Living with the Artless Dodger

Anyone kind enough to read my Facebook posts these past months knows they’ve been mostly political commentary or attempts to provide inspirational thoughts from various sources — to shed light and perspective in challenging times. I’ve been very, very challenged by these times. And now, with a new job, in a new year, it’s also my birthday this week. I’m going to try to connect some dots here.

For a year or so I’ve been repeating that Donald Trump is not a viable political figure. That’s mostly because he’s not interested in anything or anyone but himself. If you haven’t figured that out by now, you will. I never imagined the extent to which he would manipulate the media and the minds of very good citizens to promote gravely untrue, dangerous things. And good people were deceived, horribly. And it has made me very, very sad.

For all of his words, and there have been LOTS of them — mean-spirited, unclear, divisive, contradictory — he has never, in my recollection, mentioned two very important ones: the arts. I have a strong feeling, in his mind, his support of the arts is limited to beauty pageants and using his foundation to purchase a portrait of himself.

And here I am. Working in the arts for more than 30 years. Not as an elitist. Never as an elitist. But with a dogged work ethic that reflects my father’s blue-collar roots and my mother’s sense of service.

The borough I live in is one of the finest and (unfortunately) most expensive places to live in the country. And yet there are large parts of this borough, and the other three that surround Manhattan, that are severely lacking in arts for young people. I teach populations of students who have never seen a full-length play until I bring them to one. And students who have never read a play. And, sometimes, when they see a play, they excitedly report to me, “Professor, that MOVIE was so good, it happened right in front of us. I can’t wait to see another one!” There is not even an accessible vocabulary to support the experience. For Puppetry in Practice, a Brooklyn non-profit, I’ve created arts-based programs that introduce theater and speed language learning for kids in grades 1–12. Theater speeds language development.

As Artistic Director of LEAP, I oversee and am growing programming for the citywide August Wilson Monologue Competition (culminating in performances Off Broadway; and on Broadway for the nationals), and the LEAP Onstage Play Writing Competition, where students’ plays are published by Samuel French and performed Off Broadway. (Please contact me ASAP if you have the means to adopt a school program — doesn’t cost much, and you’ll be glad you did.)

The day after the election, I walked into a school, with a nearly 100% Latino population, and the students were so frightened and devastated, the faculty spent all morning consoling them. (So, please, stop posting about over-reactions. You have NO idea.) In another school, 75% Latino, funding was cut. To make matters worse, the same week of the election the principal resigned because he wasn’t able to manage a school that size — the students felt abandoned twice over. The brand new principal turned to me and said, “My kids need these programs to feel creative and be immersed in something.” A few days later, I told the story to a wealthy Southern Democrat at a holiday cocktail party in Manhattan, and she cried and wrote a check for the entire program in that school. Merry Christmas, indeed. God bless her!

I am proud to pass on what I know. And introduce and advance the art form. And try to level the playing field for kids (and adults) who should have had access to the arts long, long ago. I do not care one bit about any young person becoming an actor. But I believe that these skills produce better citizens — who can think, write and express themselves creatively. How can the next Lin-Manuel Miranda or Lynn Nottage emerge without being introduced to the full spectrum of the arts? Give back! Give BACK. (Especially all the artists who come from or live in Brooklyn. The list is endless.) It matters. Here’s why…

We will now have a president who has NO command of the language. No respect for it. No regard for nuance, precision or eloquence. In fact, he abuses the language. He insults it as he insults. Some would say he slaughters the language.

I am fighting back by giving back. It’s not “nice” of me. Be very clear about this. I am not feeling nice. I am doing it with a furious sense of frustration, empowerment and anger. I am channeling my energy into encouraging lasting creativity and infusion of the arts into education. The arts aren’t external to learning — they ARE learning. Because this can NEVER happen again. NEVER. We have allowed a lack of creativity in our leadership. They are gridlocked for lack of creative problem-solving.

I cannot stand to watch an abuse of power, devastating funding cuts, manipulation of the hopes of poor people and desperate people, the use theatrical techniques to feed fear, heightened fake media to increase ratings, and the creation of horrible, damaging lies to scare people into mistrusting their neighbor.

I am willing to roll up my sleeves and work harder. I will listen until my ears bleed — if it is an informed opinion. But do NOT call me out of touch and hypersensitive. And never, ever insult education and intelligence. We are experiencing the lack of them right now. So, finally…before we put ourselves further into harm’s way and destroy one another…let’s get creative, shall we?