Episode 019 Transcript

Epic Citizens with Melissa Friedman (2/17/19)

NILAJA SUN: Hi. This is Nilaja Sun, an actor, playwright and teaching artist who has worked with Melissa Friedman and the Epic Theatre Ensemble since 2001. You are at the Point of Learning with Peter Horn—not a bad move for a kid your age!

PETER HORN [voiceover]: On today’s show, Epic Theatre Ensemble, which has kept young people at the heart of what they do for nearly 20 years …

MELISSA FRIEDMAN: It’s a dialogue and a relationship between our mentor artists, our teaching artists, and our students, and when we work with those students in our partner schools, whether it’s in school, after school, or during the summer—as a company, we want to really help those students develop their voice and ask them to look past their personal sphere into the public realm.

[VO]: Epic takes seriously its mission to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change.

MELISSA: We don't have expectations that students are going to be professional theatre-makers necessarily. We want them to be leaders—whether it’s in the arts or otherwise—and caring citizens that engage in social justice.

[VO]: Plus a few student voices!

DAVION OSBOURNE: For me, I think school is more than just about education. I think it’s the first step in teaching people how to connect with each other beyond culture, beyond class, beyond race.


[VO]: In a moment when news headlines are literally incredible, and the inclination of different groups of people to listen to each other with anything approaching respect feels like we’re at rock bottom, I draw courage and hope from groups like Epic Theatre Ensemble, and people like Melissa Friedman, whom I’m talking with on today’s show. Melissa is one of the founders of Epic Theatre Ensemble, which opened for business in the City of New York on September 11th, 2001. Epic was the first arts program working in New York’s public schools in the days following, serving kids directly affected by 9/11. In the decades since, Epic has been honored with numerous awards and distinctions for its life-changing work, including from the Obama White House in 2009. Most impressive to me, though, is that Epic has kept students—and students’ own ideas, stories, and questions—at the center of its work for all that time.

EPIC STUDENTS: I am Epic because I like to use theatre to start a conversation. I am Epic because I use theatre to help tell my story. I am Epic because I believe in dreams. I am Epic because I create and collaborate.

[VO]: I first met Melissa and her colleagues at Epic Theatre 15 years ago, during the winter of 2004. I was working in Project ’79, the alternative education program at Westfield High School in New Jersey that was the subject of last February’s show (episode 010). At that time, Project ‘79 was looking for an intensive interdisciplinary arts experience that would allow our students to showcase their ideas about the world in new ways. Epic reached out to us because one of its founders knew about Project ’79, having graduated from Westfield High School in the late 1980s. That co-founder was Melissa Friedman. Epic Theatre and Project ’79 collaborated for three years on three productions that had our kids writing original scenes and monologues, questioning and debating ideas, and proudly performing their work before wildly appreciative and sometimes even stunned audiences. I know firsthand how Epic can challenge kids to think deeply about and then act upon their identity as citizens, not mere consumers, which is, in my view, one of the most important things we can do with and for young people. We’ll get into some of what Epic is up to these days in just a moment, but first let’s meet Melissa Friedman, who is as riveting on stage as an actor as she is in the classroom as a teaching artist. Melissa has co-starred in off-Broadway productions with the likes of David Strathairn, Aasif Mandvi, and Kathleen Chalfant, as well as performing in numerous shows outside New York, from Pennsylvania and Tennessee to California. A graduate of Oberlin College and the Old Globe University of San Diego, Melissa has studied with such theatre luminaries as Cicely Berry and Richard Seer. Melissa also credits her recent involvement with the improv program Upright Citizens Brigade as informing the work she does training not only high school students, but other teaching artists, as well as New York City teachers of history, theatre, and English Language Arts.


PETER: This is a show that among other things seeks to honor the vocation of teaching. And so I like to ask guests, whatever it is that the guests do, I like to ask them about a teacher who had a strong impact on you…

MELISSA: So many! I mean, my mother was a teacher. I grew up watching, observing her painstakingly prepare and really focus on the detail of her lesson and then agonize over a choice she made in class from the day, so I felt like I grew up around teaching. So, certainly my mother. I would say Paula was a huge impact on me in high school.

PETER: Paula Roy, star of episode 003—

MELISSA: Star of episode 003. The way in which she taught us literature was really meaningful to me. And her departure from the more traditional approach that I had received throughout my schooling, and her questioning some basic things like pronouns, you know. She was the first teacher to give me a book that she thought I would love, which was Beloved by Toni Morrison in the year it came out and it rocked my world. It was meaningful to me. She also talked about feminism openly in class—in the 1980s! So it was really exciting. And then I’ve had a lot of wonderful mentors and teachers along the way, including the head of my acting program [MFA program at Old Globe/USD] Rick Seer, who was very much a very kind, generous, thoughtful teacher who brought a lot of love and passion for the work in the room. And then my mentor, Richard Easton, was really impactful. He had no real teaching experience when he walked into the classroom, so it was all about his artistry, and sharing his artistry. In a lot of ways there is a part of me that feels like I’m—and then Cicely Berry, of course. So these teachers—I feel like I have a little bit of each of them in me, including my mom of course! But yes, from Cic Berry and her really radical approach to theatre, to Rick’s generosity and caring in the room, to the way in which Richard Easton brought his own artistry first and foremost into the room. And I kind of took a lot of those pieces that impacted me as an artist. But there isn’t one teacher that I am emulating, because I think the nature of authenticity is that you have to be yourself. You have to be true to yourself and you have to draw all of your experiences in the room, and you have to be present, and you have to speak truth.

[VO]: That song for Romeo and Juliet was written by Epic student Shamiea Thompson. Shameia performed it with another young Epic citizen, Kaydean. I wanted to ask Melissa about her choice in the past few years to train with the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). It’s an unconventional move for a performer with her years of experience.


MELISSA: I decided to go back into training at UCB, at Upright Citizens Brigade, to train in improvisation, in long-form improv. It was something that in my early years as a high school student or college student, I kind of had written off myself as someone who could improv and I chose to follow the path of text work and going with classics and—

PETER: I’m sorry, you’re saying you believed that you weren't any good?

MELISSA: Yeah, no, I froze. I was talking about freezing in improv a lot. I didn’t do any improv in high school or college. I didn't really think of myself as funny. I mean, I knew I could play a comedic role in a play, but I was just really scared of it. And one of the first jobs I got in New York City was with the Irondale Ensemble, and I was told after being accepted into their ensemble, a year-long gig, that part of what we would do would be performing the Harold in front of live audiences, which is a long-form improv that they teach at UCB and other places. So I was like, “Huh, what now?” So I was thrown into it and terrified, and I found I really loved it! And this was nearly 20 years ago now—I would say 1999 and the year 2000. And so I started to find myself interested in that and also then began teaching it to young people and decided just a few years ago, maybe four years ago, that I wanted to train at UCB. And then I’ve been taking classes there and I’m in their Academy, which is, um, their next-level training. I’ve gone through the core training, but you know, I auditioned to get into the Academy.

PETER: Are you humble-bragging, right now Melissa?

MELISSA: Yeah, I’m humble-bragging, you know, I’m in the Academy, so it’s cool. But being a student when you’ve been teaching a long time is challenging and exciting and humbling. There are so many times when I’m in class where I have to bite my tongue. Yeah, “I’m not going to lead this. I’m going to follow,” you know?

PETER: But picking an area that you were scared to go into and said like, “You know what? This fear. This is the thing that I want to focus on.” That’s great.

MELISSA: Yes. I was scared before every single class. I was scared to sign up, I was scared before every class, from 101 to 201, 301, 401—every time. Every time I did a show at UCB, I was scared before I performed, and I think it’s a good reminder that every time I tell students to come and stand up, they’re probably scared. Every time I asked them to perform Shakespeare or their new writing or their—whatever it is, they're scared. So I need to create an environment that lays the groundwork for them to be brave. We talk about safe space, but I think it’s interesting that you know, the first thing you want to do is create safe space, but then you want to create brave space where students can—

PETER: I like that!

MELISSA: —step forward and they can take risks. But you can’t really jump into brave space right away. You can ask them to be brave right away, but brave space is something that comes after safe space.

[VO]: Now that we’ve met one of the co-founders, let’s move to Epic itself, and its important work. Epic Theatre Ensemble is dedicated to fostering dialogue about current civic, social, and ethical issues. As a sign of this commitment to dialogue, by the way, every performance they give—whether student, professional, or students performing alongside professionals—is followed by a talk-back with the audience. Epic is an off-Broadway theatre company that premieres professional productions and, at the same time, Epic is an arts education company with an array of award-winning programs for students, in-school, after school, and during the summer. It’s a collaborative of teaching artists and students who believe that participation in theatre is essential to a healthy democracy, and that this kind of engaging theatre experience should be a hallmark of U.S. education for all students.


MELISSA: I think the thing about Epic is it’s a dialogue and a relationship between our mentor artists, our teaching artists, and our students. The work that we make as professional artists is—really, we consider the student audiences first and foremost, but they also, those very same artists are going in and working in the classroom and after school in our youth company. And when we work with those students in our partner schools, whether it’s in school, after school, or during the summer in our youth company, we want to really help those students develop their voice and ask them to look past their personal sphere into the public realm. And so what that looks like is when we first meet our students in our public schools, we ask them to look at a play like [Sophocles’] Antigone. And they see our professional artists perform it first, and then they engage with the play, and they question the connection between Antigone and today. And in some cases, they look at news articles and in the project I’m actually working on right now, with the entire ninth-grade class at our charter school in Harlem, each class chose a different current event that they connected. One of the classes chose the woman who climbed the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July in protest for the separation of families.

PETER: She was acquitted, was she?

MELISSA: She was, but in their version it’s a little bit more dramatic. So they took some creative liberties. And then another one took the story of the woman in Baton Rouge. She was protesting the shooting of Alton Sterling and—Iesha Evans is her name. And that wonderful viral picture—the picture that went viral, I should say—of her standing in that sundress against the police. And one class is taking inspiration from her and taking some creative liberties on that. And each class has its own vision of who is Antigone today. So when they write as a class, they divide up the responsibility: two of them per scene in a 10-scene, say, storyboard, and they each write a different part of the story that places Antigone in the world we see today. So they engage with contemporary and social questions, but they need to think about these characters in an empathetic way and in a way that includes context, but also references this classic story from 2,400 years ago. So that’s one example. Another example in our youth company about youth voice is the students have been the last few years commissioned by outside organizations like New York Appleseed and Teacher’s College and other organizations and institutions to write plays about educational politics.

SALMA HASSAN [playing a mother in an excerpt from the Epic student-written play Laundry City]: So what’s the matter?

OLIVIA DUNBAR [daughter]: They’re rezoning our school, and some of the White neighborhoods near here are going to be included in our school zone.

SALMA: And kids aren’t happy about this?

OLIVIA: Well, Abdul thinks it would be good to have White kids in our school. It’s the only way our Black school can get better funding. Lawrence, on the other hand, thinks that we shouldn’t need any White kids if that’s the only way our Black school can get funding.

SALMA: Hmm. And you?

OLIVIA: Well, I don’t care. I just want my friends to be okay!

MELISSA: And they tour all over to conferences and city halls and town halls and they perform for teachers and parents about this issue that they care about.

DAVION OSBOURNE [in another scene from Laundry City]: We need our schools to be diverse, as young people. We are going to grow up in a society that’s diverse and we need to learn how to understand each other, to know each other.

NAKKIA SMALLS: I think the worst part about segregation is that people start to feel like there’s something wrong with them. The worst part of segregation is that young people start to feel like they’re bad. They’re stupid, they’re troublemakers. They’re not worth it. That’s the worst part.

MELISSA: So they perform these plays, but they have to find their way in, and they’ve written these extraordinary pieces that use research and their own voices—

NAKKIA: There are three R’s we need to address. 1. Racial enrollment: How do you choose my school, and how do I make sure I select fairly? 2. Resources: How do you make sure that every single school has the same resources? 3. The last piece is relationships: Once we’re all in the school building, if y’all haven’t met each other yet and there’s racism in the building, we will not talk to each other and learn how to work together. How do you fund teachers to help build clubs that establish relationships across racial lines?

MELISSA: —and integrate them together into a really compelling piece that integrates comedy, as well. So it’s very funny, but also very moving. And they use the comedic game really effectively in each of their pieces.

NAKKIA [in another scene from Laundry City]: 9/11. Never forget! The Holocaust. Never forget! The Titanic! Never forget! Slavery, though? Forget about it! It’s in the past! Is it really?

MELISSA: And those pieces will be performed all over. And they lead the post show discussion, they facilitate those discussions with adults.

OLIVIA [beginning talkback following Laundry City]: So after every show we like to have a talkback discussion with the audience. A question we like to ask here at Epic is: Two weeks from now, you’re sitting in bed, thinking about Laundry City. What’s the one thing you’ll remember the most?

MELISSA: They are the leaders of this experience. That’s really important for us in terms of leadership development for them to create work, to develop their own voices, and then to facilitate discussion and not to be handing it back over to adults, ultimately.

[VO]: The example I’ve been cutting in to illustrate Epic’s process is one of the plays that the youth company has written about segregated schools in New York called Laundry City. The title is based on the stark metaphor of keeping white and colored clothes separate. Before they wrote this play, Epic students conducted interviews with 30 people, from education officials to parents to fellow students, to develop the characters whose perspectives they ultimately embodied on stage. I’ll share full credits and how to find the whole video at the end of the show, but to demonstrate some of the reflection these teen citizens have been doing, here’s a snippet of Epic youth actor Nakkia Smalls during the post-show discussion. 

NAKKIA: I came out thinking about how it’s not only a division or line between Whites and Blacks and Latinos, but it’s also about a governmental line and also like a social line. There’s just so many different aspects of—and residential lines—and so many different complexities to this one issue that you’re never going to have a complete answer. And it’s also about awareness and bringing out and showing it to people like you, and you guys will also talk about how you see this and then it’s just like a cycle, and it just creates awareness. And it’s about having discussions with everyone and others, addressing those hard topics that make people uncomfortable and stir in their seat, but also that make people agree. Why do you agree? But we’ll also put it to the people who are opposed: Why are you opposed? It’s having those conversations about those things.

[VO]: One of the organizations that commissioned Laundry City was New York Appleseed, which advocates for integrated schools and communities. Here’s what New York Appleseed Executive Director David Tipson had to say about Epic students’ work.


DAVID TIPSON: The Epic plays are absolutely the best tool we have for introducing the difficult topics of school segregation and integration in the communities of New York City. These plays are really the most sophisticated treatment of the complexity of the issues and the different feelings around them that you'll ever find.

[VO]: Back to Melissa Friedman.

PETER: Do you have the sense sometimes, or have kids said sometimes, or have their teachers said sometimes that this work allows them to get at, or maybe distill some thoughts and ideas about matters of justice or injustice that hadn’t come up in another way, maybe not even just in school, but that they had not considered or explored?

MELISSA: Well, absolutely. I think that sometimes there’s one or two students in a class who have a lot of knowledge about a particular issue, whether it’s police violence or immigration. And they bring that knowledge to the class, and then suddenly the class is doing more research about that and they’re writing about that and they get engaged and involved. In our 10th grade human rights theatre project, that’s pretty much universally something where they each— I bring in usually about 35 different articles about human rights violations all over the world, in this country, but beyond. And those students select one of the articles as the starting place for a play that they individually write that then is performed by our professional company at the end. And 100% of them, I would say, are writing about an issue or social justice question that they’ve never engaged with before. And many of them have gone on to become activists in those areas, you know, where they’re leading schoolwide fundraisers on that topic. Or they will tell me when they’re in college that they opened up a club about it, you know, and that they engaged in a protest over it. So that’s very exciting. Not all of them, but awareness is that first step. Just knowing about it is one thing. And then activism and becoming a changemaker becomes another thing.

PETER: There’s a temptation sometimes to say, “These teens are apathetic,” and of course all you have to do is work with or talk with students—

MELISSA: Actual teens!

PETER: —to know that that is not the case. But what is often the case is that students can feel that politics is just immense and complicated and immensely complicated. And they feel that way because it is! But if they pick an issue, you know, I mean this is the way it was for me: I got fired up about capital punishment when I was in fifth grade. New York didn’t have a death penalty at that time, so I chose to join the Colorado Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, where my father was. So, you know, I found out about that. But then, you know, that led me to be thinking about the racial inequality of it and the economic inequality of it. And I began to learn about these other things because they’re all connected to this issue. So a kid who gets fired up about dolphins or whales or the influence of pharmaceutical companies—

MELISSA: Mine was baby seals, by the way. I was in fifth grade.

PETER: Yeah?


PETER: But then in high school, didn’t you also do a little environmental action?

MELISSA: Sure. I started the Environmental Club—you’re welcome!—at Westfield High School.

PETER: God bless you.

MELISSA: And uh, it wasn’t received well. I wasn’t so warmly welcomed by my community.

PETER: You were trying to recycle in the ‘80s, was that it?

MELISSA: In the ‘80s, yes, I made a handmade sign and I screamed at several people who threw their lunch in the recyclable can. I made it very clear sign. It was super clear. But they, a lot of them—

PETER: That you then stood next to—

MELISSA: I would scream at them and say, “You know what? I have to pick through this personally.” Because I took the cans to the recycling center in my car and I was like, “I have to pick through your lunch. ‘Cause they want just cans. They don’t want, you know, the mashed potatoes or whatever it is that you threw in there!” They didn’t like it when I yelled at them. I’m sure you’re surprised to hear this—

PETER: I’m glad I’m sitting down.

MELISSA: —but I wasn't very popular in high school.

PETER: Right.

MELISSA: So, um, I mean, I wasn’t the most popular kid ever, but it’s fine. I’m over it now. Uh, so partially anyway! I think that students get very interested. I think that as long as it intersects with their lives, at least at the beginning, at the moment in which they get engaged with social justice questions, that it’s great to begin with something that directly intersects with them and their community in their lives. So, issues around immigration issues, around health issues, around education, around gender and LGBTQ questions really seem to particularly engage students, because they are connected. When our students in the 10th grade project write their human rights play, I spend a whole session on their personal artistic statement where they write a statement of purpose, of why they’re writing the play and what’s personal about the play for them. And they share it, and we sit in a circle and they each share their artistic statement of purpose. [Writing this statement] was an experiment a few years ago, and it turns out to be the most important day for the students when they reflect back on their process, other than the final day when the actors come in and perform their plays for them, which is mind-blowing and awesome. But they say, “You know, my mother went through this thing, or my neighbor went through this thing, or I went through this thing that is connected, and I’m empathizing with this issue, and here’s why I care about it.” And it really drives their process. I think it’s so important for students to have some choice. You know, I come in with ideas, but students need to have agency and choose what they write about too. And they’re often given testing and other things that are—the doors are closed and there aren’t any options. And they have to learn this set of vocabulary, and they have to learn this set of facts, and they’re asked to regurgitate those words and facts back to their teacher and back to the state.

[VO]: One of the truisms about our segregated U.S. education system is that kids in rich schools get to think about ideas, while kids in underfunded schools get to worry about skills they must master before the next high-stakes standardized test. One of the best things about Epic is that they do not accept this aspect of the status quo; indeed, they challenge it every day.


MELISSA: We don’t have expectations that students are going to be professional theatre makers necessarily. We want them to be leaders—whether it’s in the arts or otherwise—and caring citizens that engage in social justice. That’s what we hope for our Epic NEXT youth company. And part of how they prepare to do that is through these touring educational pieces that are making an actual impact on stakeholders and decision makers who are listening to our young people about these critical questions and then making decisions about what they’re gonna do.

NAKKIA [in a scene from Laundry City]: What is the purpose of school?

DAVION: For me, I think school is more than just about education. I think it’s the first step in teaching people how to connect with each other beyond culture, beyond class, beyond race.

SALMA: School should be used as a tool to be able to rise above your income. If you are someone who comes from a family of low income, school should be a driver of success.

[VO]: Before some closing thoughts from Melissa, let me note that “Time’s Up” is a song written and performed by Epic students Joanne, Ciara, Kassandra and Shamiea for their Epic REMIX of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, which they set in the context of the #metoo movement. Inspired by the women who stepped up to expose Harvey Weinstein, they created their own anthem. 

MELISSA: This idea of arts education being something that’s siloed and separate and departmental is something that we’ve challenged, and I wish I saw more of it out in the world. Theatre companies and schools have these drama departments that are separate. And what’s interesting to me is the integration of theatre into the fabric of an organization, or the integration of education into the fabric of a theater. So young people are at the heart of what we do, but we’re a professional theatre company. We make professional theatre. These are not unreconcilable. It’s a holistic approach. And it’s so common for professional theatre companies to talk about their professional work and their education work in a separate breath. They have their students come see their work, yes, but in terms of who is on staff and who is making the work, they’re separated. And for us, it’s all one. The artists who work on our professional stages are in the classroom, are our mentors. And I think that’s been really meaningful and important. And for students to want to go see theatre—and we have a lot of students who go and see theatre; we are helpful in diversifying the audience of the American theatre. So, in order for that to happen, they have to be at the center of an organization. They can’t be on the margins, because the students we work with spend a lot of time in the margins. So let’s not place them in the margins of a theatrical organization. I spent a lot of years as a teaching artist in organizations that did that, that are wonderful organizations in terms of their theatre-making practice. But I would love to see much more integration in holistic approach overall.

[VO]: My guess is that you might be interested in checking out an Epic performance or two yourself. Well if you’re in the greater NYC area, or planning a trip in the coming weeks, here are a few coming attractions!


MELISSA: In terms of what we have coming up with that people can engage with and see is we have our Youth Theatre Festival, which is going to be running March 5th through 23rd at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row. Over the course of three weeks, you can see the educational touring pieces Nothing About Us and Overdrive, which are both incredible extraordinary pieces of work written and devised and performed by our youth company. You can see the REMIX that is being devised and created in the Bronx on Julius Caesar or this REMIX of Macbeth set in the pharmaceutical industry in a fictional Latin American country coming up in March. And so those events are all free, and one of the things that I think is really exciting is when we have a mix of audience that are family members and also theater-going members and also members of the education community as well, all in the audience. Some people know the people on stage and some people don’t know the people on stage, and that’s important for our students to have a platform to speak to people who don’t know them. So having people attend that would be wonderful.

PETER: And they can find information about all those on Epic website.

MELISSA: Yes. And our social media. We have the Instagram and all of the things.

PETER: Insta …

MELISSA: The Insta and the Facebook and the Twitter.

[VO]: That’s it for today’s show! If you’ve missed March 2019 by the time you’re hearing this, just check out the Epic Theatre Ensemble website linked on this episode’s show page for upcoming Epic attractions. Thanks so much to Melissa Friedman for taking the time to talk, and to all the talented visionary folk at Epic for the amazing work you do. The play Laundry City was written by Olivia Dunbar, Vickandy “Randy” Figueroa, Jeremiah Green Jr., Melysa Hierro, and Davion Osbourne. The performance we heard featured Olivia Dunbar, Jeremiah Green Jr., Salma Hassan, Davion Osbourne, and Nakkia Smalls. For more about the ancient relationship between drama and democracy, check out my conversation with Oskar Eustis (episode 011). Thanks as always to Shayfer James for theme music, and thanks to you for listening and recommending Point of Learning to anyone you know curious about what and how and why we learn. Next stop: Cuba! 




Peter Horn