following article is reprinted from Fall 2001 edition
of the Soul of an American Actor
Olympics of The
BY KAREN DE MAURO
In the weeks and months that have followed the World Trade Center disaster, both children and adults continue to cast about for ways to respond to these deeply troubled times. Among the many evolving definitions of heroism, several include countless laudable often-unheralded behaviors done by ordinary people in the face of this lifesearing event. When school children in the vicinity of the World Trade Center followed their teachers away from the site of the disaster out of safety, they were involved in a heroic act.
Educators and artists are now finding themselves inventing or combining unique blends of metaphors, stories, news, sounds, sensations, and images in order to help children find their own particular "doorway" into the event, built around a specific individual "hook."
Relying heavily upon an informed selection of life-enforcing "hooks," composer Steve Alper and I came together recently with 70 sixth grade students in New Hyde Park, guided by their three classroom teachers, support school administrative staff, and their highly supportive school principal, George Usdan, to create a tribute called Olympics of
What the students witnessed on September 11th and in the following days varied radically depending on where they were, who they knew, and what they had grasped about the "big picture" playing on television, airing on radio, or bombarding them in print_ A child whose fire-fighting father has been missing for three days would have dwelled in an entirely different context than a child in a far away city, who when asked to draw an American flag as an act of sympathy, would have an entirely different response when asked to respond to what patriotism, freedom and the flag mean. However, in the case of the directly impacted child the event is an omnipresent as the charged air she breathes.
I chose to focus Olympics of the Heart on the theme of "the rescue of beloved friends" because I knew that the school district had many police and fire-fighter families. My choice had also been influenced by Peter Jennings' televised discussion with children and teenagers on the Saturday following the attack. To paraphrase what one young person said: "I think we have to look at ourselves to find out what it is we do to people as well as look at what they do to us." This child's self awareness reminded me of the poet and educator Richard Lewis' insight that children need opportunities and projects that allow them time and tools for reflection.
I purposefully defined the focus of the show to be on "heroic acts," allowing the students to search for small daring acts of heroism, kindness and courage inherent in the curriculum that they were already studying at the time of the WTC disaster. The initial theme came from a key phrase mentioned by a teacher, Laurie Francis, in a conversation. She said that the children's current textbook on. the Ancient Greeks dealt heavily with the Olympics and that this part of the text was what the students found most interesting.
I also decided the play should carry both strong feelings and act as a containment vessel for them, creating an environment giving permission for the students to explore. I drew upon certain themes, which I called "meeting points," arising from parallel images that moved back and forth between the students' response to the event of September 11th, and the topic at hand, "Ancient Greeks and Mythology." Among the themes gathered by the students included were terror, rescue, loyalty, danger, love, revenge, confusion, rebuilding, destruction, surprise, grief, amazement, horror, sadness, hope, despair, courage, not-knowing, hatred, violence, and compassion.
While no child in the performing group has lost a parent of close friend, some had lost relatives and several had parents who worked in New York City. Also some school staff had experienced close escapes of parents and children, of husbands and wives. A. few teachers were dealing directly with the death of a. friend or relative. My particular experience was slightly different from that of the children with whom I was working. Although I had not been directly impacted by the death or injury of a loved one, I lived close enough to the event to have smelled its smell and saw the movement of rescue in and out of the area.
The whole idea of creating art as a form of response brought up several questions: Why would a school or any organization or individual elect to do theatre at such a survival-focused time? Is it too soon to create art catalyzed by a life event that is still unfolding in all its horror, sorrow and magnitude? Is there something sacrilegious about creating art like this at all out of such massive human loss? These were questions we continued to ask throughout the process.
The daily miracle of staying present to the constantly shifting realities as they reordered themselves felt right before our eyes when done in the face of the questions that accompanied it. I relied upon Steven Alper, with whom I have written over fifty musicals with, to create sing-able, graspable songs that the students could handle. As we worked with the students, we learned a great deal in the process.
The entire show was written, rehearsed and performed in six days, with each day centering on a different set off skills and lessons. By the second day, twenty students had become our "writer/actors," chosen by their teachers to work on the main story line. Their job was to keep the "big picture" in mind, while creating a story line with 71 speaking roles, which also included five songs: a march entitled "Olympics of the .Heart," a rap song about how sick the kids were of fear and violence, a celebratory vaudeville-style song sung by a goofy group of the Greek gods and goddesses, a number about "Endurance" under pressure, and a lovely anthem called "Life Matters," that focused on the precariousness and fragility of life itself.
The response of the parents during the one evening performance held was extremely positive. What was unexpected was their spontaneous clapping as they accompanied the march at the end of the show. One father commented afterwards: "It was really wonderful, so full of heart, I never expected something like this."
The whole event caused me as an artist to re-examine why artists create in the first place. In times when society primarily needs its rescue workers, medical personnel and spiritual counselors, the role of the artist seems limited. As Tom Hanks said on the International Telethon: "We are not rescuers... we are merely artists whose job it is to raise spirits."
But the raising of spirit is no paltry task. It is in fact the act of resurrecting value and meaning from the ashes of violence and sorrow. Theatrical engagement is the act of compassionately embodying other people to understand means to be a human being alive on the earth. To practice being fully present to each moment in time.
Thornton Wilder in Our Town has Emily ask, "Do any human beings realize life as they live it - every minute?" And the reply, "Saints and poets maybe - they do some."
The parents who saw the sixth grade production of Olympics of the Heart were able to glimpse both the poetic and the sacred in their children that night. Seventy-one students were courageous enough to take part freely, deeply and consciously. It is a fitting testimony how New York has suffered and survived. 2001
Excerpts' from "Olympics of the Heart" written by Karen De Mauro.
Reprinted with the permission of the author
KAREN DeMAURO - Is the Artistic Director of The Acting Center in New York City, She coaches Broadway actors and corporate executives. Formerly, Ms. DeMauro did casting for The Manhattan Theatre Club and directed About Men for The United Nations. She can be reached at email@example.com