New Actors & New Writers Bring Words to Life for Students
Arriving at the 22nd floor of an industrial building off 8th Ave, a few blocks up from Penn Station, you wouldn’t expect to find a 50-seat black box theater. A class of male high school students, about to attend a performance, was also surprised.
Currently offering nine titles, the American Place Theatre’s “Literature to Life” program presents an actor playing multiple roles, and delivers verbatim adaptations of the writers’ works. It doesn’t matter if students have read the book. “We cheer anything,” executive director, David Kener told Education Update at the theater. “Students can say, ‘I’ve read part of it, I’ve read none of it, I’ve never heard of it or it’s my favorite book of all time. We take great writing, combine it with great acting, and bring the words to life.”
Formerly based on 46th street and devoted to discovering new writers and nurturing new actors, the theater now focuses on “Literature to Life”, which Kener calls a literacy program. Audiences range from middle school students through college. Presentations include pre- and post performance discussions between students and actors. The company provides study guides, staff development, and artist-in-residence opportunities. Most recently, the theater sponsored a showcase of its current titles in early October at the Museum of the City of New York. Among those included were Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, Kaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
Kener grew up in Brooklyn, attended a Jewish day school, and intended to major in orthotics and prosthetics, or limbs and braces, he said, because his parents, Holocaust survivors, expected him to enter a “respectable profession.” He discovered acting as a New York University undergraduate. Though successful in theater, television, and films, Kener realized “it was all about me. I’d done it and so what?” He met Wynn Handman, the theater’s co-founder and artistic director, acted in one of the plays—a series of vignettes about immigration, became education director, and assumed his current role in 2001.
Through partnerships with arts organizations, “Literature to Life” has performed at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and schools and universities nationwide. A collaboration with the New York Historical Society last year tied exhibits on slavery, with a theatrical production based on Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and a contemporary art show. For Kener, this is the ideal approach to education. “We need to get people to think expansively about everything,” he said, noting that these experiences tend to motivate students to read.
In selecting texts to adapt for “Literature to Life” performances, Kener looks for “active language, great characters and stories that need to be told, that take you on a journey.” Every year, the theater honors an author of a novel being performed. Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, will receive the 2008 award. Kener’s eyeing Life of Pi and Fahrenheit 451 for future performances.
For information about “Literature to Life”, go to www.literaturetolife.org #