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
art series, look no farther than suburban New Jersey. New Brunswick
to be exact.
At George Street Playhouse, the Diva Project — with an added
for Gentle Men — is in its third year. The solo performance
curated by Ted Sod, offers eight solo acts in four double bills,
Wednesday, May 9, through Saturday, May 19, presented in the
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
"This is not just a 45-minute show. It’s absolutely about
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
solo art to New Jersey."
The heart of the Diva Project is the two-week period that these
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
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
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
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
"We titled the boy’s project `Gentle Men’ because a sense of
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
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
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
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
At 18, Sod left Pennsylvania and began to study theater.
He arrived in New York at age 26 and has worked as a playwright,
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
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
"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
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
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
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
But entertainment is our biggest export in this country — so
jobs are available," says Sod. "And it’s a viable thing to
teach. In fact, why aren’t the movie and corporate entertainment
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
— Nicole Plett
George Street Playhouse, Next Stage, 9 Livingston Avenue, New
Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $10. All performances at 8 p.m.
Wednesday, May 9. Performance artist Liza Colon-Zayas and
Frank Ingrasciotta, Thursday, May 10. Baby Jane Dexter and Ron
Taylor, Friday, May 11. Liza Colon-Zayas and Frank Ingrasciotta,
Saturday, May 12.
Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin," and actor Dan Domingues,
Wednesday, May 16. Tony-winning actress Tonya Pinkins and
artist Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Thursday, May 17. Childs and
Friday, May 18. Pinkins and Bonin-Rodriguez, Saturday, May
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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