The American Place Theatre - Literature to Life
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The American Place Theatre - Literature to Life

New York City, New York, United States

New York City, New York, United States
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In April, author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson shared his insights about education and peace building with an enthusiastic Edutopia webinar audience. I caught up with him again in New York a few weeks later, where he was honored with a prestigious literary award called Literature to Life. Fittingly, he used the gala occasion to turn the spotlight on young people.

Before the honor was bestowed, Mortenson had the opportunity to be a spectator of his own life story as American Place Theatre staged a one-man show based on his book, Three Cups of Tea.
Books Come Alive

Seconds after the house lights dimmed, the sound of air-sucking gasps broke the stillness. Audience members squirmed in their seats, looking for the source of distress. It took them a moment to figure out that the labored breathing came from a lone figure wearing a headlamp. He made his way toward the stage as if he were an oxygen-starved climber descending from the treacherous heights of K2. And so began actor Curtis Nielsen's one-man show based on Mortenson's bestseller. It traces the mountain climber's true-life saga of becoming a builder of schools and advocate of literacy in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Students across the country will have the chance to experience this dramatic reenactment in the coming months through a unique program of American Place Theatre. For 15 years, this nonprofit company has been introducing young audiences to works by major American authors. Past recipients of the Literature to Life award include Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Tim O'Brien, and others.

The theatrical events based on their books are not readings, emphasized Wynn Handman, co-founder and artistic director of APT. Rather, as he explained during remarks at the gala, "the moment is found and lived as the actors inhabit the role." APT teaching artists work closely with classroom teachers to turn these productions into opportunities for deep engagement with literature.
A Hero in Education

For Mortenson, it's an honor to be selected for the Literature to Life award. He humbly accepted the award from Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts who considers Mortenson "a personal hero." But more significantly, the selection means that his story can travel farther than he is able to do. Although Mortenson visits more than 100 schools annually, he receives requests from many times that number. Now, school groups eager for a "Dr. Greg" encounter have another way to make that happen.

Why is this story worth spreading? For many students, Mortenson's saga becomes the inspiration for their own good works. Some 4,500 schools have taken part in a service-learning program called Pennies for Peace, which incorporates Three Cups of Tea into a standards-based curriculum for grades K-12. Countless others find their own way into community service.

Wherever he goes, Mortenson says, he encounters young people who have embraced service. That was true at the recent gala. Students from two New York schools who had taken part in APT programs also gave short performances. Afterwards, Mortenson asked them about their community work. Each student had something to offer, whether it was helping at a soup kitchen, tutoring peers, or planting trees. Such youthful activism inspires Mortenson. He has taken to calling today's young people "the Greatest Generation," and predicts that their efforts will "make the world a better place."

In the village schools that Mortenson has helped launch in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the learning program incorporates theater, storytelling, and other arts. "The arts are the soul of any nation," Mortenson said. For children who have endured the trauma of war, he has even seen the arts lead the way to healing.
Creating Lifelong Readers

Yet in the U.S., funding for arts education is threatened in many communities. American Place Theatre is helping to fill this critical gap with a celebration of distinctly American stories. APT reaches some 30,000 students annually. The majority are children growing up in poverty, often with no books at home. APT has found that, after a school performance, 85 percent of students want to read or re-read the book they have watched come to life.

Has your school participated in APT's Literature to Life program, and how did your students respond to the experience? We'd love to hear your observations on the power of children experiencing live literary performances. - Edutopia.org


FLINT, Michigan — “The Kite Runner”—Khaled Hosseini’s story about betrayal and redemption set against the backdrop of Afghanistan—has been a best-selling novel and a film.

On Tuesday and Friday, The American Place Theatre in New York will bring the story to Flint as a one-man stage show.
“The story is told from a first-person narrative,” said Gwen Brownson, director of education programs for APT. “It’s a real lesson in profound acting skills (using) the subtleties of voice and gesture.”

Performed by Sorab Wadia of New York, the play tells the story of two boys—Amir, a privileged Pashtun, and Hassan, his Hazara servant—who form an improbable friendship during the turmoil of 1970s Afghanistan.

Amir betrays Hassan, who receives a brutal beating from neighborhood bullies. After moving to California and becoming a successful novelist, Amir learns that the Taliban have murdered Hassan and his wife, raising questions about the fate of his son, Sohrab.

Feeling guilty about the childhood incident, Amir travels to Kabul to hunt for the boy.

Because this is a one-person show, there will be minimal costumes and sets.

“We put a real emphasis on use of the imagination—not unlike the process of reading a book,” Brownson said.

“It really translates well to the stage,” she added. “The conflict is incredibly tense and makes for good theater.”

The stage version is part of APT’s “Literature to Life” program in which literary works are adapted for educational purposes.

Besides the public performances, there will be workshops for local schools presented by Jeffrey Solomon, an actor, director and writer.

“We’re using theater to help students make personal connections to themes in literature,” Brownson said. - Theresa Roach, Flint, Michigan


THOUSANDS of Westchester residents will be reading aloud — from the same story — as the county’s third Big Read gets under way on Feb. 6.

BIG READ The actor Billy Lyons of the American Place Theater will present an adaptation of “The Things They Carried,” stories about a platoon in the Vietnam War, at 3 p.m. on Feb. 21 at the Arts Exchange in White Plains.
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Times Topics: Westchester Arts Listings | Westchester Arts

Passages from “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s fictionalized chronicle of a platoon of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, will be explored in what is called a read-a-loud, the first of more than 26 Big Read programs organized by ArtsWestchester and the Westchester Library System in February and March.

Participants will examine one or more of the themes addressed in the book, among them the horrors of war, the social and political changes of the 1960s and 1970s, the power of story and the elusiveness of memory and truth.

“There are so many current events involving war that are flagged by this book,” said Janet T. Langsam, executive director of ArtsWestchester. “There’s the public policy piece, which is whether this is a war we should be in, and then there’s the support we all feel as Americans for our troops being in harm’s way.”

Mr. O’Brien, speaking by telephone from his home in Austin, Tex., talked about the similarities between the Vietnam War, in which he fought, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Obviously there are differences,” he said, “chief among them the absence of the draft. But there are enough similarities. These are wars in which there are no uniforms, no front, no rear. Who’s the enemy? What do you shoot back at? Whom do you trust? At the bottom, all wars are the same because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.”

Despite its often brutal and painful subject matter, Mr. O’Brien, 62, said he found great joy in writing “The Things They Carried.”

“To revisit tragedy in a way that’s imaginative and challenging is not the same as lying in bed picking at the scabs of memory,” he said. “It’s trying to salvage something from memory and make something beautiful out of it.”

Several of the Big Read programs will recognize veterans. At the Mount Vernon Public Library on Feb. 6, the letters and journal entries of Westchester soldiers, from World War II to the present, will be read aloud. Later in February, artwork by veterans will be exhibited at Fordham University’s Westchester campus in West Harrison. The school will also run a six-week creative-writing workshop for veterans, co-sponsored by the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.

These and other events are subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts, which created the Big Read in response to research it conducted in 2004 that found a national decline in reading for pleasure. Since the program’s inception in 2006, more than 800 Big Read grants have been distributed to communities nationwide.

The National Endowment awarded the Westchester organizers $20,000 for each of their Big Reads, in 2007, 2009 and this year.

“We appreciate the program,” Ms. Langsam said, “because it gives us the opportunity to collaborate with community and arts organizations on a different level than we normally do.”

Nearly 50 groups or schools are participating in Westchester’s Big Read, and some high schools are incorporating “The Things They Carried” in their spring curriculums.

Six local libraries were given $300 grants to create programs for their communities. At Hendrick Hudson Free Library, for example, there will be a memory collage workshop led by Michael Albert, an artist and writer who lives in White Plains.

Numerous book discussion groups, some conducted by volunteers trained by ArtsWestchester, will meet at libraries and other locations throughout the county; there are also theater, film, visual arts and writing events. They include two war-focused film festivals and a one-person stage adaptation of “The Things They Carried” produced by American Place Theater’s Literature to Life program.

Mr. O’Brien’s book was selected from 31 options presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We wanted a book that would be a springboard for civic dialogue,” said Joanne Mongelli, deputy director of programs and policy at ArtsWestchester, “and that would appeal to a broad range of interests for high school students on up.”

The experience gained from Westchester’s two earlier Big Reads, as well as follow-up participant surveys, helped with this year’s planning. “Initially we assumed that people would read the book and then attend some of the programs to give them more context,” Ms. Mongelli said. “What we discovered was that a lot of people came to the programs first and then read the book. So we thought about what kinds of programs would engage people who hadn’t read the book yet, or wanted to test the waters.”

The diversity of programming, she said, “is so people can enter the discussion in different ways.”

The power of stories, a theme for the reading discussions, is a big part of Mr. O’Brien’s work. “My books are as much about storytelling as they are about their surface content,” he said. “I’m so beguiled by what stories can do and how we carry them around with us in times of trauma and loneliness. They can be of great comfort, maybe the greatest comfort.” - Susan Hodara, The New York Times


It's not unusual for a bestselling book like The Kite Runner to be adapted for the stage, and there is such a version with a full cast of characters. And then there was the 2007 movie made from Khaled Hosseini's novel about the friendship of two boys in Afghanistan.

But the touring production of The Kite Runner playing the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this weekend is something else. Produced by the American Place Theatre as part of its Literature to Life program, it's a dramatic interpretation of sections of the novel, performed by a single actor.

"We don't invent new scenes or anything like that. We certainly do pick and choose among the scenes in the book. It's memorized and performed verbatim,'' said David Kener, executive director of the theater in New York.

In its paperback edition, The Kite Runner is 371 pages. The Literature to Life script is a fraction of that length, and the performance by Sorab Wadia runs about an hour.

"You can't do the whole book,'' Kener said. "You have to find what your narrative through-line is. It's a very actor-centered idea, because the actor has to play so many characters. There's very little set, maybe a stool. There's very little music. It's this fully realized one-person performance that transports you.''

The Kite Runner is one of about 15 books to be adapted in this fashion, mostly by Wynn Handman, the director and acting teacher who cofounded American Place in 1963. The company has an illustrious history — Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes and Steve Tesich are among the playwrights whose work was fostered there; and Handman's students constitute a hall of fame of American actors, from Alec Baldwin to Joanne Woodward — but it stopped doing stage shows several years ago.

The Literature to Life program started with an adaptation of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and the active roster now has nine productions, including The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, Black Boy by Richard Wright, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and Flight by Sherman Alexie. The newest production is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The program is geared to young audiences. "High schools, colleges, sometimes middle schools, that's our core audience,'' Kener said. "While the performances all would live on any stage for adults, we feel that the thing we're supposed to be doing is to activate young people to want to read.''

Kener and others on the American Place staff read many books in search of those that lend themselves to adaptation. "If you look at a lot of these selections, they're about a young person trying to get out of their circumstances, and what the tools are that help them to do that,'' he said. "There's a journey that needs to be taken. I think that translates into trying to give young people the gift of believing in themselves.'' - John Flemming - St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Bay


Every week, I scan the local arts listings, hoping to find something interesting to do. When I stumbled across a listing for a Thursday evening performance of the one-act play “Flight,” adapted from a novel by Sherman Alexie, I knew immediately that I wanted to go. Because Alexie is a terrific writer and I’m always telling myself I should go to the theater, “Flight” seemed like a can’t-miss proposition, a chance to do something fun and different and interesting.

“Flight” was adapted for the stage by Wynn Handman of the American Place Theatre in New York City, and presented by the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany. It’s an intense and compelling yet often very funny work, the story of an American Indian teenager named Zits who has spent most of his life bouncing from foster home to foster home. As I walked out of the theater, I couldn’t help but wish that I was back in college, because in college, arts events are cheap and plentiful, and there’s never a shortage of stimulating, thought-provoking entertainment.

Of course, I didn’t actually take full advantage of these opportunities when I was in college, and if I were to travel back in time to my undergraduate days, I think I would make better decisions about how to spend my time.

For instance, there was one weekend my freshman year when all of these great things were going on. The filmmaker John Waters was giving a talk and screening one of his movies. Jerry Greenfield, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, was playing in an alumni lacrosse game and handing out free pints of ice cream. “I have a lot to do this weekend,” I thought. “I think I’ll skip John Waters, and go get some ice cream.”

Clearly, this was the wrong decision. Maybe it made sense when I was a freshman in college — Yeah! Free ice cream! — but as an adult I really wish I’d gone to see John Waters. At least I managed to catch Allen Ginsburg when he read at the bookstore.

Not long ago, a friend of mine suggested that we could have found more meaningful things to do in college than drink and go to parties. “I could have built a house for Habitat for Humanity,” she mused. “I could have helped make the world a better place.”

I had to admit that she had a point. During my senior year, I went to cheap pitcher night at the inn every Monday, quarter beers every Tuesday, early ’80s night every Thursday and TGIF — a happy hour sponsored by the bar in the student union — almost every Friday. Then there are the parties I went to on the weekends, the hours I spent playing horseshoes and drinking beer once it got warm outside, and the fact that one of my housemates decided to start brewing beer shortly before graduation.

Of course, all of this seemed perfectly appropriate at the time.

I was a college student, after all, and college students drink and go to parties. And we did have great fun, although the college party I attended during my 10-year reunion — my friend Nachie’s old college band, Bippy, was playing a gig there — made me seriously doubt my decision-making ability during those years. The house was loud and crowded and dirty, and eventually my friend Dave and I fled to a bar filled with grouchy alumni like ourselves. It made me wonder whether, viewed through the prism of adulthood, the parties we threw in college would seem similarly pathetic. They seemed pretty awesome when we were 21, but of course that was back when we were idiots.

I guess it’s pretty safe to say that I missed out on a lot more than John Waters when I was in college. I missed other filmmakers when they came to town, and authors, and theater and dance performances. I saw some of this stuff, but not as much as I should have, and in the end, I can’t help but think that sometimes college is wasted on college students.

But it wasn’t a total wash.

I’d never heard of Sherman Alexie until I was assigned to read his wonderful collection of short stories, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” for a contemporary fiction class I took in college. The book was delightful, and I proceeded to read a couple of his later novels, “Reservation Blues” and “Indian Killer.”

So maybe I did learn more in college than how to play darts and the easiest way to pick up a keg. I discovered writers, and attended concerts — everything from the jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis to the punk-ska band Mephiskapheles — and even watched dance and theater from time to time. Maybe, as an adult, I’ve just truly learned to value the arts, and to not take them for granted.

Still, old habits die hard.

A group of alumni who worked on my old student newspaper are organizing a February journalism panel on campus, and I’d been debating whether to go, since northeastern Ohio isn’t exactly the most pleasant place on earth during the winter and my chances of driving through a snowstorm on the way there are probably greater than 60 percent. But then I received an e-mail from a friend that made the whole event sound irresistible.

“I’ll buy the first round at the inn,” he said.

“Well,” I said. “That seems like a can’t-miss proposition.” And I knew immediately I wanted to go. - Sara Foss - The Daily Gazette, Schenectady


'In 1905, they published all of his criticism, which I have devoured,'' he said of Shaw. ''He wrote that in the 1890s, more people in London went to the theater than went to church.''

Then Mr. Handman, who quotes often, went into a recitation:

''This would be a very good thing, if the theater took itself seriously as a factory of thought, an elucidator of social conscience, an armory against despair and dullness, and a temple of the ascent of man.''

''I was open enough to be inspired by that,'' Mr. Handman said.

And he acted on it in 1962, when he founded the American Place Theater, a grant-financed, subscription-only destination for alternative work, in a 200-seat West Side church. Its mission was to put on shows that were ''too far-out'' for Broadway.

Mr. Handman welcomed submissions from unknown Pennsylvania playwrights and pursued authors like Philip Roth and Anne Sexton in equal measure. Terrence McNally was the stage manager, and the young actor Dustin Hoffman hung around a lot. Though the group incorporated theater into Sunday sermons, American Place outgrew the church and moved to Midtown.

For more than two decades, Mr. Handman served as director and cheerleader for the art-theater of its day; it was known for taking risks on young writers and performers like Mr. Shepard and Mr. Leguizamo, both of whom it helped put on the theatrical map.

''As far as I was concerned, American Place was the pinnacle of the kind of theater that I loved,'' said Mr. Bogosian, who performed ''Drinking in America'' there in 1985 under the direction of Mr. Handman. ''He helped foster idiosyncratic work; he has a great eye for what's good, what's honest. And Wynn was very generous; I was temperamental, and he would pretty much swing to that.''

But the grants dried up, and the scene became increasingly commercial. Though American Place stopped doing stage shows several years ago, it now produces ''Literacy for Life,'' dramatic interpretations of books for high school students.

''The student audience, to me, has become the most important audience I can reach, because you impact so deeply on them,'' Mr. Handman said.

As for the surprises in store for him at tomorrow's celebration, ''There'll be a lot of people I haven't seen in a long time,'' he said. ''And everything is a story.''

Correction: May 25, 2007, Friday An article on Sunday about Wynn Handman, an acting teacher and director in New York who was honored on Monday for his 85th birthday by students and protégés, misspelled the given name of one former student and misstated the name of a drama program for high school students produced by American Place Theater, which Mr. Handman founded. The former student is the actress Allison Janney, not Alison, and the program is Literature to Life, not Literacy for Life. - MELENA RYZIK - The New York Times


Discography

The Literature to Life roster includes the following titles:

- The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
(featured at national showcases.)

-Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

-The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

-The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

-Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
(Available January 2011)

-Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
(Available November 2010)

-Flight by Sherman Alexie

-Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

-Black Boy by Richard Wright

-Zora by Laurence Holder
(Based on the life of Zora Neale Hurston)

-The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

-The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
(Subject to availability)

-Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown

-Teacher Man by Frank McCourt.

For a complete list of titles and programs, please visit http://www.americanplacetheatre.org

Photos

Bio

The American Place Theatre is a 501 (c)3 non-profit theatre that was founded by Artistic Director, Wynn Handman in 1962 becoming one of the first Off Broadway houses in New York City. For over 48 years, The Theatre has made a consistent commitment to nurture and cultivate the talents of American authors, playwrights, and actors. Morgan Freeman, Dustin Hoffman, Sigourney Weaver, John Leguizamo, Eric Begosian, Olympia Dukakis, Sam Shepherd, Richard Gere, Michael Douglass, and John Malkovich are among the many alumni that have crossed the theatre's stage.

In 1995, The Theatre piloted a new performance-based literacy program called Literature to Life(r) with the staging of Toni Morrison's, "The Bluest Eye." Fifteen years later, The American Place Theatre's exclusive educational programming is Literature to Life and offers over 25 titles that tour nationally to educational venues including colleges, universities, and performing arts centers. (Please see discography a list of available titles.)

What is a Literature to Life performance?
It is a verbatim theatrical adaptation of great American Literature masterfully performed by a solo professional actor. Each performance will be surrounded by an interactive pre and post show discussion encouraging students to explore themes from the Literature.

How does the experience work?
-PRE SHOW (15 min.); Students will participate in a lively interactive discussion facilitated by a Literature to Life Master Teaching Artist who is an expert in the literature. Whether students have read the book or not they will benefit from this unique approach to pre-show engagement lead by a dynamic professional theatre artist.
-PERFORMANCE (approx. 1 hour); A unique theatrical experience, students will be taken on a journey by an exceptional performer playing up to fifteen different characters from the literature. This is an intimate and personal audience experience unlike anything seen in the traditional theatre.
-POST SHOW(15 min.); The Master Teaching Artist will be joined by the professional actor in a post-show reflection of the student’s personal connections to the performance and the literature. The full experience will resonate with students far beyond the ninety minutes. In the words of one partner,“There are a good number of people who came in contact with The American Place Theatre last week who now move about the world in a more passionate, thoughtful and just manner.”

Do you offer other services in addition to performances?
YES! We offer residency and professional development workshops intended to deepen the impact before or after students view the performance. Workshops encourage students to explore the themes from the literature and are most effective in schools of Theatre, Literature or Education. (Residency sessions optional and not included in the cost of performance)

Why participate in Literature to Life?
-The Literature to Life experience is a great way to bring your student body together around a single book and provide an opportunity for community engagement on campus.

-Literature to Life has toured to over 70 college campuses since 2005.

-Literature to Life encourages reading, writing, and critical thinking and has already provided a catalyst for learning and self-expression for over 375,000 nationwide.

-Literature to Life has had much success with campus activities such as Freshman Reads Programs, Multi-Cultural Awareness Events and Program Orientations

-Following the experience of a Literature to Life Performance, 85% of students want to read or re-read the book.

Literature to Life Testimonials:
- "I haven't read any books outside of what I read in school. After the experience, I went home and read the first two chapters of the book. It was actually a life changing experience for me." – Student, Kirtland Community College, MI

- "I know we changed some lives last week. There are a good number of people who came in contact with American Place Theatre last week who now move about the world in a more passionate, thoughtful and just manner. Any week you can accomplish that, well, that is a very, very good week." – Steve Duchrow, Elgin Community College, IL

-"Not only are these inspiring presentations entertaining, they do so much to spark a lifelong passion for reading in their audiences." ~Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

- "I appreciate that you held on to some seats for my group for Three Cups of Tea!!! I look forward to the study guide. They are always very good! One of my students was actually quoting from Teacher Man recently!!! That is how powerful these performances are! Thanks for bringing them to us." – patron of the University of Albany.

For Literature to Life national showcases, we will sample an excerpt from Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." Please visit the link on the sonicbids application to view the streaming video of this performance.