Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the

May 9, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Of Divas, and Gentle Men

If you’re looking for a bleeding-edge downtown

performance

art series, look no farther than suburban New Jersey. New Brunswick

to be exact.

At George Street Playhouse, the Diva Project — with an added

component

for Gentle Men — is in its third year. The solo performance

festival,

curated by Ted Sod, offers eight solo acts in four double bills,

beginning

Wednesday, May 9, through Saturday, May 19, presented in the

playhouse’s

intimate 80-seat Next Stage theater. The series features divas Kirsten

Childs, Baby Jane Dexter, Liza Colon-Zayas, and Tonya Pinkins. Gentle

men are Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Dan Domingues, Frank Ingrasciotta, and

Ron Taylor. The 8 p.m. shows will take place concurrently with the

mainstage production of Arthur Laurents’ play, "Claudia

Lazlo."

"This is not just a 45-minute show. It’s absolutely about

teaching,"

explains Ted Sod, director of education at George Street and curator

of the project that features professional playwrights and actors who

are also teachers. "The 45-minute shows are to give the artists

a chance to try out some new material and also to introduce

contemporary

solo art to New Jersey."

The heart of the Diva Project is the two-week period that these

teaching

artists spend in the classroom guiding kids in creating their own

written and performance pieces. This aspect of the project culminates

in an evening of student performances, presented free, on Wednesday,

May 23, at 6:30 p.m.

While this is the project’s third year, it’s the first that offers

workshops for boys as well as girls. Both the concept for the project

and its original manifestations were strictly girls-only affairs.

"There were no boys allowed in the project — even I wasn’t

allowed in it," says Sod.

Now both women and men artists lead classroom projects for single-sex

groups of both girls and boys in grades 7 and 8 at the Paul Robeson

Community Theme School for the Arts, a public middle school, and

grades

9 though 12 at New Brunswick High School. Both schools’ student bodies

are predominantly African American and Latino.

Sod’s project had its genesis in 1991 when he was working in Seattle.

"This was the time of the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill

controversy.

Then came Mary Pipher’s `Reviving Ophelia’ book, followed by other

studies, by the beginning of Take Our Daughters to Work Day,"

he says. "These all led to the realization that the subjugation

of girls to boys begins in the fifth grade."

"American culture puts so much emphasis on attractiveness above

all else that girls start to subjugate themselves at a young age,"

Sod continues. "In the middle school years, there’s a profound

silencing of girls’ voices. They begin to validate boys’ intelligence

over their own — they even validate the boys’ sense of humor.

I wanted to do something using solo performers, solo artists who have

been creating their own work. We send them into the classroom to get

kids writing, give them their voice. We’re trying to give role models

to those girls."

"Solo art has been very much the platform of women and minorities,

because theater is still dominated by the patriarchy," says Sod.

"This solo performance boom has been very much about women. And

a lot of these people are doing comedy because that’s the only

platform

they have for dealing with what’s happened to them."

The students work in gender separated groups: "It keeps the kids

more honest; and that way, we know the girls won’t be silenced and

the boys won’t be showing off. It was always my intention to focus

on the girls, to create a place that would be safe for girls, where

they could explore their feelings, a place that allowed them creative

self-expression."

"We titled the boy’s project `Gentle Men’ because a sense of

nurturing

is good for boys just as being assertive is good for girls. Boys have

the same issue of silencing, but in different ways. Boys have not

been allowed to express their own emotions. And homophobia, which

I consider a form of misogyny, is rampant in junior high school. For

boys to be nurturing is to be considered weak.

"At George Street we have realized that we are the art education

in the public schools," he says. "As head of the education

department here, I personally have three philosophies. That in this

time of eviscerated budgets, arts organizations have a civic

responsibility

to the public schools. That criminal and creative energy is the same

kind of energy, so we try to give kids creative tools to deal with

their energy and to make them emotionally literate. And that

compassion

is the highest form of intelligence."

When the voluble Sod announces, "I want kids to have opportunities

I didn’t have," we ask about his unconventional path into theater.

Sod grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where his father was a

laborer. He describes his mother as "a frustrated housewife who

became a antiques dealer who, after the flood of 1972, when people

left and left their antiques behind, and she dragged them out, and

cleaned them up and sold them." Neither parent finished high

school

and there was no art of any kind in Sod’s home. His two brothers,

one significantly older, the other five years younger, both still

live in Wilkes-Barre. "I’m the only one who escaped," he notes

with glee.

At 18, Sod left Pennsylvania and began to study theater.

He arrived in New York at age 26 and has worked as a playwright,

director,

screenwriter, actor, and producer. Before joining the staff of George

Street, he was an artist-in-residence at Seattle Repertory Theater

for five seasons. Sod directed George Street’s 2000 production of

"Wit" as well as five of its touring shows. He recently

assisted

director Dan Sullivan on the world premiere of "10 Unknowns"

by Jon Robin Baitz at Lincoln Center; the show will move to Broadway

in the fall. Having devoted his energies to work in arts education

for the past 15 years, he says he’s now moving back into directing.

This year’s Diva Project will reach about 100 students, including

some high school students who have already participated at the junior

high school level. "I am adamant about quality over quantity,"

says Sod. "We have four adults working with each group of 20

kids."

"In this age of the splintering of the nuclear family, we have

much more needy students, and students who are coming to school with

less moral character. And I don’t mean moral in a religious sense.

I mean we have students without a sense of what’s right or wrong.

"A lot of us learned this from fairy tales, then television took

up the slack." From "I Love Lucy" to "The Brady

Bunch"

and "The Cosby Show," Sod says "we had plots and subplots

in which a character had to make a moral decision. In losing that

formula television, we lost one more way kids develop character."

"The work itself is about writing, primarily. Our culture is so

visual now and young people are tremendously resistant to writing.

The real resistance is that thinking precedes writing, and our culture

is letting other people do our thinking for us. So getting people

to think again and write is very complex and tough." Artists,

classroom teachers, and curators — Alison Sussman is Sod’s female

associate — spend two days in orientation devising a workable

structure for the residency.

"Structure is vital. Our first goal is to get writing out of

them,"

says Sod. "It’s like getting to Chicago, we don’t care how they

get there, just so long as they arrive." The student writing can

be personal, autobiographical, or imaginary, or a mixture of all

three.

It can take the form of a monologue, a poem, song lyrics, words with

drawing, or a dialogue or play. "It’s about finding their creative

voice. Then, when the writing is done, we start to introduce them

to the concept of performing."

What are Sod’s goals for the young people in the project? "I don’t

want to delude anybody that the arts offer an easy way to make a

living.

But entertainment is our biggest export in this country — so

obviously

jobs are available," says Sod. "And it’s a viable thing to

teach. In fact, why aren’t the movie and corporate entertainment

industries

investing in our schools? Why aren’t they training our young people?

But most of all, I want people to be emotionally literate and to be

compassionate, not have to resort to violence and

self-destruction."

— Nicole Plett

The Diva Project/Gentle Men Solo Performance Festival,

George Street Playhouse, Next Stage, 9 Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $10. All performances at 8 p.m.

Cabaret performer Baby Jane Dexter and Tony-nominee Ron Taylor,

Wednesday, May 9. Performance artist Liza Colon-Zayas and

actor-comedian

Frank Ingrasciotta, Thursday, May 10. Baby Jane Dexter and Ron

Taylor, Friday, May 11. Liza Colon-Zayas and Frank Ingrasciotta,

Saturday, May 12.

Kirsten Childs, award-winning playwright of "The Bubbly

Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin," and actor Dan Domingues,

Wednesday, May 16. Tony-winning actress Tonya Pinkins and

multi-cultural

artist Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Thursday, May 17. Childs and

Domingues,

Friday, May 18. Pinkins and Bonin-Rodriguez, Saturday, May

19.

The Diva Project/Gentle Men, George Street

Playhouse ,

Main Stage, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Student

performances mentored by eight artist-educators. Free. Wednesday,

May 23, 6:30 p.m.


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