EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here to read Dustin K. Britt’s review of part one (the workshop reading) of this new play last Jan. 28th at Duke University in Durham, NC.
The Civilians team, led by director Steve Cosson and playwright Ethan Lipton, has returned to the Triangle for a second two-week residency at Duke in the hopes of moving closer to a final version of their “school-choice” play, now unfortunately entitled A Course of Adventure.
In January, four workshop actors served as interviewers, editors, and performers. For the Oct. 4th Duke Performances presentation of this play at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall, a new cast of six was assembled to focus on developing character and structure.
In the January workshop, Ethan Lipton’s subject matter served as blueprint, the original interviews as concrete foundation, and the public reading as the frame. With Version 2.0, it is time to connect all the wiring and plaster the walls. There are a few differences in the excerpts and, very importantly, their order. In stark contrast with the workshop’s random sorting, the new reading has a topic-based outline, which is usually clear.
Presented in a traditional actor-at-podium format at Motorco Music Hall, the event included a PowerPoint presentation, identifying character pseudonyms and occupations/roles.
Those who watched Triangle news coverage last spring could probably unmask the pseudonymous references the N.C. State Board of Education’s controversial closing of Kestrel Heights High School last April. In this interwoven segment, we first hear reflections from Dwayne, [Kestrel Heights] Executive Director. Dwayne defines the problem: KHS had awarded 399 diplomas since its first class graduated in 2008. However, 160 of the graduates hadn’t actually taken all of the required courses. Dwayne tries to soften the blow at first, laying out casually that there were “mistakes in completion checklists” and a “misalignment” in course assignments. He admits that this was a big problem, but he is far from hysterical.
Bounce over to Cher, a nerdy public policy professor who matter-of-factly points out the far-reaching implications of such an infraction, while a pompous charter-school consultant named Charlie rationally explains that a full shutdown of the school is the best course of action, since such errors poison the water of the charter system.
The point here is clear: charter schools do not always have the experience or expertise to catch problems like this before they snowball out of control. Those at nearly every level are in agreement. This section of A Course of Adventure connects all of the wires. A sturdy wall surrounds the topic that lets us know exactly where we are, allowing dramatist Ethan Lipton to use a great deal of shorthand.
Not all segments are as structurally sound; some topics and insights are just sprinkled around.
Such walls are not always mandatory. Some enlightening information is presented by charter-school founder Nicole as she enthusiastically snaps her fingers, demonstrating the robotic methods of “scripted teaching” (which the interviewee incorrectly generalized as “direct instruction”). Her monologue is interspersed with the much broader topic of Educational Practice, which pops up from time to time.
The play does its best work when the wires connect to form a story segment, when a character’s content is so surprising and new that we take notice, or when an emotional connection can be made. This occurs rarely in this play — largely because the characters are so isolated. Lipton has done his best to intercut monologues to mimic dialogue; but until the play is fully staged, it is difficult to see where the relationships present themselves.
The best example comes from charter-school parents Idris and Angela who stand as a team, fighting for their child — a girl with ADHD and a learning disability who received little help from an inexperienced and ineffectual charter school.
Andie and German-American husband Michael shared a different dynamic — standing a few feet away from each other and telling their stories (and sometimes conflicting perspectives) as though from separate households. We know more about them than about their child.
In its current form, the play relies too heavily on the input of higher-ups. Yes, administrators, consultants, and politicians are the architects of this system. Lipton argues that he wants the play to focus on the “decision makers.” This may serve his mission well, but it does a disservice to storytelling. The audience is more engaged when hearing from teachers and parents. I wish that we had heard from a student or two, to see how these policies directly affect a child. When I asked about it after the show, Lipton pointed out that they interviewed some students and that they had interesting things to say, but that “what’s going to happen to them is going to happen to them,” regardless of which school they attend. Therefore, their perspective would be limited.
That is when I, a teacher and a playwright, have to ask, “What can this play do for us?” In All My Sons by Arthur Miller, we learn more about the impact of wartime decision makers by watching the Keller family argue in the backyard than we would from lengthy monologues with FDR and Truman. The only people that we hear from about this issue are those in charge. I want to hear from the voiceless: the custodial staff, the teacher assistants, and the secretaries whose lives are impacted by these monstrous decisions.
With the state threatening to hand over control of five of its public schools to a charter-school operator for “fixing,” the voices of those “in the trenches” has never been more important in North Carolina education. Nobody at the school level likes any of this, but those voices are squelched in the media. In a landscape of endless possibilities, I am disappointed that The Civilians would choose to continue to ignore the most important stakeholders.
In the end, the play is just too academic, which may just be the nature of a reading. Hopefully with staging, The Civilians can create a play that engages our hearts as well as our minds, even if it cannot change them.
The Civilians + Ethan Lipton in A COURSE OF ADVENTURE (Duke Performances, Oct. 4 at Motorco Music Hall in Durham).
THE SHOW: https://dukeperformances.duke.edu/events/civilians-ethan-lipton-school-project/, http://www.motorcomusic.com/event/1512579-civilians-ethan-lipton-durham/, and https://www.facebook.com/events/318138691977903/.
PRESENTER: http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/dukeperformances, and https://twitter.com/DukePerformance.
VENUE: http://motorcomusic.com/, https://www.facebook.com/motorco/, and https://twitter.com/motorcomh.
The Civilians (Brooklyn, NY investigative theater company): http://www.thecivilians.org/ (official website), http://www.facebook.com/TheCivilians (Facebook page), http://twitter.com/Civilians (Twitter page), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Civilians (Wikipedia), and http://www.youtube.com/theciviliansnyc (YouTube).
Ethan Lipton (Brooklyn, NY playwright): http://www.coffee-breath.com/ (official website), http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsL/lipton-ethan.html (Doollee.com: The Playwrights Database), https://www.facebook.com/ethan.lipton (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/ethanlipton (Twitter page).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.