How do we remember? Let us count the ways
Jamie Sherman Blinder
From the outside, the Michigan League building looked like its usual stately self on the morning of Friday, March 9. On the inside, however, its hallowed halls were alive with more than 150 Detroit Public School children who sang, danced, and, of course, laughed as they participated in a day of immersion in the performing arts.
The event was the second to be staged byMichigan Performance Outreach Workshop (MPOW), a student-run initiative that was launched last semester by two musical theatre majors at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD).
“It never would have happened if we both weren’t such idealists.” That’s the first thing that Ashley Park (photo below on right) says about the new outreach organization that she and her friend Laura Reed (photo below on left) founded. MPOW is a labor of love for Park, a junior, and Reed, who graduated in December. Both began the fall term obsessed with an idea that came to them last August: to bring Detroit school children, whose arts programs have been cut, to the U-M campus to participate in the performing arts.
“Frankly, we had no idea what a big thing we were undertaking,” said Park, an Ann Arbor native who became MPOW’s spokesperson while Reed, from Walnut Creek, CA, took an extended post-graduation trip abroad. “That’s probably just as well, because we might not have gone ahead if we knew exactly what we were getting into.”
What these visionary young women did know was that they wanted to find a way to reach children who rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience the excitement, inspiration and empowerment that comes from participating in the performing arts. It was not a school project and it was not for credit; it was a personal mission.
“We both had personal experience with how therapeutic theater is,” said Park, referring to how it helped both students deal with traumatic events in their teens: the passing of Reed’s father and Park’s treatment for cancer. Both came to believe in “the power of the arts to rehabilitate, communicate and nourish” and concluded that they wanted to share this power with others.
Park’s first taste of arts outreach was as a participant in U-M’s School of Literature, Science and Art’s “Prison Creative Arts Project” (she is a double major, studying “Community Action and Social Change” at LSA) in which she ran a theater workshop at the Maxey Juvenile Facility in Whitmore Lake. Here she worked on creating original theater pieces with the residents and was thrilled to see how positively they responded to the experience.
“They were so excited to perform,” said Park. “I think they were in shock that people would actually come out and see them,” she said.
She also discovered that outreach was a two-way street: that the people whose lives she hoped to impact in a positive way were having an equally profound impact on her. With one resident in particular, who expressed feelings of having lost his childhood as a juvenile inmate, Park found a profound connection, having had very similar feelings as a cancer patient.
Determined to continue her outreach efforts, and knowing that arts programs had been eliminated completely from most Detroit public schools, it was not long before she and Reed began talking about creating a free performing arts program for Detroit students. But they didn’t want to just perform for the kids; they wanted the kids to also be the performers, “to find their own voices.” And rather than going to their schools, they wanted the DPS students to come to Ann Arbor so that they could experience, in person, the beauty and energy of the university campus.
But getting the kids here was the easy part. First Parks and Reed had to learn, the hard way, about every aspect of running an organization and planning a major event, all while attending to their academic studies and performing in multiple theater productions as part of their fall semester.
They found allies in faculty advisors Linda Goodrich (associate professor of musical theatre) and Malcolm Tulip (associate professor of theatre), who were able to help steer them in the right direction.
“I also have a background in outreach and have a great commitment to theater for social change,” said Goodrich. “I was on board immediately and just wanted to make the event as grandiose as possible in terms of the number of students that we could involve.”
She added, however, that getting the endeavor off the ground was as much a learning experience for her as it was for Park and Reed. But after drafting a constitution with the help of their advisors, the two students set the wheels in motion, not really knowing that there would be so many pieces to the puzzle. “Each week there was a new obstacle,” said Park.
First it was just about securing a space. Then in rapid succession it was about volunteers, sponsors, donors, licensing fees, transportation, insurance – none of which did Park and Reed know anything about. But they learned. They spent hours tracking down contacts, making arrangements, securing permissions. Each step seemed to open up more questions, more problems to solve. “One day we spent seven hours doing nothing but email,” said Park.
One of the first things to fall into place were volunteers. Reed and Park sent out a mass email to all students and soon had a small army of volunteers – 175 in all — many of whom they’d never met. This was a bonus that the women had never anticipated. Like most students, they tend to socialize exclusively with classmates in their own program. Suddenly they were getting to know students from all of the SMTD programs as well as from other U-M schools, and were realizing what a remarkable amalgam of talent was at their disposal.
“I was so impressed that people from every area of SMTD volunteered,” said Goodrich. “They really came together and were happy to do anything, even if it was just passing out apples at the event, just to be involved.”
With a “staff” on board, they were now able to create committees and appoint committee heads to handle the multiple production aspects of the event. All of this was in place before reaching out to Detroit Public Schools. But now a “School Liaison” committee was formed, headed by theatre arts major Mary Rose Naoum, DPS was contacted. It took some time to get the relationship off the ground, but Naoum was persistent. Then, within a single week, seven schools responded to the MPOW invitation. Three were scheduled for the first event and the others were put on a waiting list.
Finally, on a beautiful November morning, after four months of dreaming, planning and working around the clock, the first busload of 150 fifth and sixth graders from DPS arrived in Ann Arbor for the first-ever MPOW event. The day had been carefully planned: there would be a performance program, featuring music, dance and theatre segments presented by SMTD students. This would be followed by workshops in dance, theater improvisation, creating original theater, vocal percussion, film, and instrumental percussion. Each DPS student would attend two or three workshops and enjoy a healthy lunch comprised of food donated to or funded by MPOW.
It seemed like all systems were go until word came that one of the buses from Detroit had broken down. But by this time, Park and Reed were seasoned pros; overcoming obstacles was the name of the game. Quickly, a replacement bus was dispatched to pick up the stranded kids while those who had already arrived were entertained – and with dozens of performers, from all disciplines, already assembled, that wasn’t hard to do. “At one point, every discipline was in action in one room,” said Park. “It was perfect collaboration.”
The rest of the day not only went smoothly, but was an unmitigated success. The kids were bubbling over with creative energy, their teachers were thrilled to see their students so engaged, and the volunteers were riding a wave of mutual inspiration.
“We were all so focused on what we could bring to the children, how we could inspire them,” said Goodrich. “But in the end, they actually inspired us.”
In recognition of their work in creating MPOW, Reed and Park received a Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Spirit Award, an honor bestowed on North Campus students who have “served their community in a positive way through artistic and/or educational mediums.” Meanwhile, the joy and energy of the event was captured in photos by Casey Low, Daniel Berryman and Katie Parent, and by videographer Christopher Duncan who then worked tirelessly with Reed and Park to create a short and informative film about MPOW, which was posted to YouTube.
Planning for the second MPOW event is well underway. Although Reed has graduated, Park is again co-director of the event, now with former vice-president Erika Henningsen, a musical theatre sophomore who will take over the reigns when Park graduates next year. This time there are more students on the planning committee and an improved planning system has been implemented, with more specific roles, jobs and designations assigned. Park expects that this, along with the experience she’s already gained, will make things run a little more smoothly this time, but even if it’s still an obstacle course, she is eager to keep the project going.
“I don’t think I’d be able to survive without doing outreach,” she said. “By its nature, performance is so self-oriented. It’s important to get out and share it with others. Realizing you can inspire someone else, inspires yourself.”
For more information about MPOW, visit http://www.mpow.net/
Jamie Sherman Blinder
Jamie Sherman Blinder