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July 14, 2016

Signature In Schools


I started writing for the Signature in the Schools program 11 years ago under the tutelage of the late, great, Marcia Gardner, and I continue to under current Education Director David Zobell. The innovative program, started in 1995 by Marcia and playwright Norman Allen, has had a profound impact on the thousands of student actors who have gone through the program and even more young people and adults who have seen the shows.

When Marcia first asked me to write for the program I was unfamiliar with it, and I wasn’t sure what I was signing up for, but when she said to me, “I want you to write a piece about the French Revolution in which Sally Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves and mother to at least six of his children, is one of the main characters. She was with Jefferson in Paris right before the Revolution broke out. She could have stayed in France and been a free woman. The question I want you to answer in the play is, ‘Why did she go back to America with him?’ And the play can’t be longer than 65 minutes.” I knew immediately that I was about to be involved in something very exciting. This was challenging subject matter, and Marcia was adamant that the play not “talk down” to its audience. Writing these plays has stretched me as a writer. Many of the “hot button” subjects we’ve tackled – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD, the Arab Spring, immigration, Hurricane Katrina, the Holocaust, cyber bullying, Civil Rights – I don’t think I would have necessarily chosen to write about on my own, but writing them has totally expanded what I want to write about. It’s dared me to, and made me want to, write about the politics of our time and how young people interact with the world around them.

Over the years the young actors who have performed these plays continually say how exciting it is for them to tackle characters their own age who are dealing with real issues. Over half of the plays include a young character dealing with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. By the time I wrote my first play for the program America was engaged in both wars. By the time I wrote my tenth play for the program I realized that no one in the young cast consciously knew of a time when the country they lived in wasn’t involved in one or both of the conflicts. This year’s play 295N deals with Freddie Gray’s murder and the Baltimore protests that followed and how they impact a group of students in Northern Virginia. The subject matter was potentially volatile and we wanted the talkbacks to really deal with the issues of the play. We wanted an important conversation to take place so we invited members of Black Loves Matter come and run the talk backs. I’ve never seen a student audience, or an adult one for that matter, more engaged in one of these plays or the discussion afterwards.

Seeing young actors tackle these plays every year has been so inspiring. Often at talkbacks after a performance someone in the audience will ask the cast what they learned from the experience, and they usually mean, “What did you learn about theater?” But almost always the students respond talking about what they learned about the world around them. Working on these plays broadened their world view. Writing them has certainly broadened mine.

Feature Photo:  Hero Worship. Credit: Dennis Deloria.

Click here for more information about Signature in Schools, Volume 1 and here for Volume 2.