From Page to Stage

by Diane Glass

Through Kelly DuMar’s online TLA Network class, “Your Memoir As Monologue: How to Create Dynamic Dramatic Monologues About Healing and Transformation for Performance,” I learned the possibilities and power of taking my print work to an oral form, the monologue.

I discovered the value of imagining a live audience in performing a scene from my memoir, “This Need to Dance.” What would be the set-up for the monologue? How would I shape the dialogue with that audience in mind? The audience became real as I engaged in conversation with them. My language became conversational, expressive, and alive. Without the fallback print offers to explain myself in detail, I cut to the heart of the story.

When Kelly brought in a professional actress to perform each of our class members’ monologues, that actress blew new energy into our pieces with skillful pacing, intonation, and her distinctive voice. She expressed undetected (by me) humor in my piece. I was serious about the value of talking to my bladder in healing a painful experience. But she anticipated the smiles this practice would elicit and claimed their amusement in her interpretation.

This class strengthened my writing through incorporating conversational style and honing my message. By reading aloud, I experienced the rhythm of my work. Some of it plodded. Some of it danced. This practice showed me what needed to be invigorated.

This is the monologue I prepared for presentation at the end of class:

One Breast or Two?

Set-up:
A woman unaccustomed to talking about her personal life has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has undergone a mastectomy. In a conversation with a friend at her house over coffee, she struggles to share the intimate details of her situation.

Monologue:
You’re asking the same kind of questions the women at the breast cancer support group asked, Kalinda. I just don’t feel comfortable talking about this.

Oh, they wanted to know the specifics of my surgery and treatment. The leader of the group started the meeting by saying she had one breast, had done chemotherapy and was soon to start radiation. Then each woman followed her lead, announcing whether she had one breast, two, or none. When it came time for me to say something, I froze. Is it anyone’s business how many breasts I have? I just said I had had surgery without adding any specifics.

I know you want to help, Kalinda. And you can. Support can mean a lot of different things. Your offer to bring food is appreciated. Take me to the doctor and check in on me by phone. But beyond that, I just don’t want to talk about my body.

Reconstruction? Again, that kind of thing is private. These women were even debating the merits of reconstruction with and without a nipple. I just cringed listening to that all of that.

Yet I admit, when I saw others in the group pour out their concerns and having people hug them and comfort them, I felt lonely. No one hugged me that night—and I didn’t hug anyone else.

How can I talk about my breasts without acknowledging all my body has already gone through? In one sense breast cancer is less of a big deal than everything else.

Yes, it is helpful to have someone to talk with, Kalinda, but your probing makes me uncomfortable. Let’s go to lunch.

It’s back to my body again! You just don’t quit, do you? You know, it’s the spina bifida. It’s too much to go into now. Problems with my bladder, all those accidents. This experience is disgusting to talk about and disgusting for others to listen to.

No, I haven’t talked about it. It’s just than when I imagine talking about it, I think, “Ugh.”

It sounds stupid but I feel like I betray my bladder by talking about my breasts and not it. I can hear it saying, “And what about me? What about all we’ve been through together? Doesn’t that matter? Don’t tell just part of the story!”

Yeah, yeah, I talk to my bladder and it talks back. That’s the way we’ve survived. I couldn’t talk about my bladder to anyone else so we just kept all of this to ourselves.

Can I talk to my breast? Kalinda, don’t encourage my weird habits. Besides the breast is already gone.

You want to know what the big deal was? (Long pause) Well, I had horribly embarrassing accidents as a child. My mom or dad, mostly my dad, catheterized me until I was 13. I couldn’t even decide for myself when to go. I felt completely abandoned as a child when I was dropped off at school without anyone to talk to in case I needed help.

You see, when someone asks me about my breasts, all of this fear, dread and loneliness come up. I am still that brave little girl who suffers in silence.

Of course I am scared. The tumor is big. The surgeon gave me a 50/50 chance of it recurring. And my bones. Chemo will weaken them and they are already weak because of the spina bifida. What does it mean to have both of these things to deal with?

I suppose I’m mad, too. It seems hardly fair that I narrowly escaped death as a child and now, here again, I am facing a life-threatening situation.

This helps, Kalinda. It really does. I am scared and I am angry.

Jesus says, “Come to me, you who are weary, and I will give you rest.” I am weary, weary of carrying this burden of secrecy and shame alone. That’s what I am feeling right now. My burden is heavy. I want to lay it down.

I can’t do this alone. And I don’t want to do this alone, not any more. Kalinda, can you stay a while longer?

 

Diane Glass serves as a spiritual director, helping individuals find meaning and purpose by listening deeply to them and encouraging reflection. She teaches at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center on the role of the body in revealing our life stories. In October 2015, she published a memoir, This Need to Dance: A Life of Rhythm and Resilience (Amazon). She co-founded Tending Your Inner Garden®, a program of spiritual growth for women in transition, in 2003. (This is her second blog post written in part to fulfill the requirements to receive a TLA certificate.)

Playwriting & Identity, by Latisha Jones

Editor’s Note: Latisha and I went to graduate school together. She is a tremendous educator, artist, and advocate. I’m thrilled to share some of her thoughts on theatre, playwriting, and identity — reminiscent of many conversation’s we’ve had. ~CMW


As a playwright, theater artist and educator, the written and the spoken word are intimately intertwined. I often write words intended to be performed aloud, and I speak my written words in order to clarify my thoughts. As a student of both creative and critical writing, I learned how the written word could free my voice and allow me to unravel and express the multilayered — and oft-contradictory — truths of my existence. It is utterly impossible for me to speak about my life as a writer without my social identities informing the narrative. I am a college-educated, 30-year-old black woman who grew up in a mixed class background with a single mother. I was raised in one of the richest counties in the United States, Howard County, MD, with a “private school level” public education system. I received my bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting from Drexel University and my master’s degree in Educational Theatre from New York University. I worked in public school education for about 5 years and have recently changed careers to Arts Administration. And my name is Latisha Jones.

Why the short biography? Because often times when artists who are minorities are asked to speak about their creative experience, they are asked to talk about their art separate from their social identities —  because it “makes people uncomfortable” — or they are asked to be the “representative” for their social identity and are seemly asked to speak for the likely millions of people who may have similar backgrounds. Both demands are nearly, if not completely impossible to fulfill, but many try anyway as a means of survival and learning to live as an artist. This is one of the many contradictions that can, at once, cause great anguish and yet prompt great art. For me, its life within these contradictions, either to explain them, use them or escape from them, which prompts me to create.

Art is often a method to temporarily make peace with the cognitive dissonance of everyday life. When used by the government and other hierarchical structures, the pacifying power of art can crush the critical discourse needed for a thriving, democratic society. In Ancient Greece, the theatre served three main purposes; to serve the gods, to tell the stories of the past and to release the “negative” impulses of the public that were seen as a threat to Greek social and political order. When used personally, the pacifying power of art allows us to find a place a calmness and focus in our chaotic lives. In the world of “Black Lives Matter”, constant stories police brutality, and Trump, the power of art is more necessary than ever to our well-being.

One of the ways I have tried to utilize the artistic power of the written word is by writing well-researched interactive plays for children. When I was a child, learning about African American history was a source of pride. I learned that there were writers, intellectuals, doctors and freedom fighters that looked like me. I was able to draw strength from stories of Harriet Tubman when I was feeling tired and weak; I drew strength from Shirley Chisholm when I needed to stand up for myself and from Sojourner Truth when I needed to speak. However, in working with the public school system, I’ve learned that some these stories which have the power to strengthen the resolve of children and help to prepare them for a society that is not always kind to their presence can sometimes be lost in the shuffle of standardized testing and academic benchmarks.

In order to help solve a problem within the elementary education and remind myself of the humanity of my heroes, I wrote plays that are meant to be performed by children and shown in a classroom environment. When I originally started writing my plays, I was still working in schools, so I had the opportunity to direct and teach children about their history while teaching them how to project and speak with eloquence. The end result was a community event which educated the parents and students that attended, informed the lives of the students who performed, and brought a community to celebrate some of the historical achievements of Black Americans.

The entire process of writing, teaching, directing and presenting these plays is transformative in the way that it gives me a small measure of solace in world where people need to be reminded that #blacklivesmatter, young black boys are tracked based on their reading scores in 4th grade and stories of police brutality are continually featured on the 24 hour news cycle. I cannot change my past or the way that people will perceive me based on external characteristics, but with my pen (or keyboard), I can create some measure of internal peace and clarity; and maybe be a positive influence for the people around me. That’s all any artist really wants, right?


12033156_10101513801406746_5933751511083360828_nLatisha Jones is the Program Manager and Outreach Coordinator  for the Children’s Chorus of Washington. She has her master’s degree in Educational Theater from New York University. She has worked as a theater teaching artist and teaching assistant for the past ten years. Her lifelong passion for the written word started from writing stories in the second grade and morphed into writing plays and movie scripts by time she was in college. She hopes to continue writing historical plays for children and inspire more dialogue.

Amy Oestreicher on Telling Her Story on Stage

Editor’s Note: Amy has written for us before, and her story is a powerful one. With the Power of Words Conference coming in two weeks, we asked her to share more. We will also post her TEDx talk within the next week.
————-

Bringing Gutless & Grateful to the Transformative Language Arts Network Conference last year was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I couldn’t be happier to be presenting again this year! In my workshop,  I’m sharing my near death experience and unique personal story with humor, hunger and heart, and helping others realize their potential as storytellers who can heal through their own word and powerful personal stories.

I’ve presented this workshop on college campus, at conferences, theatres, hospitals, and many other audiences from Hawaii to Pennsylvania, to survivors of sexual assault to business entrepreneurs, medical professionals to law students.  Everyone has a story to tell – some of us just don’t know it yet! Once we discover this, it’s incredibly empowering, and my greatest joy is watching people realize this for themselves.

From the time I could remember, I have always possessed an intense passion for the world of words and music. All my life, I had dreamed of pursuing a career in theatre.  However, at 18, I was rushed to the ER, and to summarize very briefly, my stomach exploded, I was in a coma for six months, and I was unable to eat or drink a drop of water for over three years.  After 27 surgeries, I was miraculously reconnected with whatever I had left.  However, to persevere through those tumultuous years took great inner and outer strength.  I relied on my creativity to get through.  My therapy was purely based in the world of theatre, art, writing, dance, music, and whatever else I felt was an area that I could express myself appropriately.  The arts were a way for me to express whatever felt too painful and overwhelming to put into words.  They also helped me process what I was feeling.  But most importantly, they served to be the greatest reward acting as a medium where I could still engage with my community, reach out to others, and make a difference in this world while utilizing my passion.  Arts were my way of connecting with the world, sharing my story, and spreading my message of hope, strength, and finding beauty in whatever life brings you.

I was not able to fully appreciate the beauty of my detours until I was able to share them. As a performer, all I’ve wanted to do was give back to the world.  But now I have an even greater gift to give: a story to tell.  Until I could put into words what had happened to me, I couldn’t fully heal.  Telling my story is the magic push I needed to move forward, and that is what inspired me to bring my workshop to TLAN for the second year in a row: to help others bring out the story burgeoning inside of them.

As actors, writers, creators, humans, we tell stories constantly.  I first told mine over four years ago.  Not only to myself, but to complete strangers and New York theatre-goers.   Fresh out of my 27th surgery, I performed words from journal entries I wrote years ago as a way to pass the time between the endless series of medical interventions.  Every time I “perform” what happened to me, I find myself somehow transformed in the process.  Theatre has the power to change lives, both for those directly involved and those who watch. Theatre teaches us we’re capable of anything – and usually tells us this at times we need it most.

I’m truly touched by how my story has affected so many people and it only serves to spur on my creativity more and more.  Even on the more difficult days, knowing I can have an impact is just one extra nudge to get me going in the morning.

It’s really the ability to give back, and to have my work serve as a lens, a mirror, a window that others can look through, or look into, and see themselves or whatever they need to see at that moment.  To feel whatever they need to feel.  That’s how I connect with my world – that is my aliveness.  As a member of this human race, it’s how I can contribute.  Isn’t all we ever want: to make a mark on the world?  

Gutless & Grateful,” the honest one-woman musical story of my life.  It’s my story, shared through a medium I’m passionate about. I was finally able to heal and move on once I was able to share, and now I’m so excited to help others share the story within them in whatever medium that they feel most comfortable in.

Why share at all?   It takes “guts” to talk — and sing — about my sexual abuse, my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better. But I share to show that things do get better with patience, trust and resilience. I share to give courage and a sense of belonging to people who are struggling with all kinds of mental health or physical challenges, but also to help build a campus that gives everyone the kind of awareness and generosity of spirit that makes that world a better place. If we all share our “detours,” we see that our detours are not detours at all. Every road leads somewhere — we just need to hang in long enough to catch the flowers along the way. The more we share our stories, the more we realize we’re not alone.

Through the transformative power of words, we can all share our stories.  I can’t wait to hear yours!

———–

Amy Oestreicher B&W 2006Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking.

As the creator of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness  and Broadway Theatre for college campuses.

To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others thrive through difficulties.

As Eastern Regional Recipient of Convatec’s Great Comebacks Award, she’s contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others. 

She has devised workshops for conferences nationwide,  and is this year’s keynote speaker for the Hawaii Pacific Rim International Conference on Diversity and Disability.  Learn more: amyoes.com.

Dramatherapy as a Lifeline in Transforming Trauma by Amy Oestreicher

Trauma affects every individual differently.   In the face of adversity, drama therapy makes healing possible for all, re-anchoring us in our soul’s dream.

For me, that dream was musical theatre.

Let me rephrase that. I grew up assuming my life was a musical. Call it the “theatre bug”, call me a “drama queen” or a great big ham – I lived for the world of the stage. For me, singing and acting were ways I could connect with the world around me. When I took a deep, grounded breath from my gut, I sang what my heart longed to express. I found comfort in the words of my favorite composers. I read scripts like they were novels. I would play with my playbills from various shows I had seen like they were my Barbie dolls. Through theatre, I had a place in this world. I could make believe by inserting myself into characters from every era, situation and mindset, while still expressing my own individuality.

I was the kid who got sent to the principal’s office because when the teacher left the room, I would jump on her desk and start tap-dancing. I was the girl who forced every unwilling classmate to join me in a Les Miserables medley, assigning them their designated parts to pass the 30-minute school bus ride.

Even all the way up to high school, I was the theatre-girl. It was my identity, my passion, my livelihood. I sacrificed my social life and gave up many opportunities to immerse myself in what I loved.

I’ve always been warned not to put all of my eggs in one basket, but theatre ran through my veins – it was all I thought about, lived and dreamed. I’d write songs in my assignment notebook as I waited for the school bell to ring, then hop on the train to the next open call I’d read about in Backstage. When I fought with my brothers, I could only debate with them if we could do in the spirit of a musical theatre duet. They weren’t so keen on that.

So what do you do when you’ve invested everything into your passion and you can’t follow it anymore? I’ve always thought about what would a world-concert pianist would do if he injured his hand, or a dancer breaking a leg…

…but sprains heal and wounds can eventually mend. Dire circumstances felt much more long lasting; when at 18 I awoke from a coma. Although the medical staff—that suddenly became everyday faces—was more concerned about keeping my organs and me alive, I was still trying to grapple with one frightening new concern:

Would I ever be able to sing and dance on stage again?

With a ventilator and a tracheotomy, I couldn’t even talk. From months of bed-rest, the first time I was able to stand up, I was alarmed at how they trembled, as if my legs were Jell-O. I lost the energy to even think about what I loved, and being unable to eat or drink in these new medical circumstances turned my once-steady focus to mush and irritability.

I remember asking every person I could find in the hospital if they thought I would ever be able to sing and dance again. I was faced with many apologetic “I don’t knows”, sighs, shrugs, and awkward changing of the topic. However, I remember one occupational therapist gave me words that to her, felt like words of encouragement. She looked at me compassionately, and said, “You never know – the human body is amazing. I had one patient who showed no signs of hope, and a year later, when he was discharged, he only needed a wheelchair!” (These were not exactly the words of encouragement I was looking for.)

With time, patience, and dogged determination, I was eventually discharged from the hospital. What I’m glossing over are the multitudes of surgeries, setbacks and frustrations, because what was the most important was my passion – I never forgot how I missed the stage. Even not being able to talk or stand up on my own, I still visualized me singing and dancing. Without theatre, I felt disconnected, purposeless, a has-been. I missed the vibrant girl I remembered being the first to sign up for auditions, now condemned to a realm of medical isolation.

I had always had a dream of combining song and dialogue in a show of my own design. I love the idea of storytelling through theatre, but as a teen, I didn’t really have much of a story to tell. But sometimes, a setback is an opportunity in disguise. Suddenly, I had a tale of hurdles, triumph, and heart.

Eight years after my coma, I was finally headed towards a life of medical stability. I learned through experience that things can heal with time, and that’s not always the prettiest or easiest way. It was an extremely difficult journey, yet when I started to put together a musical of my life, things felt like they had happened for a reason. Now I had a story to tell, a message to share.

Amy Oestreicher, Gutless & GratefulMy one-woman musical autobiography, Gutless & Grateful, started out as stapled pages of my journal – a few pages from the thousands of journal entries I had completed when unable to eat or drink for years. I selected 16 songs—some of which I had written – that had always resonated with my journey and me, and loosely strung them together to sing for my own therapy. I’d perform Gutless & Grateful for my parents, my dogs, but mostly for myself. Through the songs, I could allow myself a safe place to feel the charged emotions I was still trying to process from years of medical trauma.
With no formal diagnosis, roadmap, or reason to have hope at all, creativity became my lifeline and what allowed me to thrive. Devising theatre from within helped me find words for the loss, grief, and frustration I felt, and words led to gratitude.  To cope with not being able to eat or drink for years, I typed thousands of journal entries to to prove that I was still alive, kicking, and breathing – isolated from the entire world and from my entire former life, but still here, and still desperate to live some kind of substantial, meaningful life.

I called it my “world in a binder”.   My parents called it “Amy’s little play.” It was no surprise when I had many looks of concern and gentle warnings when I decided to book a theatre in New York for my world premiere!

I performed Gutless & Grateful for the first time in NYC in October 2012. It was a frightening, bold, vulnerable, and breathtaking experience. In it, I told everything – the pain, the medical, the joy, the infuriating – with music, drama, and humor, most importantly. I had played “roles” before, but for the first time, I was honestly revealing my own medical and emotional struggles for hundreds of strangers every night. It was a risk to lay my soul bare, but the reward was in how my own vulnerability caused others to become vulnerable and moved by my own struggles.

My show dared to explore a very personal topic – what could have been a tragedy – in a comedic, yet poignant musical –  the culmination of years of struggling in the dark, and the spark in me that refused to die.  Although my circumstances were unexpected, a nuisance, difficult, hard to grapple with, and frustrating, by reenacting my story for others, I rewrote my own narrative.

We are instinctively creative beings.  Through the transformative power of dramatherapy, we gain adaptability and create a positive, empowered attitude toward obstacles, physical or mental struggles, hardships, and trauma.  Our vision is a world where “detours” in life are everyday blessings.

As we enter the new millennium, the world is faced with massive challenges as well as opportunities to solve them.  Communication is a very powerful tool. Words have the power to engage, to move ideas from the fuzzy margins to the focused center of our attention, and to inspire us to think in new ways. Theatre, arts, expressive communication, language, and learning can move us to the center of life’s stage.  Gutless & Grateful empowered me to move forward and spark a sense of rejuvenation, renewal, and hope from within.

When I started sharing my own story, I realized that I wasn’t alone.  Other people were struggling with what I had faced in isolation for years – shame, fear, PTSD, anxiety, depression, loneliness- I wanted to encourage people to start speaking up, and bring marginalized voices into the spotlight. I traveled to theatres, hospitals, classrooms, old friends and leaped at any opportunity to speak my truth and feel it resonate within my body, reintegrating the pre-coma and post-coma halves of myself, and reuniting them with aliveness. When I realized how combining theatre with powerful firsthand experience could transform lives, I developed my little-show-that-could into a mental health advocacy and sexual assault prevention program for students. Nearly losing my life at 18 years old, I’m now reaching out to students at that same pivotal point in their own lives.

Medically, my life is far from perfect, but now when a surgery goes wrong, I use it as more material for my show – if we can’t learn to laugh from hardship, we can’t learn anything. And for me, when I learn, I feel alive – that just as trees grow, change and evolve with every season, I can too. Through Gutless & Grateful, I’m sharing my story and helping others find the gifts and the gratitude in the hardships. And in healing other people, I heal my own self a bit more every day.  I’m not there yet, but just like my show – I’m on the road.

As a performer, all I want to do is give back to the world. Being up on stage and singing is one part of the joy, but what brings the process full circle is knowing that somewhere in the audience, I am affecting someone and making them think in a different way. That is the power of theatre – stirring you to see things differently. Doing what I love, my passion once again can freely flow through my veins, and I’m a person now, not just a patient or a medical miracle.

Passion may not heal 27 surgeries, but passion has healed my heart. Theatre has re-anchored me in that passion. And for that, I am Gutlessly Grateful.


If you want to see Gutless & Grateful, there are upcoming shows!
Boston, February 29
New York, March 11


Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, speaker for RAINN, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning health advocate, actress and playwright, eagerly sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, performance, art and speaking.  As the writer, director and star of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres across the country, earning rave reviews and accolades since it’s BroadwayWorld Award-nominated NYC debut.

As a visual artist, her works have been featured in esteemed galleries and solo exhibitions, and her mixed media  workshops emphasize creativity as an essential mindset.

Amy’s “beautiful detour” inspired her to create the #LoveMyDetour movement, a campaign inspiring people to flourish because of, rather than in spite of challenges.  As the Eastern Regional Recipient of the Great Comebacks Award, Amy has spoken to hundreds of WOCN nurses on behalf of ostomates nationwide.  She is a regular lifestyle, wellness, and arts contributor for several notable online and print publications, and has written for over 50 online magazines and blogs.  on Her story has appeared on the TODAY Show, CBS, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, among others. 

Amy’s passion for the arts as a means of healing and expression led her to devise storytelling workshops for the Transformative Language Arts Network National Conference, the Eating Recovery Center Foundation, and The League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling. 

Determined to bridge the gap of communication between wellness resources on college campuses and students, Amy is currently touring college campuses with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre.

More info at amyoes.com

Into the Storm

by Mel Ryane

Teaching Will by Mel Ryane_email“Why Shakespeare?”

I was recently asked why I thought little kids tackling the works of William Shakespeare would be a swell idea. And, why did I write a book about it and what was that like?

In King Lear, Shakespeare places his protagonist into the torrents of a colossal storm. The withered King bellows in rage while battered by wind and rain. His voice is drowned by thunder and his body lit by flashes of lightening. It is here that Lear meets his inner and outer demons. The scene is one of reckoning and the most beautiful metaphor for any of us attempting to effectively manage the tricky business being a person.

Here are two things I know to be true:

  1. Nothing worth doing is easy
  2. Nobody gets the life they thought they wanted

Okay, maybe out there, some twelve-year-old mapped a life plan and ticked off the goals one by one. The perfect education, the successful career, the blissful relationships, the family, house, car, travel and then a peaceful, pain-free passing. If such a person exists I wouldn’t wish to know them. This would surely be the most boring person on the planet.

No, I’m pretty sure Shakespeare got it right. We will be stymied by storms, we will be challenged and have to rewrite our plans. We will be struck down and have to haul ourselves back up. And with any luck, like Lear after the storm when he finds clarity and sees that he was always loved by Cordelia and finds grace when he has the chance to love her back, we too will find meaning in our stories.

So, back to the question: Why didn’t I adapt Pat The Bunny for little kids or Clifford the Big Red Dog?

Because I remember being a child and my storms were big. Because I’ve observed kids in school yards and their storms, too, are filled with torrential rain and blasting gales. They are tossed to the gravel, sometimes physically and often emotionally. Shakespeare’s characters are motivated by power, revenge, or love. So are we adults and, I guarantee you, so are kids.

I had a notion that if I could encourage a child to stand up, spill the big, fat words of Shakespeare’s verse, identify with power, revenge, or love and do this in front of an audience, empowerment would be achieved. I had an idea that in climbing the highest mountain, and Shakespeare is pretty much the Kilimanjaro of play writing, kids would glimpse their own greatness. It is my belief that once we experience even a smidgeon of our greatness we’ll spend our lives in search of that sensation again.

This is why Shakespeare. His climb is the highest and most difficult. And, guess what? I was right about kids and the Bard. They get it.

In my years of working with children and the works of William Shakespeare I have been thrilled as they, over and over, surpassed my expectations and, more significantly, their own.

I was in a creative desert when I landed on the idea of starting The Shakespeare Club in a public school. I’d left my acting career at the point, like King Lear, when I first tasted bitterness on my tongue. I didn’t want to be a bitter person. I forged ahead and fought my tempests in search of purpose and point. I wandered a Hollywood landscape learning, changing, exploring and when I found myself, flat on my back in a kind of California wasteland, the idea of kids and Shakespeare floated into my head and I pursued. As it turned out, it was another storm. I was a fish out of water. I was an idealist, a romantic and the kids buffeted me like a rag doll. This is the nature of story. This is plot. We were all characters and we all wanted power, revenge, and certainly love.

A couple of weeks into The Shakespeare Club I was having dinner with my friend, Maggie. I’m pretty sure I looked shell-shocked as I recounted my tales of trying to inspire these kids and how they were running the show that I, as the adult, was supposed to be running. Maggie found my stories funny, with a “you’ll laugh about this later” kind of chuckle. I didn’t see any comic potential in my anecdotes. From my perspective I was center stage in a tragedy of my own doing. Shortly after our dinner, Maggie gifted me with a beautiful journal she’d made with Shakespeare’s portrait on the cover. She handed me the notebook and said, “Write this stuff down. I will only give you this if you promise to keep notes.” This was how, after my first year of The Shakespeare Club, I was able to write a memoir. I kept the promise and wrote copious notes for the entire six years of my running the club.

I learned pretty quickly in working with children that I could only empathize if I remembered what it was like to be a child. This thinking led me into the structure for the book which is my experience with The Shakespeare Club entwined with my own story of being a child, wanting to be an actor, becoming a professional and then the difficult career leave-taking that had me bereft until I found joy in marrying Shakespeare and children. The book is set up in two block of ten chapters with an intermission and encore. Those ten chapters represent the ten beats of an iambic line of verse. I don’t expect anyone to notice this, but is my little secret that gave me a structure for the book. I had the first draft down in six months and took another four to revise. I guess it’s true that I found a way to laugh in looking back at that first year but I was also slightly re-traumatized every time I went in to tweak the writing. The first year for any teacher can be a tough one. And then it gets better. The kids learned and I learned. An appetite for greatness had been set in all our hearts. No matter how challenging the text or the relationships we knew there was a prize. Empowerment.

I’m often asked who the audience for this memoir is and, though I risk sounding grandiose, the list is pretty vast. First, I would say, teachers. There has to be some satisfaction for a teacher reading of an amateur attempting their vocation. Then parents, theatre professionals, volunteers, and anyone who ever had to give up a dream. Finally, I like to say, anyone who was ever a child.


Mel Ryane is the author of “Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t” (Familius). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, dog and cat.

She will be presenting at the Power of Words conference in September 2015.

 

Along the Learning Edge: A Personal Journey

by Caleb Winebrenner

WordItOut-word-cloud-950849 Once a mentor of mine put forth a question “What is your learning edge?” By this, she meant the boundary line between all of our knowledge up until now, and our current experience in the moment. It’s the place where you are feeling the most discomfort, and hopefully, the most excitement about how you are growing and stretching beyond what you previously knew to be true. I find “the learning edge” a useful concept, intellectually. On a personal level, I find that learning edges are places of deep vulnerability.

A few months ago, I came face-to-face with a learning edge that I didn’t even know existed for me. A friend and fellow storyteller asked,”Why don’t you ever talk about your own wisdom journey?”

I tell wisdom stories. I love the parables, the folktales, the dilemma stories. I love what they teach us. Instead of lecturing about deep and profound human truths, I try to find the stories that demonstrate those truths, and demonstrate the power of the human mind and spirit to grow and overcome challenges. I do this, as my friend pointed out, while saying nothing of my own. Facing that incongruity has prompted learning and healing in new directions, and a profound reorientation with my work as a storyteller.

Integrity

Walking along this learning edge, I am discovering that the inner journey of the storyteller directly influences the storymaking. As a young teller, I have mostly concerned myself with questions of talent, ability, and technique. I’ve focused on developing a “style” or “voice” to my storytelling. But here, at the learning edge, I am not concerned with those questions. I am concerned with a deeper question of my own healing: in a word, integrity.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” By this he means that the talents, abilities, and styles of teaching that most directly serve the strengths of a teacher are those rooted in his or her integrity as a person. Much like good teaching comes from the integrity of the teacher, good storytelling comes from the integrity of the storyteller. In being aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I have discovered and learned from stories that speak more to my own experience and growth than to some abstract “truth.”

Love

There is a word for the stories that speak deeply to experience. They are the stories we love . M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled , “I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I have adopted his definition, and applied it to stories. In other words, the stories we love, in the deepest way, are the ones that extend us out into the world or deep into ourselves, in order to nurture our own or another’s spiritual growth. As a part of my journey along the learning edge, I have parted ways with stories I like and respect, to give more room instead to the stories I love (such as the one I share below). If the stories I tell cannot nurture my own growth, then they are not authentically mine to tell. I have no heartfelt relationship with them. Given this, then stories I do not love certainly cannot nurture growth in others, which is why I began to tell wisdom stories in the first place.

Wisdom

M. Scott Peck also wrote that “Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and wisdom.” The problem of not sharing my own wisdom journey is itself the place where my wisdom can be created at least if I let it. Looking deeply at my own life, and the painful, shadowy, and difficult facing of my problems, is the root of any sincere claim I can make to having wisdom.

In other words, the most profound shift in my storytelling has not come in choosing, “I will tell wisdom stories,” but rather in choosing, “I will pursue wisdom as a part of my life and healing.” Only when wisdom is in my life can it be in my stories. On my best days, the stories I tell are the most sublime expression of who I am. On my worst days (and any of the days in between), they serve, like a mindfulness bell, as reminders of who I hope to be.

This has meant facing moments where I feel I have no integrity, no love, and no  wisdom. For example, how can I tell a story of overcoming anger when it is such a frequent struggle? This is the story I tell, a Zen parable:

A samurai goes to a monastery and says, “I want to know about heaven and hell.” A monk, undisturbed in his meditation by the ferocious samurai, says “Such knowing requires discipline, friend.”

The samurai grows cross. “Of course I have discipline! I am a samurai!”

“Alright. Such knowing requires patience, my friend,” replies the monk.

“I am patient! I — I have waited for days to seize a castle or fight an opponent!”

“Alright. Such knowing requires integrity, my friend,” replies the monk.

“Integrity! I am a Samurai! A master of honor!” And he grows furious, even drawing his sword over his head.

The monks still sits calmly. He says, “See that feeling? That is hell.”

The samurai breathes, deeply, and puts his sword away. He breathes again, and smiles.

“See that feeling, friend? That… that is heaven.”

In this story, when I tell it, I am both the monk and the samurai not just in my miming, voices, or any of the other tools of technique but in my visceral, in-the-moment living of the story. I know from experience the heat of anger, and I know from practicing meditation the coolness of the monk’s calm.

In pursuing certain kinds of stories, my life has to live those themes for the story to be authentic. The monk and samurai story, at first, had something to teach me. I told it because I needed to experience that lesson for myself. Sharing that vulnerability with students and audiences gave me the resolve to know my anger better, and pursue the monk’s equanimity. It became a story I love, because it holds space for my learning edge.

Admittedly, I still have far to go in life before I master my darker places or lay any claim to “being wise.” But, stories like that one I can now tell from a place of empathetic awareness and experience. In the story, I honor my integrity, love, and wisdom. In honoring that in myself, I can then share all that, in abundance, with others.

Recommended reading

  • The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life , by Parker J.
    Palmer
  • The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual
    Growth

Caleb Headshot 2013Caleb Winebrenner is a storyteller and teaching artist based in Tempe, Arizona. His unique performances craft world folklore and wisdom tales into warm, engaging events. Trained as an actor, mime, and teacher, his performances and workshops draw out the natural warmth, intelligence, curiosity, and wisdom of all present. He especially loves the opportunity to engage with young people around the issues that matter to them, often through the lens of a parable or story. As Paulo Coelho once said, “The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gap where everything else has crumbled.” Find him on Facebook and Twitter @storytellrcaleb.

Baking Pies & Introducing Gems

By Seema Reza

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One of my favorite quotes by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, founder of the TLA Network, comes from this interview with Joy Jacobson:

“In a lot of MFA programs and writing conferences there’s a real setup for competition. I’ve been to writing conferences where everybody’s lining up with what they perceive as the best poet and vying for validation. There’s the sense that there’s just one pie and there’s so many of us; some people are just going to get bigger pieces. TLA’s answer to that is to bake more pies.”

I love quoting this.  I have quoted this so many times, I think nearly everyone who has talked writing with me has heard it.  I quote it on a page of this very blog.  Because, yes, yes, yes!  Bake more pies, make space at the table for every voice.  We’ve all had that tired conversation about the ‘death of poetry’ and I think this idea is the answer to it–poetry begins to die when it is made an exclusionary practice, a privilege.  Great art inspires more great art.  When we welcome more people to poetry, more people keep it alive.  More people write poems, more people read poems.

In a conversation with Ursula Rucker before a performance of REDBone: A Biomythography, writer and TLA Member Mahogany L. Browne said, “Before I found your work, I didn’t realize there was space for my voice in poetry.”  Browne has written books, edited anthologies, founded the amazing Penmanship press, and empowers voices from all margins and corners of society.  First she discovered the necessity of her own voice and then she set to work freeing the voices of others.  Mirriam-Goldberg says, “For so many people who resonate with TLA, it names what they have been moving toward their whole lives as a writer or storyteller working with others around social change.  individual practice dovetails with community practice.  What are you doing to make and keep community and foster healthy communities?”  How much poorer would the literary, art and social justice communities be if Browne hadn’t felt she could claim poetry, had instead decided to stay silent, to be an accountant?*  And where would we be if we hadn’t had the opportunity to hear her?

As facilitators of TLA work, we bear witness to less literarily accomplished voices that ought to be heard.  So often I hear a piece of writing in a workshop and feel an intense aha!  I wish everyone could read it.  But the publishing world can be stupid discouraging, especially to a novice writer who has put so much on the line by the courageous act of touching pen to paper while looking inward.  Self publishing on a personal blog or on social media is an option, of course, and a solid one, but the audience is limited to an individual’s existing circle.  In order to spread empathy, which I believe is one of the most essential uses of writing and reading, one has to confront the unfamiliar.

In an attempt to facilitate that, I’m proud to introduce a new section of this blog that I hope will grow and flourish and place a wide variety of voices and perspectives on the power of writing in one place: Gems from the Workshops.   I hope you’ll encourage a new voice to submit writing.

*in case the IRS is reading this, there’s nothing wrong with accountants, we need accountants.

 

Seema Reza is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, DC, where she coordinates and facilitates a unique multi-hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a population struggling with emotional and physical injuries.  She serves as a council member-at-large for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and curates the TLA Blog.