to explore. The applicants also had to submit a resume and a 1-2 minute original piece (in writing) about their own experience in the education system. Finally the applicants had to perform their piece in front of a panel of judges that included a professional theater critic, a WC theater alum, and myself. There were 15 applicants for five spots and we selected 4 from the audition and for the fifth member, invited a long time bilingual WC theater student to become part of the team. While this former student originally was concerned about balancing the intense time commitment with her school work, after meeting with me and hearing that I thought it was important she join us, she happily accepted an internship. We worried that her voice, and the voice of the Spanish speaking communities of Albuquerque, could be lost without her presence in the project.
WC’s theater curriculum for the past year has been designed around the topic of education. The students who were selected through the auditions described above – interns, as we now refer to them -- that are currently working on the project were part of a Theater for Civic Engagement class in Fall 2015. The workshop was similar to a Theater of the Oppressed class, but with the distinction that in Civic Engagement, the topic of education was chosen before the class began. We addressed various issues that make it more difficult to succeed in school; issues like mental health, stress, and teachers who don’t believe in you. We also tackled how emotions, family, and getting labelled as a ‘bad kid’ can impact your life: in evaluating the class common quotes from students were, “I learned how to express myself through play and exploration,” and “I built confidence in my own voice by collaborating with others to make scenes about issues that are important to us.” Other workshops utilized improvisation and clowning to explore the stress that students feel from too much homework, testing, and the competitive environment in classroom.
Scott Barrow and Milta Ortiz were chosen for this project to provide the students diverse access points when creating the original work. WC has a long-standing relationship with Tectonic Theater Project, with Moises Kaufman being one of the original founders of the WC theater program. It was important to WC to bring their name recognition and the superb training that goes with it to our students. Scott is bilingual and has extensive experience training young artists. We wanted our students to benefit from Moment making as they developed the content for the work. Working with Scott allowed the students to think more abstractly about their ideas and expand their theatrical vocabulary.  Milta was chosen from an impressive applicant pool, her dedication to working with young artists and experience writing about educational equity were unmatched. Her last play titled MAS is a docudrama that focused on Arizona’s banning of the Mexican American Studies program. Her movement and ensemble devising background made her a perfect complement to the Moment Work training. Milta is also an El Salvadorian immigrant herself, which puts her life experiences more in line with those of WC students, and also means she is able to compose the script in both English and Spanish. 
Scott Barrow and Milta Ortiz are excellent collaborators on this project, each offering their unique talents to the work. Scott has taught two levels on Moment Work, and Milta has taught devising as an ensemble and playwriting. In Scott’s workshop students most enjoyed focusing on the elements of the stage, especially light and sound, to create abstract work about the subject. Some favorite moments used a red yoga ball light up from behind, used to create everything from a heartbeat to the social media hive mind. Other moments used ropes and large swaths of fabric to represent oppression and the standardization of education. In Milta’s workshops interns were able to explore text from interviews to begin to create characters for the new play. The work began to pick up speed as characters were fleshed out and the concept for the overall work was established. In her most recent workshop she collaborates with the cast of The Education Project to establish the plot and structure for the final play. Her specialty lies in her ability to have students lead the creative process, including letting them school her on how teens really speak. Between both artists our students have trained for over 100 hours just during those workshops. Interns also meet once a week to present new interviews, research and ideas for the play. In January 2017 Milta will return for a six-week rehearsal process before opening the play in February. Watch Milta discuss the creation process here.
By giving students a strong foundation in Moment Work, trademarked by Tectonic Theater Project, WC seeks to encourage our students to see themselves as theater makers, rather than simply actors. The main philosophy behind this technique is that it enfranchises actors, writers, directors and designers to collaborate from beginning to end of the creation process. We can all create lighting, sound, images and text that illuminate our ideas. The technique breaks theater down into its elements, seeking to find evocative imagery first, and adding the dialogue later. In this way the text does not rule, but simply serves the bigger work. I personally enjoy this approach because I find that when the text comes second, rather than first, it gives every other element an opportunity to shine, rather than just be there to support the text.  By having these techniques in place, it has provided the interns a vocabulary to utilize as the delved into the more conventional playwriting workshops with Milta. Her strength comes from incorporating the powerful imagery developed in moment work and teaching the students how to use it to create the script for The Education Project.
The project is inspired by interviews and research. While we are creating a work of fiction, by conducting interviews and reading existing articles about education, we seek to create characters and situations that truthfully represent the world of the stakeholders. Here is video that highlights one of our interns discussing how conducting these interviews and research have helped her understand the issue of education and her hopes for the piece. 
A story that comes to mind when demonstrating why these interviews are so important comes from one  intern, Elijah. Elijah is 15 and just began his sophomore year. After one of his first interviews with a teacher from his school he returned to WC to tell us about the great interview he had. The teacher spoke in detail about why the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test was problematic and spoke critically of many aspects of the public school system. As Elijah was telling us his story excitedly, my boss walks down the hall looking serious, with an urgent message. She said that she’d just gotten off the phone with the teacher and that the teacher was worried sick about the interview she gave. She had even called her union representative to see if she could get in trouble for speaking her mind and the representative answered with a resounding YES. As it turns out, in New Mexico, teachers are forced to sign a gag rule that prevents them from speaking out against standardized tests. This teacher was so concerned about what she had said that she insisted Elijah erase the entire interview. She went as far as to say that she needed assurance that it was done by the end of the day, because she wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. 
This, of course, led us to do some research into the gag rule and sure enough, she did have something to worry about. 
The regulation states that teachers and other PED [Public Education Department] employees are prohibited from “disparag[ing] or diminish[ing] the significance, importance, or use of standardized tests,” on pain of “suspension or revocation of a person’s educator or administrator licensure or other PED licensure (Burgess, 2016).
So we erased the interview and Elijah went back to re-interview her, although this time the teacher was far more careful with her answers. This is not an isolated case. Teachers often have been put positions where they cannot speak their mind openly. A quote from a different interview with Van Overton (The Education Project cast member and founder of  local non-profit, Duke City Dream Lab ) said it best, 
Teachers go into this system where on their way in, they have to put a piece of tape over their mouths and tie their hands behind their back, tie one leg up, and go and perform a task of someone who doesn’t have all those limitations.
The good news is that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Public Education Department (PED) of New Mexico very shortly after that. It turns out we were not the only ones who saw the injustice in silencing teachers. The ACLU made the case that the PED was violating teachers’ first amendment rights by mandating the gag order, and they won (Associated Press, 2016). This year teachers will not be required to sign the gag rule. 
This is just one story from the many interviews we’ve conducted. The more interviews we did, the more common themes began to arise. Fear was a common story, low expectations another, but the most interesting to us was how ‘community’, in one way or another, helped people get through their education. That ‘community’ was defined in many ways: it included parents, teachers, counselors, significant others. Many of the stories we have heard all held this common detail that if it weren’t for ‘so-and-so’ they would have never made it through school. And this is a message we absolutely want to come through when we create our final piece. 
Another vital reason interviews are so important to this process is that we want to tell the whole story. We want to see multiple perspectives and avoid vilifying any one group of people. If we can see the school system as something that is doing it’s best to move forward, rather than something that is so broken that no one is able to fix it, can we find more hope? Can we find solutions?
By the time this article goes to print they will have completed all four workshops with the guest artists and will have written the first draft of The Education Project. In the first two iterations of the work, when the performance was presented to an audience, the feedback was that while the work was quite compelling and the maturity of the student performers was impressive, there was some concern that the work itself was too dark, too negative, and far too critical of teachers. This was important feedback to get. Watch the performance from Milta’s first workshop with interns here.
Before we continued to create our work in our third workshop -- the second session with Scott Barrow of TTP -- we asked the students how we could correct this and why had it happened to begin with. The answer was two-fold. The first was that while we had conducted over 30 interviews at that point, nearly every single one was critical of teachers in some way. There were many stories of teachers not caring, teachers giving up, and teachers dismissing someone for a myriad of reasons. To me, this says more about how negative experiences stay with us longer, and are recalled easier than those stories of inspiration. When we ask those we interview to tell us about their education, it is always the difficulties they had and the adversities they face that come to mind first. The positive memories require more digging.  The second reason for focusing on darker aspects is perhaps more revealing than the first. The students all agreed that negative images, the darker stuff, were simply more interesting to create work about. The stories of strife invoked more provocative imagery, and appealed to us from an artistic standpoint. 
So, knowing that, we then asked students: how can we continue to work with images we like, but find a new entry point? It was this question that inspired our second week of work with Scott. Knowing this, we had a new task: to create work specifically from the point of view of teachers. The secondary task was, how do we find the humor in the situation? This new direction yielded some positive results. While there is still serious and dark content in the work, it was evened out by a sense of play. Perhaps my favorite of these new pieces was one with a teacher at its center. The actor playing the teacher begins the scene by answering the questions of a curious and engaged student. Meanwhile, the student loops a cord through a hook on the teacher’s belt, but it does not become noticeable until the other end of the cord is pulled taut by the school’s principal. In the midst of the teacher helping the first student, a second student enters from the other side, also with a cord looped into the teacher’s belt. This second student is the troublemaker  and interrupts the teacher’s ability to help the first student. Then, a parent joins the scene by picking up the other end of the cord the disruptive student has, making that cord completely taut. Finally the principal enters, forcing all points of the cords to be taut, and the teacher finds he can be pulled in four directions. Before the scene ends, the teacher gets a call from his wife asking him to bring home milk and eggs, and finally, all the ends of the cord are wrapped around the teacher until there is no escape. Upon reading this one might think, okay, but that’s still really dark. And it’s true. But the scene uses the visual images as well as the dialogue to treat the scene with humor. In this way we are able to portray the challenge of being a teacher, and visually it becomes very playful. 

The Piece So Far

The purpose of this project is to create a unique educational experience for the students working on the project, but with the vision that this new work might have a ripple effect through the local community. We have paid special attention to representation, creating characters that fit us, and that speak to the issues addressed in the play. Here is a video highlighting one of our interns, Jorja, discussing why representation matters.  
The new play has already been cast, with everyone cast participating in the playwriting workshop with Milta. The cast contains four adults and eight students, ages range from 11 to 45. At the moment, here is framework for the performance: the play will begin in a school auditorium where an assembly is being held after an incident erupts at the school. The principal has been fired because he did not handle the incident to the administrations liking, and an interim principal is appointed. As his first act as interim principal he speaks to the students about an addendum to the handbook to address issues that caused the inciting incident. Each new rule impacts every student in a negative way, and the action of the play revolves around the students challenging these new rules. From the very first scene actors mix with audience, and begin to unravel the challenges they face at school. The play will be a mix of realism and more experimental scenes, with the abstract scenes focusing on different characters’ dreams -- giving the audience a peek into their realities. By the play’s end the audience will have an opportunity to speak up with their own thoughts and suggestions for resolution.  Before the audience leaves the show, there will be an opportunity to vote for policy actions they  would like to support, to sign petitions, and to learn about ways they can have more direct impact in their own communities and schools. With this we intend to leave the work in the audience's hands; inspiring them to ask questions. We do not want to simply present the issues facing our young people and leave our viewers with a feeling of awareness that does not have any room for hope or agency.
With Solving for X: The Education Project the interns and cast members have an opportunity to let the content of the work wash over them. They are able to benefit from the techniques they are learning in such an organic way, they themselves aren’t always aware of how deep the learning process goes. By training in Moment Work they build a vocabulary to create and discuss work. They build confidence in their own voice and find valuable insight into what they are especially interested in exploring as artists and activists. They recognize their own ability to develop ideas and make them understandable, and along the way they also discover what they don’t like, what doesn’t serve them, and what isn’t vital to conveying their ideas. Knowing this is equally as important as knowing what is especially interesting to someone. Additionally, by being paid for this work we are instilling a sense of ownership and value as artists in the cast. It is how we tell them, “we see you, we appreciate you, and this work would not be possible without you.” By doing this we offer them a lesson that can impact the rest of their lives. 
While the content for the new work is still being discovered, the goals of this project are being met in various ways. The goals for the creation process, in no particular order, are: 
  • to provide WC students with an education they will never forget, teaching them they can steer a creative ship and create content of the highest artistic merit;
  • to teach them that time is valuable and that they are professionals worthy of being listened to and being paid for their work;
  • to create something new, fresh, and unlike anything that has come before it;
  • to capture the essence of our community through the lens of education;
  • to provide a more nuanced understanding of our education system and community;
  • to help create the future we want -- not just for our students, but for all those who interact with the piece. 
It’s the goals that excite me the most; they are also the goals that are most in line with the sustainable development goals that this article is meant to highlight. When the play is finished WC plans to share Solving for X: The Education Project with schools city-wide throughout 2017/2018. We plan to offer a tour package that includes the performance followed by a workshop with the cast and myself. The workshop will teach the audience how WC developed the new work and will show them how they can create their own play about the issues important to them. In addition to the tour itself, we plan to develop a book that can accompany the project and includes the story of the project’s creation, techniques for classrooms to use in order to create their own work, and the final script of the play. Furthermore, once there is a printed copy of the script along with stories about it’s creation, we hope the piece can gain similar traction as a work like The Laramie Project, where it can be produced anywhere in the world so it can impact local education systems around the globe. Once the script is written, that’s when the bigger work can begin. To make all of this possible we have received several grants and have begun a crowdsourcing campaign to cover the tour. 
It is a great privilege to bring this work to the national conversation in several ways. Writing this article is one way I hope to reach out to a wider public. In addition to this article I have been selected to give a TEDxABQ talk at the end of October, 2016 on the topic of treating students like professionals, using the work on The Education Project to illustrate the point. The work will first be presented for its world premiere from February 16-26, 2017 as part of the Siembra Latino Festival at The National Hispanic Cultural Center. It will be remounted a month later as part of Tricklock Theater’s Revolutions Theater Festival and will be included as part of the Evolve Without Borders international theater conference happening in conjunction with Revolutions. 
The dissemination of the work speaks to the goals of economic growth through the cultural sector, where students will be paid to create, perform and tour the work; WC will generate income in this same way. The dissemination also speaks to our desire to create a more peaceful and equitable world by giving voice and visuals to a diverse range of stakeholders. Any time we experience someone else’s reality it opens a space for understanding and empathy that is otherwise difficult to achieve. And also, the goal of developing and revitalizing partnership is precisely what makes all of the other goals possible. With this play we team up with schools and organizations, with citizens ready to push back, and with students that have the power to stand up for what they need. 
Put more simply, we want everyone to know that they count. And once people have deep stakes in this system, once they feel compelled to become active, then all else becomes possible.  At WC we ask what happens when a play is more than just a play. What happens when the preparation, creation, production, and further dissemination of the work deepens the learning of all involved and keeps going long after the play has been performed? I propose that the way in which Solving for X: The Education Project will become a self-sustaining work into the future is one answer to this question.   


Burgess, K. 2016. ACLU Files Suit against PED. Available:
https://www.abqjournal.com/748673/aclu-files-suit-against-ped-over-gag-rule.html [October 2016].
Brauer, A. 2014. New Mexico Ranks Worst in U.S. for Poverty. Available:
http://www.koat.com/news/new-mexico-ranks-worst-in-us-for-poverty/28121474  [October 2016].
Willis, D. 2016. NM Again Ranks 49th in Child Well-Being, 50th in Education. Available:
http://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/education/2016/06/21/nm-again-ranks-49th-child-well-being-50th-education/86140070/  [October 2016].
Associated Press. 2016. New Mexico Ban on Teachers Criticizing Tests to End. Available:
http://www.kob.com/albuquerque-news/new-mexico-ban-on-teachers-criticizing-tests-to-end/4131775/ [October 2016].
Rocheleau, M and Rosen, A, 2016. Mass. had highest rate of abused children in nation. Available:
https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/01/28/federal-report-finds-mass-had-highest-rate-abused-children-nation/wMaQUH5bB4kEy6fGOUfoRM/story.html  [October 2016].

Header and Background Image Credit: Working Classroom

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