Thursday, February 2, 2012


Opera Piccola (“small works”) is closing, almost twenty-four years after I founded it. So, what should we say about endings? We've all heard the phrases that comfort our goodbyes. Parting is such sweet sorrow. To everything there is a season. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

We began as a tiny group (3 actors, 2 serving as unpaid 'staff') that did short “gigs” in the Bay Area, meeting around dining room tables, fueled by pots of tea while our children crawled, climbed and snacked around us.

Gradually, we received local, state and federal arts grants, as well as service learning grants and youth development grants. We premiered six full-length original multicultural shows, adapted 2 operas for children, created five special shows (e.g. “What Shall We Do?” for Breast Cancer Action) for community non profits, and brought elegant four part a capella holiday music to thousands of Bay Area residents on city streets. We provided arts education for more than 100,000 K-12 students, and professional development for over 100 classroom teachers.

And we grew. We grew until we had as many as 75 artists teaching or performing in our public school classes or community shows. From a bookkeeper (Margaret Arighi) as “staff” we grew to have an education Coordinator, an Executive Director, Bookkeeper, Grant Coordinator, Artistic Director and numerous consultants. Beginning in 2008, funding shrank for non profit arts organizations, arts providers in schools and co-payments for our inexpensive shows. We close as an inevitable result of changes in the economy and the way arts services are delivered. It's time for a change, to move on to new ways of thinking about sustaining the arts and arts organizations.
This brief history fails to capture what our 'small works' but mighty company managed to achieve. I treasure two main things from my 22 years as Founding Artistic Director: people (all ages!) and the art work itself. I cannot find the words to summarize the thousands of magical hours connecting with children and teenagers, watching them blossom, encouraging them to express what's in their heart/minds. And how many excited hours planning with teachers, artists, staff members, not to mention sharing personal stories and encouraging each other through hard times.

Why have I saved hundreds of original student poems, scripts, photos, recordings, videos, as well as scores of scripts, photos and recordings of our traveling shows? I love each one. How lucky I am to have known, seen and heard each person, each painting, each poem, each show, each song, each dance, each rhythm, each voice, each spirit!

What remains of the role played by Opera Piccola? I'm not certain. A collection of some of the students' poetry donated to the Oakland Public Library? A video posted on YouTube? An art piece to decorate a bare wall at a senior center? Perhaps an anthology of plays for urban youth written by our students. However, I am guessing that our most important legacy sits in the hearts of our students and audiences – the ones who found something that lit a flame inside. They will continue to create and imagine a better world.
We hold artists
Outside the box
Of the solar system
Dreaming the other
Side of the worm hole
Sipping the Milky Way
Calling us past our
Unique heartburn

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Final Post - I think

The end of E.B. White's "Stuart Little" has a thought that's stuck with me for a long time. Every goodbye is a hello. A year ago at about this time in June, I learned that the company I founded could not afford my position as Artistic Director due to the economic crisis.

Since then, I've explored the worlds of unemployment insurance, career centers, resume revising, job sites, online jobs, certificate programs, substitute teaching credentials, etc. True to the news accounts, people my age who are laid off are finding it hard to start over in the job market. Growing up a baby boomer in a family without a TV until I was 13 years old, I like real - not electronic - books, and I check facebook only once a week. The innards of the computer are as mysterious to me as quantum physics.

Nevertheless, I'm grateful for a year to try new things. At my age (if I hear one more person say,"at your age, Susannah", I have a chance to.... and... mmpf.. what was it.. I had an idea but .. Sorry. whatever it was, slipped my mind. Stop. I know what you're thinking.

Never mind. To sum up the unemployed year: I worked on 3 or 4 book projects (who isn't a writer?), received certification as a Jazzercise instructor, taught a chorus/voice class at Oakland Technical High, and collaborated on creating a memoir play with Gina Gold of Thinking about selling my fruit pies on the street corner.

To get back to the beginning - or ending -- I'll be using a different blog address in order to write about arts, education, baby boomers, politics, religion, trends, and ... ?

My new blog address: Goodbye and hello.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Graduating High School

The tall round-faced girl beams, breathing fast with excitement while her friends in younger grades admiringly surround her. The slender girl wearing silver high heels sighs. "How do I feel about graduating? Relieved."

Walking the floor, the rite of passage for high school seniors, features inspirational songs and speeches, balloons bouquets, and shrieks of joy from proud relatives. For the approximately 60% of urban public high school seniors who graduate, this is a wonderful day. These students earned the necessary credits to complete 13 years of K-12 schooling.

Remembering the excitement and sadness of my own high school graduation, I did a little informal interviewing in Oakland this week. Most of the seniors I spoke with seemed in a state of euphoric shock. For example, I was unable to interrupt one group of close friends who were lying on top of each other like puppies, laughing and teasing. Others appeared more sober.

"Senior year is extremely stressful. The teachers, home, my part time job. Everyone wanting more from you every minute."

"I don't know how I feel. I'm glad it's over but I'll miss my friends."

"Quite a few of us won't walk the floor; we lost textbooks and can't replace them, or we failed one class we needed, or messed up on our credits."

"I have one piece of advice for freshmen: stay away from all the drama - he said and she said. There's so much going on, and if you fall behind in your work it's hard to catch up."

As I walked around campus, I noticed both happy faces already looking at summer vacation and worried faces looking at final essays and exams. But seniors's faces glowed. They had finished finals, signed out, cleaned out lockers, gone to graduation rehearsals.

It hadn't hit them yet. High school graduation represents achievement; it also represents a goodbye to childhood, a loss of innocence. After the cheering, our young men and women face the overwhelming reality of the adult world.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

"...All the cherished moments they have made possible for those they left behind... all the things that make us alive.. these are the gifts they gave us.. life... that is what our fallen have given us." The words of a uniformed speaker at the Memorial Day Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery drift from the TV this morning.

I looked up Memorial Day, just to double check its history. I learned that the day was formally established in 1868 and originated in the practice of decorating the graves of those who died in the Civil War. It eventually became a day to remember those who had died in the "service of the nation."

By strange coincidence, this holiday originated during the Civil War, and people are still dying in a kind of civil war. Today people are dying in a civil war of poverty, of suicide from mental illness, of street violence. I don't know where his grave is, but in my heart I decorate the grave of Orlando, a young actor with mental illness who killed himself out of loneliness and depression. I decorate the grave of a gifted former student who died of kidney disease that wasn't caught in time. I decorate the graves of my students' friends and relatives who died by gun violence on the streets. I decorate the graves of the young people whose only job opportunity was the armed forces.

Here is a poem written years ago by East Oakland 7th grader Klarissa, one of my former students. Her words represent the hundreds of similar poems written by my students over the years, fitting for Memorial Day. Often the title of their poems was R.I.P.

My heart cries when
People die from cancer and other diseases
Every day
Death leaves a heartache no one can heal,
Love leaves a memory no one can steal
My heart cries when
I hear that people are getting shot and killed for no reason
Death leaves a heartache no one can heal,
Love leaves a memory no one can steal
My heart cries when
I hear that the economy is in danger
People losing their homes and lives because of the economy
Death leaves a heartache no one can heal,
Love leaves a memory no one can steal

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Substitute Teaching 2

I wrote a month or so ago about subbing in Oakland public schools. It's difficult; like being a stepmother in a blended family. The students want their "real" teacher, not a "guest." At the same time, they expect the substitute to replicate exactly the style and methods of their regular teacher. An almost impossible task. I continue to search for ways that substitute teaching can offer the same satisfaction as teaching a class regularly.

Last week I subbed for a 4th grade class at Think College Now, a very nice elementary school in the Fruitvale District. It was a large class of bright, active, and talkative children. The extremely efficient regular teacher had left many work sheets and detailed plans for the day. All went well the first half of the 8:30 - 3:15 schedule. Circle discussion, silent reading, recess, conflict resolution, social studies, lunch, library, math, "fun" time. Elementary school teachers teach multiple subjects and also serve as life skills mentors.

Challenges surfaced. As the day progressed, the crowded classroom grew hotter and hotter. I opened the windows, which made no dent in the stuffy air. I turned on the large fan in the corner. However, I had to turn it off after only a few minutes. Overheated students crowded around the fan trying to catch the breeze, jostling each other and unable to do their assignments. Some of the children -- because of the heat or tired of studying - completely lost focus and gathered in groups to socialize.

For those who suffer from the character defect of pride, I highly recommend substitute teaching. A few children talked whenever they felt like it, perhaps thinking that since the Sub was not 'real,'they could act as if the Sub were invisible. About 45 minutes before the final bell, we all fell apart. A generous boy had brought small chocolate brownies to share with the class. After the first round of passing them out, the boy announced, without getting my permission: "Everybody line up if you want a second brownie." I was unable to stop the stampede that left the boy himself without a second brownie and a girl in tears.

Nevertheless, the class accomplished a surprising amount. They read many pages, in books and in their social studies magazine. They wrote 3 acrostic poems, they played several games of Four Square, checked out books at the school library, drew (art), engaged in group discussion, and addressed pressing challenges in getting along with each other. The school is clearly doing a great job; I noticed that almost all the students were really interested in the many books that were available to them - a huge accomplishment.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Appearances can deceive

"Don't judge a book by its cover" and "the clothes make the man" are old -if opposite- cliches I grew tired of hearing as a child. As an adult, I learned the importance of attraction as promotion when I collaborated on creating theatrical productions. "What should we call this show?" we would ask each other. We'd brainstorm and toss titles in the wastebasket. "Too long; one word is better. That name won't hook an audience to come. Any title could be turned into a joke or an opening for a bad critical review."

Titles are marketing, not description. We all know that the pictures on paperback covers often fail to relate to the contents. Businesses research what will attract the "target" audience. Targeting. That word suggests the shooting range, or a dartboard. Every time I click on a website, a data path is created for a business to target my interests with a related ad. It's a bulls eye of I buy.

Listening to NPR this morning, I heard the words, "sometimes a surprise discovery forms one of the better life experiences you could have." Exactly. I like the surprise of my assumptions proved wrong. For instance, I observed a woman in a class of mine who looked like a professional athlete: strong, slim, well groomed, confident. In conversation, I discovered she was recovering from surgery that removed a brain tumor and felt confused from her hearing loss. Or another woman who on the surface appeared arrogant and distant was actually suffering from years of caring for a deaf child.

Why does any of this matter? As an artist and educator, I applaud life long curiosity, life long learning, life long wonder. When I'm manipulated by marketing an judged by my age or looks or internet use, I feel robbed of individuality. Someone stole my identity and shrink wrapped it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Books for Children

See Spot run. See Jane run.

Perhaps Baby Boomers remember struggling with these dry phrases in kindergarten and first grade. Today's short attention spans might applaud these three-word sentences that fulfill the template: subject- verb -object (although the "command" verb format eliminates the understood subject,"You," as in "You see Spot run.")

I'm getting my Certificate in Writing from UC Berkeley Extension, exploring different genres to see what I might pursue in depth. My current course is called "Writing Children's Picture Books." After taking other courses that revealed gaps in my creative imagination, I thought that I might do well with the minimal number of words and pages needed for picture books. Besides, I have excellent qualifications to write for the under 8's. I love teaching pre school through grade three, I read story books every night to my children when they were little, and I have spent many years writing scripts and performing for young audiences. Picture books should be no problem. Just let the imagination roll freely, right? Wrong! Although children's books now have longer sentences, they have a template. No publisher in his or her right mind would print something that strays from what he or she thinks will sell.

"Too much dialogue; eliminate 95% of it. You've got to have your story structure laid out before you start writing. There are only three kinds of children's picture books: concept, information and a story with a message. If the baby here is asking where his breakfast is, the editors will think the mother is starving the child." Hmmm... Anyone who's ever taken an arts class is familiar with the Critique and the challenge of deciding which comments are helpful. "I like that the situation here is real, but it wouldn't appeal to kids." "What are you really trying to say here?" "I'd like to piggy-back on what she just said..."

This class suggests to me that today's adults would freak out at the old stories by the Brother's Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson or Babar, in which parents die with regularity and children face inappropriate horrors, like the original Cinderella. Perhaps because children face more information than in times past about a scary adult world, today's writers must dish up fantasy with bright colors, happy faces and reassuring informational footnotes for parents. After all, in a year or two many of the children hearing these stories will be playing video games and will have seen 'Bambi.' Parents who buy books these days want their toddlers to learn college readiness skills as soon as possible. And disobedient story book children must very clearly learn a lesson by the end, even though our culture constantly tells toddlers' older siblings that "good girls like bad boys."

It's all very confusing. I'm not sure how I feel about story templates and selling. Is this art? Can children handle art? How utilitarian should art be? However, I've also learned in the class that it's okay to mention poop in a children's book. I don't think I will.