Tag Archive: high school

  1. Fallen Angel

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    “Angels” begins promisingly.

    A tableau of partiers frozen in red light … a white-winged angel dancing drunkenly around them … an interlude of Los Angeles radio DJ banter as the lights go up on a funny exchange between a pair named Calvin and Helen.

    It’s a charmingly surreal opening, and squarely within the realm of what might be expected from a play whose self-description talks of “the intersection between fantasy and reality.” It’s a shame, too, because the angel conceit turns out to be relatively minor and impossibly stupid. Which brings us to the rest of the play.

    Calvin is an LA native. Helen is from Spartanburg, South Carolina. They’ve met at Santa Monica College pre-orientation, and he’s enticed her to dip into his lifestyle of relentless oceanside partying before summer is over. One by one, his private-school friends wake up, and impart bits of information. For example, they like summer. (I know because one of them yelled “God bless summer!” to cheers of affirmation.) Furthermore, they all start college tomorrow. (I learned that when one of them said, “We all start college tomorrow.”)

    Shaun, Harry, BB, and Pierce — Calvin’s crew — are very hungover, as BB reveals by exclaiming, “Holy worst hangover ever!” Pierce is the de facto chieftain: He wakes with his head in a traffic cone, from which he extracts a bag of weed before climbing a picnic table and unleashing a torrent of stoner wisecracks and wisdom. It’s 10 a.m., and everyone opens a beer. The party is back on!

    Helen is our avatar as she quizzes the Californians on the logistics of their beach-bum lifestyle and gawks in horror at each reply. She wears a perturbed look during the entire play, but then, most of the actors’ faces seem stuck in one expression.

    Draped in an uninspired mixture of neon, Vans, Hawaiian shirts, floral print, plaid cargo pants, aviators, and flat brim hats, our protagonists (we eventually learn) are entertainment executives’ kids who have uniformly decided to cling to LA for another four years — except for Ivy League Harry.  Predictably, they employ the word “like,” to, like, not-so-great effect. Less predictably, they use phrases like “Jesus tap dancing Christ” and say “boink” to designate the carnal act.

    When it comes time to clarify Pierce’s hazy backstory, a lifeguard appears onstage to divert the slacker-king while the friends solemnly recount the legend to Helen. Pierce, actually two years ahead of the others, was a star football player with national-league potential who mysteriously quit the sport at the peak of his success. A tangle of subplots explains his current status: a charismatic, perennially inebriated beach-dweller lionized by a rotating gang of high schoolers. Otis Blum ’15, who wrote the play, is competent as Pierce but commands no gravitas.

    The storyline soon threatens to break down into clichés — first up, sex! BB and Harry flirt hard in a stereotypically hot-girl-and-nerd-finally-getting-together type of way. His impending departure for The Ivy League dooms their romance, but she spends the interim passionately asking questions like “Do you think you’ll ever smoke weed?”

    Helen, for her part, abandons Calvin for a fling with Pierce but has to compete with ex-girlfriend Emily, who, whatever her reasons for intermittently popping up at Pierce’s hobo dominion, is a bright spot of subtle acting.

    Next up, violence! Somewhere in the two-and-a-half-hour play, we are made privy to the distressing disappearance of 14-year-old Stella Mallick from last night’s rager. Her older brother thinks Pierce is guilty, and so they fight. (Let’s all try to forget the two men staggering about, yelling “Stella! Stella! I want my baby down here”).

    The band of partiers is likeable and energetic. That much should be said. But BB’s manic laughter, Harry’s choice to downplay all his important lines, the general bungling of key pieces of dialogue, and the unpleasant sense that actors are lapsing into improvisation will likely test audiences’ patience.

    “Angels” should be credited with having a plot, momentum, and some dramatic tension. Looking back, I feel some fondness for the characters, if only because I was in their shoes about 24 weeks ago. But the final point that must be driven home is that a minority of lines failed to induce a cringe or grimace.

    Soliloquies about Los Angeles contain epigrammatic nuggets like “No one’s actually from LA. We’re all tourists.” One-liners pack as little punch as “He didn’t die. He was just moderately displaced.” After being compared to trash by his opponent, Pierce challenges him to a fight with the retort, “Bring your rubber gloves and a trash bag. I am trash, and just like trash, I can’t be gotten rid of.” Vouching for the epicness of a party, one guy says, “The girls wear pretty much nothing but the scantiest of outfits!” Climactic moments are punctuated with tortured utterances of “What the fuck, dude?”

    To the critic ever on the lookout for an emblematic line, inadvertently an apt commentary on the play itself, one standout was: “Ain’t nobody got time for your theater nonsense.”

    I could go on. A neglect of lighting and sound effects … noxious nods to Tupac Shakur … Ivy League Boy whining about being hit on at a gay bar (after going to a gay bar) … Bechdel Test out the window. “Angels” has an insistent way of not being over.

    Perhaps my favorite moment came during intermission in the form of “City of Angels,” a transcendent ode to the city. If you’re looking for more melancholic mythologizing of youthful excess and urban ennui, go listen to Drake’s new mixtape. If you’re looking for a buddy comedy with something to say about entertainment culture, see “The Interview.” Heck, read “Looking for Alaska,” that cheesy, teeny volume of pseudo-philosophical pulp.

    For those of you who choose to see “Angels:” the show runs through Saturday, Feb. 21st.

    Directed by Max Fischer; produced by Hannah Sachs; with Colin Groundwater as Calvin, William Viederman as Shawn, Lindsay Falkenberg as Helen, Cody Kahoe as Harry, Charles Margossian as Tyler, Logan Kozal as BB, Otis Blum as Pierce, Naima Hebrail Kidjo as Emily, Gia Velasquez as Stella.

  2. Losing Track

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    It turns out that the mnemonically pachydermic Interweb still has its trunk wrapped tightly around records of a self I have long since discarded. I know this to be so because I Googled myself — the celebration and singing of oneself retooled for the modern age, no? In all likelihood you are now going to want to Google me too, so I’ll save you the trouble and simply confess: I was a runner. A trackie, the captain of my high school team, too XC for my shirt, seven miles in the snow. The girls who sweated together, stretched together; who barfed together, belched together. This was literally no walk in the park and anyway, suffering builds character. My senior year, I wrote my experience into a Real College Essay That Worked.

    Track was a big deal. As a runner, whether for better or for worse, I was not a big deal. There were three captaining positions my senior year, and a bizarre slew of defections in 2009 had left just three rising seniors, so in a way my appointment was by default. I like to think that I deserved it for all my painful diligence, but on the talent front I was only ever reliably mediocre. I still maintain that it was the most physically harrowing thing I have ever done or ever will do. And occasionally I didn’t even do it at all, incapacitated by both no sleep and my coach’s stern, paternal insistence that I please go home so my parents wouldn’t sue. In retrospect, it was a sound strategy: work so hard that people feel uncomfortable pointing out how little you’ve actually achieved. And if I never made my times, I at least reaped the physical benefits in full: toned gams, a preternatural ability to hold my breath for ages, the flexibility, finally, to touch my toes. I thought I was in love.

    If I really had been in love, I had a funny way of showing it. Post-graduation, suddenly the thought of running made me want to hurl almost as much as actual running. The day I entered the purgatory between twelfth grade and college, I severed all ties to the sport and spent the summer on the couch. I had the misfortune of living near the park where my former teammates worked out, so I hid from them in the velveteen folds of our upholstery. I dreaded Olympics broadcasts. I spent many a guilty day carb-loading at the future home of the cronut. It was summertime, and the livin’ was finally easy. Through my sugarcoated haze, I realized in shame that the pain to which I had willfully, obsequiously subjected myself for the past three years was no longer something I wanted to feel. It occurred to me that running, perhaps, was something I actually hated.

    That summer I didn’t quit running, because running quit me instead. When you stop or stall in your pursuit of an athletic goal, your sense of self inevitably changes after a while because you are physically not the same person capable of doing the same things. Worst of all is that you feel and look different, but the only person who can see what’s changed is you. One day you wake up and find your abs, though never prominent, are officially a thing of the past. What once was firm, now is fat — not that you were ever fat, but you were definitely once fit. The squishiness you disdained in your peers has introduced itself to your thighs with great aplomb. How is it that now you do one hundred crunches, but take breaks in between? No sense in talking about it, since you alone understand what it’s like to watch your times climb into what are the rafters for you, what is the ground floor for the untrained. You forget how you used to be good. You are trying to be done with your sport, but your body refuses to let you forget that you were once an athlete. You are softening. When Lucille Roberts commercials come on, the grating announcer is now talking to you when they mention $ummer $aving$! The media starts throwing you a housewarming party for your move-in to the American body, and all you want to do is sit and eat the consolation cake they have baked in your dubious honor.

    During the fall break of my first college semester, I visited my borough championship cross-country meet, where the sight of my uniformed team made me irrepressibly sad. Track had become more meaningful to them than it had ever been to me; they actually did love running, whereas I was just an ambitious masochist. Watching them tear across the finish line, though, I recalled some droplet of what it had been like to be drenched in the glory of personal victory, whether first place or last.

    But I did not want to run, nor did I think I had to any longer. I had run to be impressive, and finally I had impressed. Now, being neither coached nor captained, nor captain of anyone but myself, meant I was free. I could do what I wanted, and what I really wanted was to get my high school body back.

    I tried Pilates. A woman by the name of Cassey Ho runs a YouTube series called Blogilates, and what she lacks in intelligible conversation she makes up for in workout difficulty. I watched her bend her legs over her head, extend her hands in airplane position like a conductor cueing an orchestra. I fumed at the loss of my ability to touch my toes. Soon enough it became clear that Pilates was not a safe alternative to running, but an aching reminder of how unfit I’d become. Through it all, she never ceased to exclaim that I really could do whatever move she was doing, even as I lay there exhausted, incapable and shamefully still, or that there were only fifteen more repetitions to go — or did she say fifty? — or that all my hard work would pay off if I just followed her workout calendar to the last, sweaty T. On especially lonesome days I positioned my laptop on a chair beside my bed, curled up under my covers, and just watched her contort in self-loathing awe.

    Yoga was next. Unaware that yoga is something you work at, not a skill with which you are born, I became immediately frustrated when I realized I lacked the patience and skill to put my feet behind my ears.

    These experiments, alas, were short-lived, all too reminiscent of the mindless pain I had experienced in my former sport. Whatever had once motivated me had completely dissipated, and I was beginning to feel unconscionably lazy. To boot, it seemed like all my classes were confirming that I had also become a blockhead overnight. In public I felt I had vanished before I had even materialized, but in my dorm room mirror I saw every stretch of my skin in ugly, unflattering clarity.

    Humans are really nothing like butterflies, no matter what the Hallmark poets say, because chrysalises shed their skin and humans have to live with what they’ve got. I didn’t want to be an athlete anymore. But with an athlete’s body, maybe I’d fool myself, which is what I craved — proof that I hadn’t changed (for the worse, I was sure) as much as I’d thought. Becoming a person you like is difficult enough the first time around, and now I was confronting the possibility of having to do it all over again.

    It’s been a process, but explainable thusly: I am trying to figure what I like. Speaking of which, late this August, on a friend’s bequest, I missed the finale of Chopped All-Stars for a run, but a slow one, more of a jog. For once I hadn’t wanted to keel over when I finished. My body had done just what I’d asked of it, and for the meantime that was enough.

    Running and I, we’re going to take a break. I need my soul for other things, and this lapse in my athletic career has as of late been nothing short of thrilling.

    Last weekend I was crossing the street in the drizzle when I came across some people warming up for a road race. I beamed at them, genuinely happy to see their devotion to running persist despite the inclement weather. And then I walked on, rejoicing that I was not, and genuinely had no desire to be, among them.

  3. At 177 College St., Artists in the Making

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    It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning, and Mr. McAfee’s juniors are warming up for class.

    “Head voice!” he calls out, then “Chest voice!” and the row of students whooeep and heeay and hiiii, shaking from side to side before they’re told to inhale. “Now say your names, say, ‘Hi, my name is,’ and then the name of your character,” he continues. “It has to be big and full and vibrating, so everyone in the space can hear it without even trying.”

    “Hi, my name is Polonius.”

    “Hi, my name is Claudius.”

    McAfee stops a girl in a blue sweatshirt who he doesn’t think has spoken loudly enough, and asks her to try again.

    “HI, MY NAME IS OPHELIA,” she shouts.

    “See you’re going to hurt your voice that way, you can’t be hurting your voice,” McAfee tells her. “You can be that loud without straining yourself. You have a lot of lines so I want to make sure everyone hears them, because you’re doing some great stuff.”

    There’s a collective “awwwwww” from the other students standing on stage, and after a couple of giggles the group carries on.

    “Hi, my name is Hamlet.”

    “Hi, my name is Rosencrantz.”


    * * *


    These students are putting on “Hamlet” as a class as part of their work at the Theater Department at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in downtown New Haven (known as the Co-op). The school is located less than two blocks from Old Campus, on the corner of College and Crown streets.

    While 65 percent of students at Co-op live in New Haven, 35 percent come from outside the city. The Interdistrict Magnet Schools system provides free bus transportation to students, including those from towns such as Guilford and North Branford, and travel can take as much as an hour each way.

    Like all of the 18 New Haven Magnet Schools, the only way to get into the Co-op is by a lottery which takes place in February of each year. Though no one can audition or submit a writing portfolio, students must select one of the school’s five arts departments to apply to: creative writing, visual arts, music, dance and theater.

    Infinity Jean, a junior at the school, said that she was so set on working on theater that Co-op was the only school to which she applied. “It’s a good thing I got in,” she added. “Or I would have gone to Hillhouse [her neighborhood public school in New Haven].”

    Jean was luckier than a lot of students: for each spot in its freshman class, the school is forced to turn away many more students than it accepts. With a total enrollment of 650, Co-op consistently has the longest waiting list each year of any school in the magnet system, according to Arts Director Suzannah Holsenbeck ’05.

    A passion for the arts is not the only reason some apply to Co-op. Theater teacher Robert Esposito said that he always begins with a new group of students by asking, “Why are you here?” And for some students, the answer is simply “because my mom doesn’t want me to go to Hillhouse.

    Esposito can sympathize with the parents: Co-op, he said, has a kinder environment than some surrounding neighborhood schools. On top of the Co-op’s strong academic reputation and sparkling new facilities, Esposito said students are less likely to be bullied there. The school is heavily female, and has a large openly gay community.

    “I know for me, I have an 11-year-old daughter. I would love for her to come to Co-op,” Esposito said. “I think that says a lot — I totally understand why parents force their kids to come here.”


    * * *


    While the Co-op offers a standard, college preparatory academic track, students spend an hour and a half on their chosen arts every day — a full 25 percent of their total instructional time, and the largest concentration in any subject matter that they have.

    For the first two years the theater curriculum strives to expose students to the widest possible range of aspects of theater, with freshmen focusing on ensemble building and sophomores on scene study. In these two years they’ll study everything from the Stanislavski method of acting to technical theater, read “Oedipus Rex” and learn techniques for auditioning. As juniors they’ll split off into technical and acting tracks based on students’ interests, and study Shakespeare before moving into modern drama their senior year.

    Senior Frankie Douglass said that while she has always liked theater, before coming to Co-op she didn’t consider herself an artist. The Co-op school was her second choice after the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), also located in downtown New Haven — which selects students through a merit-based, competitive application process. “It was my first time auditioning for anything,” she said. “I messed it up.”

    After three and a half years at Co-op, she has realized that not only does she belong among the arts, she needs them. “I feel like we all look at the world differently now,” Douglass said. “Now situations, tragedies we go through, we can take all that and we have somewhere to put it.”

    Despite representing a similar economic demographic as other area public schools, the Co-op can boast significantly higher test scores, and rates of college attendance. Of all the students who graduated from the Theater Department last year, Esposito said that maybe all but two are now in college, while noting that funding can remain an obstacle for many students from low-income families.

    “When you’re dealing with any kind of at-risk population you have to give students a reason to come to school,” he said. “When they realize they have a show in a month and people are depending on [them], they’re gonna go to school. The largest step is getting them in the building.”

    Senior Lyanne Segui thinks having arts every day helps their academics by giving them something to do that requires focus but still gives them a break.

    Co-op students’ enthusiasm for the arts is palpable. During a break between classes, a girl asks her friend about the student dance show that took place the weekend before while fixing her hair in the bathroom mirror. Later, two boys talk about a visual arts student’s capstone project presented earlier in the day on their way to lunch. One girl in McAfee’s class actually complained that the school had closed the day before, “for just like, two inches of snow,” making the group miss a day of rehearsal for “Hamlet.”


    * * *


    Because of the lottery system, the students who come to Co-op each year come from very diverse backgrounds, theater teacher Christi Sargent explained: some come from arts magnet middle schools, others have little experience, or interest, in the arts at all. While this range of experience can pose a challenge to instructors, Esposito said that he wouldn’t necessarily change the system.

    “There would be so many kids we’d miss out on because they wouldn’t have the confidence or savvy to come and audition,” he said. “When I look back, all the kids I think were most special and got the most out of it would never have had the guts to audition, would have had no clue they had any talent.”

    And Sargent maintains that with enough hard work and focus, everyone can succeed in the theater program. One of her main tasks is simply helping those who don’t come in with a high level of confidence in themselves to grow comfortable with the kind of risk-taking theater requires.

    “The people you meet in theater class are not people you’re going to meet in creative writing,” senior Yasmari Collazo said. “They’re out there, they don’t care, that weirdness rubs off on you.” Simone Ngongi, a junior, said the Co-op theater program has helped her get used to stepping out of her comfort zone.

    Esposito said that the Co-op is not immune from problems that plague lower-income schools, such as students who come in with low reading levels, and with a correspondingly low level of faith in their own abilities. Nevertheless, teaching at Co-op is “easy” compared to the Fair Haven Middle School where he began working as a teacher.

    The main task for Esposito is to focus on what students do well and build from that, no matter how small the victories may seem at first. He recalled one past student who, when first asked to do a presentation as a freshman, simply lost her breath and ran out of the room. But by her senior year, he said, she was the lead in the class mainstage.

    Sargent said one of her current freshman initially broke down in tears when asked to participate in class, and she had to work in small increments to overcome her fears. “Every day I gave her new goals to accomplish,” Sargent said, “Tomorrow she’s going to be in her first play.”


    * * *


    Sargent does not push her kids to go into theater professionally, and doesn’t see that as the purpose of the program. “I want to show students how this can change their lives in terms of confidence,” she said. “These skills transition to all aspects of life, whether you want to be a nurse or a secretary.”

    When it comes to the future, students themselves are largely pragmatic. According to Segui, most of her classmates don’t plan to pursue theater because they want to be financially stable, not because they don’t enjoy it. Douglass said that she plans to be a culinary nutritionist in college, and perhaps someday later she will go back to acting, perhaps even attend a conservatory.

    But though Segui is very aware of the uncertainty involved in a career in theater, she is certain that she wants to pursue it nevertheless.

    “There’s just never been anything else I’ve found as interesting,” she said.

    Collazo, who recently finished her college applications, said that she used to dream of growing up to be a famous actress and starring in movies, but that over the years her perspective has gotten a dose of reality.

    “I realized I need a game plan,” she laughed. But while Collazo said acting isn’t the main thing she wants to focus on in college, she was equally apprehensive about quitting it altogether. “How do you let go of something you do every day?” she said. “This school takes the arts and really shoves them into our personalities.”