School Play was born out of personal experience with the funding crisis, which is probably why it feels so passionate. My daughter graduated from Central High School in 2012 after a phenomenal, rich experience, educationally and socially. So when my son applied to another leading public high school and got in, we were thrilled. Then the budget cuts started literally dismantling the educational system: my son came home and told us he’d be learning Spanish from Rosetta Stone because the school could no longer afford to hire a live teacher. (At first, I thought he was joking.) After a few more reports like that, I started to feel guilty about complaining but not figuring out how to do something — yet we weren’t even allowed to come in and teach the kids ourselves!
I began to volunteer for PCCY. First, I helped collect 4,000 letters from children whose schools were being affected by the cuts and, with a bunch of parents and students, deliver them to Harrisburg. I organized the kids into a choral reading of the letters in the Rotunda, but none of the politicians, certainly not then-Governor Corbett, came to hear the kids read or their parents speak. It was pretty hurtful; so much so, that I wrote a nasty editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer. But as a playwright, it was the kids’ voices, reading those letters that kept going around in my head. After one too many really uncomfortable conversations at a dinner party with people whose kids had never attended public school, or whose school had every facility and resource they could ever dream of, and who were totally unfamiliar with the conditions in schools just 7 miles away, I realized that just like myself, no one was really focusing on the reports in the newspapers and on the radio — for most people, a school funding crisis sounded like just another dire report about budgets and shortfalls — or just another political skirmish — but not something that might affect me personally – or devastate my child’s future. And my kid’s problems were hardly the worst of it, as I became more and more aware of how other schools and families were suffering. And still the kids’ voices echoed in my memory.
Then this crazy vision came to me: People should hear what’s really going in schools and in families, and undoubtedly, they’ll be as outraged as I am. They should hear the voices of real people, just as I heard the voices of those children. Although my heart is in the theatre, I have worked as a copywriter, broadcast producer and screenwriter for my entire career. I realized that I possessed a unique set of skills for creating something that might help make a real difference — by combining the unique power of theatre to speak to peoples’ hearts and minds, with the promotional and marketing techniques I had learned through my paying work, I could, for once, have the privilege of effectively “communicating” something that actually mattered to me. So that’s where School Play came from.
So far the response from our audiences is exactly what we hoped for – they respond to the authenticity of the voices onstage with genuine emotion, either because they recognize their own experience in the stories our actors tell, or because they are deeply shocked and dismayed by the true accounts they hear. The most amazing things happen to us, people crying at interviews and thanking us for asking about their lives, or hugging us at shows, for turning their lives into art. Every artist should have the opportunity to work on something this powerful — this monumental, really — at least once in their life.
But I have to say that everything that has happened in the past year and half, since this project first began, has been the result of working with some amazing partners — both to help pull it together financially and logistically, and as co-creators of the actual play. I’m very proud of having decided to take action about an issue I found so disturbing I could no longer just contemplate it — but I actually think that the smartest thing I did was immediately reach out to people who could help me turn a good idea into a tangible and meaningful reality.
If enough people who believe that kids everywhere deserve the best education we can give them start to speak up publicly, eventually, as Arthur Miller wrote,“attention must be paid.”