As we start the new school year, we wanted to take the chance to say a very fond "farewell" to two of our long-time staff who are headed to new adventures this year. Check out both conversations below with our summer Bloomberg Intern Catherine Sorrentino and Brittany Brewer, former Associate Director of Education and Programs and Steve Gravelle, former Resident Teaching Artist. We will miss you both here at PYP!
Catherine Sorrentino interviewing Brittany Brewer
C: What initially drew you to PYP?
B: It’s actually a bit of a story. The summer before my senior year of high school, I lived in Indiana. My English teacher, who was also my drama club sponsor, knew that I was writing a play and she encouraged me to submit it to this competition. The Indiana Repertory Theater has this competition, the Young Playwrights in Process competition. My play, What’s the Matter With Pink Underwear, won the High School Division of that competition, and I was able to work on my play with a professional dramaturg and some professional actors, and we did some workshopping and revising. I eventually saw my piece in a sort of staged reading, which was my first experience with professional theater and definitely something that changed my life, though I don't even think I quite realized it then. As stupid or silly as it sounds, a bunch of professional adults spending hours having real conversations with you and talking to you on their level is really meaningful.
That was a dabble, and then I got my masters of arts in teaching English education and did a bunch of arts education research, and that was where I began to put the pieces together and realized I wanted to activate and lift voices in a way I didn't feel like I could do with teaching. I was an apprentice at the Arden theater company and then I freelanced and at that time PYP actually had created a job called the in schools program coordinator. I connected with Young Playwrights at a very young age, but I kept revisiting it more and more, and what it meant to me and how it lined up with writing and how it did all the nitty-gritty things that like English teachers want to be able to do but often are like, handed Lord of the Flies and told ‘you must teach this now’. So when I saw that job I thought it was everything I experienced in the crosshairs of my career. It was an opportunity to engage in productions and not be fully implanted in the theater. It was just the intersection of everything I’d been building to at that point.
C: What were your best experiences working with PYP?
B: There's like a few different approaches I can take here. From a nerdy side, I'm thinking about administration, and one of my favorite things was I created a rubric for teachers to use to grade the plays created in PYP workshops, if they felt like they must grade plays. This sounds weird, but it was very fun for me, creatively, and also that I could help students succeed with it. Part of the reason I was hired was my background in education, specifically in studying education and I was a certified teacher. Versus directing or theater like much of the staff, I was like a bridge, and I was making things more clear and better for the teachers so that stuff could be better for students. And then it was like every individual interaction. I loved dramaturgy with students; there are some students I've worked with like all four years.
C: I love the idea of considering a play based on its specific aspects, and not personal taste.
B: Yes, you have to agree on the quality of a play and you have to consider all aspects of it. You can’t be like, ‘is this character good?’ But you can ask for a character that has like three specific details about their personality. This leaves it less up to the interpretation of the teacher if a student's work has value.
C: Did you have any specific challenges when you were working with PYP?
B: I think many of us come to a field like this, whether that's non profit or the arts or because we care a lot-which is awesome and I think it can be a great superpower. While I'm still kind of a young professional, what I’ve learned since I've been working professionally is that a lot of us are challenged by boundaries. Especially for me, because this is for the students. So something I’m continuing to grow into, is the understanding that this work can’t be infinite. With this kind of work, it’s easy to romanticize it. The idea that ‘I don’t remember the last time I slept, I’ve been working for 14 hours.’ I had to learn that I didn’t need to participate in that to care about my students.
C: Do you think you’ll take that knowledge into the next phase of your life?
B: I think that’ll always be a work in progress for me, just because I love what I do so much and I want to do it in so many shades. I like to keep myself busy, but I’m getting better at stepping back. Honestly, the pandemic has put that in perspective a lot for me, since it limits so much of what I can do. But it is something I’ll always try to improve upon.
C: Are there any other things that you'll take from your experiences with PYP?
B: That's an interesting question, and I was thinking about things I really loved about PYP. PYP has values that I respect so much, and they attract people who have similar values. One of the things that I enjoyed so much about PYP, especially with education programming, was the reflection on good work. We scheduled time to reflect and revisit many things, and it’s a very education minded thing. I don’t know that every company is taking the time to reflect and reevaluate and change things. I care about that a lot, and we did so much of that. Experiencing that in a workplace made me sure that it was something I wanted to keep with me. There is no perfect model, there’s no perfect way to teach writing a play or teaching professional development. There is always room to grow and learn from other people, and think about what to change. We can learn from anything, even massive moments of global change.
C: It’s reflecting on the good parts and trying to keep them?
B: Take what works, leave the rest, right? The mentality that PYP has is that everyone has something of value to share. It’s the reflection and recreation mindset that I love.
C: It’s constant improvement. You don’t want to do things the same way forever.
B: Things change. People change. To serve the community, you have to constantly check in with the community. That’s how you serve people in the best way.
C: This was so much fun. Thank you!
Catherine Sorrentino interviewing Steve Gravelle
C: What initially drew you to PYP?
S: I first got involved with Philly Young Playwrights as a leader for one of our Saturday playwriting retreats. I was running originally as a group leader because I had a friend who hired me, and I at the time, though I was working full-time in theatre production as a dresser at the Walnut Street Theater, I left the Walnut and I decided to focus on education and theater. Mindy Early was taking over at that time as the Director of Education and she hired me for a residency for the fall 2012 .The sort of the thing that drew me-I guess this is a long answer to get your real question-which is that I love PYP for the relationship between the teaching artist and the classroom teacher. I think it's pretty unique in the work that I've done as a teaching artist, in that the responsibility is shared directly between those two parties to help students create. In some other organizations a lot of the burden is on the teaching artists to create a lesson plan and hold students accountable, which is impossible as a TA because you don't have anything to offer them and you don't have anything to hold over them. You have to build trust with them during maybe an hour a week, and how you get them to the point of finishing a play is up to you. When I think of PYP I think of the art, but the freedom is another thing that’s kept me there for so long.
C: This kind of ties into my next question; what were your favorite experiences with PYP? Were they in the classroom?
S: In my second year teaching with PYP I did a special project residency that was called the Receiving Schools Project. I don't know what grade you would have been, but it was in 2013 and the doomsday budget had just been passed. Have you heard of that?
C: I would have been in fourth grade in 2013, and I’ve only heard of that budget in passing.
S: The short of it is that in 2013 the district found itself 480 million dollar short for the year. Because of this, 23 schools were closed and the two military academies in Philly were combined. One was where it is now on 13th Street and the other one was in Mount Airy. They sent all the students from Mount Airy to the one by Temple. And this caused a lot of friction because the schools were rivals before.
C: This sounds like a plot of a high school movie.
S: Oh, it is. What happened next was that PYP and some other arts organizations created this program at the newly combined school. We worked with the students to create a group theater project, which they wrote together and then they cast themselves in it, and we helped direct it. They performed at the end of the year and called it Two High Schools Both Alike in Dignity and it was this whole Romeo and Juliet idea. I mention the title because there was a student who sat in the back of the class named Kimmy, and Kimmy was completely silent at all times when we would come, pretended she didn't care about what was going on or would actively ignore us.
Eventually we got to the editing point of the process, and Kimmy for the first time opened her mouth and she was like, okay this doesn't make sense about the play, this doesn't make sense, because she had been listening the whole time! Then she was the student who came up with the title. When we got to the point of rehearsing for the play, she became the assistant director She didn’t want to perform, but when we weren't there she was running rehearsals, she helped us with casting, she helped manage the performance on the day of the show-she was incredible. And then at the end of that year or later we decided to self nominate for the Adele Magner award, and in the course of that process we were interviewed about our experience working together the four of us, Kimmy and I and two other teaching artists. Kimmy said the reason she was nervous to talk at the beginning of the year because she thought her English skills were not good enough for her to speak in front of her peers. But through the course of working on this project she realized she did have more English skills than she thought and that her English skills were developing as we worked together, and then she decided to major in English in college.
C: This is an amazing story!
S: Right! I mean, to go from not wanting to speak English because she was not confident enough to majoring in it college is incredible. That was early on in my career and that was one of the things that really pushed me to understand the impact I can have on my students can genuinely affect their lives. We ended up winning the award that year, I think partly because of Kimmy’s story. Another favorite moment for me was my third year directing for the Monologue Festival. That year was special because one of the monologues I was directing was written by a student I had coached through the monologue. I got to work with them through the process of revision, through the process of performance, and I saw the change in that student as they discovered what their monologue could really be about. In any case I feel like I really learned how to direct that year. I really understood the monologue better than I had the previous two years and I had a dream experience with working on that monologue.
C: Before working with PYP this summer, I knew very little about the organization. Realizing how much emphasis is put on students and on equality in the classroom is amazing. Do you think it’s all about the students and their creativity?
S: Yes, and the transformation, how they can really learn and develop and change over time as people and as artists.
C: What challenges do you think you’ve faced working with PYP?
S: Well, I’ll tell you one thing. The early challenges I faced, many teaching artists do not have to face anymore. When I started, the executive director was different, most of the staff was different. I was in a 5th grade classroom at a school called Hardy Williams in Southwest Philly, and becoming a teacher artist for PYP was as pretty much as simple as expressing an interest. We had a one-day training in the fall, and after that one day of training, which was a series of workshops and presentations, we would essentially just partner with the teacher and figure it out. I had no idea how to teach playwriting. I had some experience in teaching Elementary School students some aspects of playwriting, but in a very structured way. That first year was really hard because I didn't know anything about classroom management, or how to break down the writing process into smaller parts. I had no idea how to evaluate students, how to help with revision, how to bring their work to life.
But after a few years PYP developed the assistant teaching artist program, and then we realized we were able to hang on to more teaching artists and that they could learn more from the veterans. So yeah, the hardest thing about it was my first year because I just had no idea what I was doing.
C: As you prepare for the future, what have you learned from PYP that you’ll take with you?
S: That is a big question! I mean it's limitless, the things that I've learned. How to be a good teaching partner, how to encourage students, how to re-motivate students when they run into roadblocks. How to quickly build relationships with students so that they can trust me with their work, how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of writing very quickly in the moment. This is sort of something I've been dancing around but how to make student-centered teaching where it's not about me, it's about the student and about what they're capable of offering.
I’ve learned to build everything as a series of questions to help the students realize that they know more than they think. It’s about empowering them to create whatever they want to create, not putting any limitations on the subject matter or the type of writing they want to. We try to make it really open to the students and when they ask questions I try to always say yes.
And also, how to be responsible for myself and others when you work in six classrooms just for PYP, as well as the one time I was working in 12 classrooms per week. Where I need to be when, as well as building a lesson plan for each of those 12 classrooms and remembering the plays that all the students have written and what materials to bring, and which train I should take. I learned how to juggle logistics really well also because I spent half of my working time managing a complicated and varied schedule. That also prompted me to learn how to take care of myself. With self care I have to care for my own mental health as much as I embrace the work of students and partners, which I quickly learned is an element of professional development.
C: I know that the work you did with PYP required a lot of empathy, and for you to develop a relationship with students. Do you think that made it harder to distance yourself from that work?
S: That's a really thoughtful question. I'm lucky, I've been doing this for a long time and even when I was in my late twenties. I’ve also always had a really loving partner to talk about silly struggles with. I was able to unload things that seem stupid in the moment but turn out to really impactful. But I think PYP encouraged us to take care of ourselves, and I have my own policies to take breaks and not check my email after 7 PM. At a nonprofit there is sometimes the feeling that you should be on all the time and always be working, but we all need these mental breaks. Despite that, everything we do is really for the students, and for the purpose of empowering them.
C: Thanks for talking with me! This was amazing.