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Teaching 'Empathy, Precision, and Affirmation of Human Values'

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In a speech to the New York State English Council last fall, Gerald Chapman, the director of the Young Playwrights Festival, discussed teaching playwriting to children. The following is an edited excerpt from his talk.

Why should we encourage children to write plays? First and foremost, because plays have to do with human beings, with the intercourse between people on a stage. This is very important because it means that fundamentally, at the base of any play, are human values, even in a play where the actors are imitating animals.

I remember when I was working in an elementary school in Brooklyn, I asked the children what they thought was the most important thing about plays. A little 10-year-old Chinese girl, Pei-Shun, shot up her hand and said, "Plays mustn't be racist." And she was absolutely right. I wrote that on the blackboard as the first thing that one must understand about playwriting. Obviously what she was getting at is that plays must not only not be racist, they must not be sexist; they must affirm human values.

A second reason is that in playwriting the imagination is forced, willy-nilly, to work much more rigorously than, perhaps, in story-telling. You may find someone who writes in a short story, "and they held hands together and talked until dawn." Well, that's a fairly awful cliche, but I suppose it might just pass muster (just) in a Harlequin romance. But you could not possibly act it on a stage. The imagination would have to flesh the sentence out. You would have to ask, "Well, what did they talk about? Did they only hold hands?"

The rigor of dialogue, the particularities, the specificity of what is actually going on on the stage is very important, and that has got to be shown in a play.

Third, I think that playwriting can stimulate the kind of precision and observation that is necessary to encourage empathy. The emotional experience of watching a play is, I think, primary. You can't just write anything and engage that experience. The imagination is not a blank check.

There are certain aspects of playwriting that will particularly appeal to certain types of children. For example, playwriting may appeal to children who feel that their experience is, in some important ways, not expressed or is even suppressed, such as a group of girls in a classroom largely dominated by boys, or perhaps some minority children for whom English is a second language.

Those children will find in playwriting an outlet for their experience that can be observed by the rest of the class in a lesson or outside class in the school play. In this way, playwriting and drama generally can squeeze open a door that may have been slammed shut by prejudice.

For example, in the East End of London, I was working with some Bengali children for whom English was a second language. Their first language was of course Bengali and they could not actually write a play in their first, home language because it was not appropriate for expressing the kinds of experience that they were undergoing in the East End of London, where each of them had been beaten up at least once by white racist youths.

This was something extraordinary. Asking a playwright to write a play in a second language is a tall order but these children were actually forced to do it. They wanted to express something urgent in their lives, and the mode they chose was drama because they wanted this urgency to be demonstrated on a platform, they wanted others to see it. All these elements forced their imagination to work in a very rigorous, almost scientific way.

Another example is of a 15-year-old girl who wrote a play, mostly about herself. In one scene there was a description of what was happening outside her window in the street when her brother got involved in a fight with the neighbors over a football. The police were called and there was a big fight and the police started arresting people and so on.

She wrote it entirely in reported speech, as stage directions: "And then the police car came and then my mother went out and hit the policeman over the head and then my dad got arrested and got pushed into the car, then Johnny went up and got my dad out of the car and then my mother came out with a saucepan," and so on.

It was very funny to read, but we asked Andrea, "Why didn't you write the dialogue, why didn't you write what people actually said?" And she said, "Well, I weren't there. I only watched it through the window." Here we have a wonderful image of this girl (and perhaps all the other girls in the street) looking through their windows at the fracas that was going on outside, almost cheering, as it were, from the sidelines.

We said to her, "Well, you know, you can use your imagination. Why don't you try?" And she said, "Oh, can you do that in a play?" and we said "Yes." So she went away; it was an extraordinary thing: She came back with the dialogue and it was wonderful.

This was an enormous leap for her: to understand that you can actually write things that you don't literally hear. And in this respect, playwriting can also investigate, partly through fiction and fantasy, other worlds--experiences you haven't necessarily had yourself.

Ican give another example of a play that tries not only to push open the door of prejudice but also, by doing so, to force a much more radical judgment on society by the audience. The play is called "The Bronx Zoo," and it is by a young Puerto Rican girl of about 16 who lives in the South Bronx. Her play is about the tendency for people in the South Bronx to live in categories--there are Puerto Ricans here and the blacks there and the whites there, etc. That's exactly how she described it to me.

The people are caged like animals in the zoo, and there is one character, Junito, who is described at the beginning as El Sucio. In other words, a dirty man, a rat. The point of the play is to show how Junito, this El Sucio, becomes criminalized, how the environment that he is in forces him to become a mugger. The interesting thing is that at the very beginning of the play she gets Junito to ask the audience not to judge him in a stereotypical way.

I'll quote what this character actually says: "You call me El Sucio and refuse to walk next to me because you are scared of where I am from. I ask for help but you will not lend a hand. Why should you get mad when I take what I want?" And he is referring to stealing. "Now you know why I have the dreams of a foolish man. In this place that is not enough. The Bronx Zoo never is."

Then at the end of the play, after we have seen what has happened to him, he says: "Are you afraid? You call me animal. But you will not tame me. When I am gentle, you will not listen because you are so sure of what I am. Is this the only language you understand?," and he throws a knife which sticks in the floor and then he goes on, "Or do I always have to kill until I prove my point? Do you like freedom? Then set me free also. Free me from your false persecutions, your judgments, and this, The Bronx Zoo."

Now, what is interesting is that Junito is a criminal. The play is not saying, "Listen, not all Puerto Ricans are muggers. Here is a Puerto Rican who is not a mugger, therefore all Puerto Ricans are all right." No, it is actually taking the stereotype and shaking it by its lapels, as it were, and saying, "Yes, here is a Puerto Rican who does become a mugger and who does become a criminal." Then it says, "But why?"

Now, we are not asked at the end of the play to judge Junito. Not at all. Junito is already judged, and indeed convicted. No, we are asked to judge a whole society, not so much against the author's vision of society but rather against our own, and that widening of the terms of reference is precisely what I think a play at its best can do.

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