Till You’re Done Growing Up: An Open Letter to My Theater Students

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The All City ensembles are part of a free Chicago Public School program which provides opportunities for collaborative arts making to CPS students. This spring, I directed the All City Theater Ensemble with fellow teaching artist Ashley Winston. Our 8th through 12th grade students created an original performance called “Listen,” which explored the theme of voice and which they performed at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. This is an open letter to my students.

Dear All City Ensemble,

I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating since our show last month at the Harris Theater.

This spring, Saturday afternoons were my favorite part of the week, and that’s because of you. It was inspiring to see you dive in wholeheartedly to the process of creating an original performance that was fun and full of meaning for you and for your audience. It was a joy for me to talk, read, write and bring about a show about ideas that matter with some cool and interesting people. (That’s you.) I felt proud and moved by the energy and commitment you brought to rehearsal—reading Langston Hughes, Casandra Lopez and Afzal Ahmed Syed; discussing race and music and community; writing poems, rants and new definitions; blocking and choreographing and memorizing.

Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’re not sure if your students get it—that is, whatever you’re wanting them to get—you’re not sure what they take away. I hope you learned something about trying new things and messing up and trying them again. I hope you discovered something about taking risks and setting boundaries. I hope we created a space where you felt safe and respected. I hope you gained a sense of how to make something from scratch, from just an idea, of how to collaborate with a group, of how to say yes, and. I hope you learned some things about theater and writing—about rhythm and repetition and imagery, about physicality and blocking and specificity. I hope you walked away feeling heard. I hope you continued to develop a sense of your unique voice and some thoughts on how you might like to express that in the world.

I found a tribe and a home in theater when I was your age. (At which time I was obsessed with Prince the way some of you are obsessed with Drake and One Direction.) I loved how theater brought worlds into being. I loved telling stories. I loved living in stories. I loved the way the kids in a show fell in love with each other, the friendships and flirtations that came about from hanging out and getting to know one other. I loved the challenge of theater—all the skills it called into play, the ways it made me stretch. I loved the energy that sparked between performers, crew and audience.

I think you felt that energy that comes from working on a show with an ensemble you’ve come to know during the weeks of rehearsal. I hope you’ll continue to learn from one another. I hope you made some memories and some friends that will stick around a while. I know a lot of you had hurdles to overcome to be part of All City—you shuffled schedules, battled illness, juggled school and other extracurricular activities, memorized lines and blocking. I want you to remember the feeling of accomplishment you had that Sunday afternoon at the Harris. Take out that feeling whenever you need it.

I couldn’t find the right song for the end of our piece. I wanted something that related to our theme of finding your voice and asking to be heard. I wanted it to be uplifting, a little anthemic, but not too hokey, not too on the nose. I fell in love with the refrain in Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song “Wonderful Everyday.”

I’m gonna get by when the going get rough                                               I’m gonna love life ’til I’m done growing up                                                     And when I go down                                                                                             I’mma go down swinging                                                                                   My eyes still smiling                                                                                           And my heart still singing

Here’s the secret no one tells you about growing up—it never really feels like you do. I think that’s a good thing. Approach with caution those who think they’re done growing up. There’s always something to learn, something to love about life. We can always ask the questions I heard you ask in our discussions, the questions you ask in your performance: Who am I in the world? How do people see me? Who do I want to be? I hope for you what I hope for myself: that you can love life till you’re done growing up and that you’ll keep growing (learning, listening, dreaming, evolving) till your life is done—a long, long time from now.

Have a beautiful summer, young artists.

Love,                                                                                                                     Maia

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A Handful of Residencies

Regular readers may remember I resolved to finish The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures by the end of March and also that that was going to be a tall order. Well, I’ve made significant headway, but I’m not there yet. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of my students’ work. I’m currently teaching five residencies with Chicago public school students who are creating theatrical performances from scratch.

On Saturdays I’m directing the CPS All City Theater Program which brings together teens from across Chicago. For this performance, we’re investigating maps. I was inspired by the fact that the students in the program come from neighborhoods all over the city as well as this quote I came across in my initial research for the residency: Continue reading A Handful of Residencies

And Now, the Octopus

I’m working on a chapter that’s based on a monologue I performed a few years ago at Live Bait Theater in Chicago. Every summer, my friend Tekki, the artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, curates an evening of solo performance based on a theme. That particular year she titled the show “Potholes on the Path to Enlightenment,” and she asked us to write about an epiphany. That’s not really so hard, I thought: almost every story is about some kind of discovery – some little or big a ha! But she wanted it to be something pretty major, something that could, like, change your life. When I started working on the piece, I became a little obsessed with octopuses. For weeks, I read and wrote about octopuses. (By the way, octopuses is the correct plural – either that or octopodes. Octopi is frowned on by most references because the –pus derives from Greek and not Latin.) I wrote about an octopus I remembered from Sesame Street, which I watched as a kid. A man’s voice said, “And now, the octopus,” then this octopus swam around a tank for a minute, and that was it. Anyway, I was trying to write this piece about epiphany; I thought I should be writing about God, transcendence, the search for meaning, and I kept coming back to the octopus.

Figuring out what my brain is onto is one of my favorite parts of writing. The work is making clear the dot-to-dot of connections I’ve made in my head and finding a way to take the reader along on the journey. I don’t want to make it all too obvious or the reading won’t be any fun. But I can’t make it too obscure either – I can’t lead the reader into the woods and leave them with no trail to find their way back. I want the reader to make the discoveries I made in the living and the writing of the story – in this piece, for example, how the search for God and meaning relates to octopuses (also Clash of the Titans and Esther Williams).

An epiphany is an insight that comes about because of something ordinary. I probably watched my octopus on Sesame Street every day. It was ordinary. But the octopus itself, all rippling flesh and unfurling suckers was extraordinary. The octopus was an epiphany billowing across our black and white TV.  It said, wake up! Look at what’s out here in the world. Look and look and look.

Tell me, friends. What is it that makes you wake up and look?

Adventures in Storytelling

This book writing thing is a long, solitary haul, and it gets lonesome in my living room.  So in an effort to take the edge off my self-imposed quarantine, I decided to read something.  In public.  I investigated storytelling nights around the city, and there are lots of them.  I recommend checking some out.  It’s a lovely way to spend an evening; it feels so pleasantly classic to be drinking a pint and listening to a story. Anyway, I was offered a spot at This Much Is True, a storytelling series at the Hopleaf.And despite being wicked nervous, last Tuesday night I read an excerpt from a chapter called We Got Spirit! It was fun. They liked it. I’m going to do more. I’ll keep you posted here.  Here is an excerpt from the excerpt:

In seventh grade, my desire to play an orphan in a touring production of Annie was supplanted by an ardent wish to become a cheerleader.  I coveted the little white socks and beribboned ponytails, the thigh-skimming skirts with those sharp kick pleats and the spankies they wore underneath that were neither underpant nor bathing suit but something far more exotic than either.  Cheerleaders intoxicated every boy above third grade. I, on the other hand, was socially awkward and bookish, but I thought I might have a chance of getting on the team because I could almost do the splits.  I mean, it was really close.  Unless you looked super carefully, you’d probably think I was completely doing them.  Also, I could land in the almost-splits from a cartwheel or jump. I didn’t excel at jumping in general; I was largely unsuccessful both at achieving much height and at executing the mid-air herkies and pikes. I was good at that Presidential Fitness flexed arm-hanging test where you had to hold your chin above a bar because I was gritty and didn’t let go of things easily. Anything that pitted grim determination against gravity, I was prepared to kick ass.  Jumping, however, outwitted me. I was very sad in seventh grade.  Maybe being sad makes it hard to get off the ground.

I wanted to be happy.  And there was something about cheerleaders that made it seem like they might know how. It wasn’t just that they got attention from boys – or guys as they were suddenly called, as in, do you like any guys in our class, because I think Matt Hendricks totally likes you.  By the way, this new development, among others – like needing to wear shorts under your skirt so no one would see your underwear by accident – was honestly a little bewildering to me. But with their bright colors and staccato claps and their “Ready, okay,” cheerleaders seemed to be truly okay and ready for whatever life intended to throw at them. It was a mystery I didn’t know how to unlock:  the mystery of cheer.