“BRAAAINS!” And Why We Do the Things We Do

Teaching Artist and Step Right Up! Program Manager Bonnie Pipkin updates us on the effects of the program and the most recent show, BRAAAINS: A Christmas Story.

Last week, I received an email from an administrator at The Green School. It’s been a couple months since Mary Meyer and I brought the Step Right Up! program there and so my mind has wandered to other corners of my life. But this note brought me back to one of the most important projects I am involved in. The title of the email was “kudos” and here is what she said:

Dear Ms. Bonnie,

Since SRU! ended, [a student whose name I’ll omit here]’s attendance has fallen off. Just wanted to reflect back to you that your program was meaningful to her even outside the play itself. You guys rock.

We are currently hosting another program that makes me appreciate even more the elements of your program that seemed to come so naturally to you: consistency, team building, understanding and channeling student energy, focus – let me say again, you guys rock. We have been so lucky to have you.

Looking forward to next fall.

My heart melted when I read that eSRU Flyer 2012mail. It made me want to jump back in and get that student back on track. It made me think about how important these creative projects are, and about how having something that the students take ownership in and can feel proud of brings positivity to all aspects of their lives. Last fall was our fourth year at The Green School, a Brooklyn public high school, and this student wasn’t the first whose attendance improved during the program. It’s amazing how having something to look forward to after school just might keep a couple students in school, too.

The Step Right Up! program is all about the community spirit. When we started at the school, there wasn’t a drama program. Heck, there wasn’t even a prom! It’s wonderful to watch the creative culture build at this school through this annual community project.

This past production was called BRAAAINS: A Christmas Story. When we’re creating a story, the first thing we do is let their wacky ideas fly and then we help them to mold and shape them into a cohesive story. This year’s story was about Emmanuel, whose family falls on hard times right around the holidays, and Jeanette, his best friend, who is determined to raise money and save Christmas. Her plan? Well, read a snippet of the script for details:

JEANETTE

Look. I’ve got it. Let’s raise the money ourselves. We can make some money for your family to at least have a few presents at Christmas. It can’t be that hard.

EMMANUEL

Oh yeah? What do you have in mind?

JEANETTE

A lemonade stand!

EMMANUEL

It’s winter.

JEANETTE

We can mow lawns!

EMMANUEL

It’s winter!

JEANETTE

Walk dogs?

EMMANUEL

And freeze to death?

JEANETTE

Wash cars!

EMMANUEL

Have you forgotten what season it is?

JEANETTE starts to go deep in thought. Then it hits her!

JEANETTE

I’ve got it!

EMMANUEL (sarcastic)

What? A bikini contest?

JEANETTE

We’re going to put on a play!

EMMANUEL

Now I KNOW you’ve lost your mind.

JEANETTE

It doesn’t have to be a cheezy Christmas story. We can do the show we’ve always wanted to… The Zombie Apocalypse show! Only we’ll make it a musical!

JEANETTE starts dancing around. She’s very excited about this idea.

EMMANUEL

Now I know you’ve lost your mind.

JEANETTE

I’ll get everything together! Auditions are tomorrow! This is going to work, Manny. I really really think this is going to work! Zombie Apocalypse Musical. This town is going to eat. It. UP!! Like Braains! Braaaaaaainnnnsss!!!!!

Scene ends with JEANETTE’s wheels obviously turning and EMMANUEL looking more skeptical than ever.

And so the zaniness ensues from there. We captured lot of the dialogue that is in the final script by recording improv exercises. It’s always a mad dash to write and produce a play in just two and a half months (let’s be real, you could spend years on any one element) but the rawness of these productions is what really make it so special.

We performed Braaains: A Christmas Story on December 13, 2012 in The Green School Auditorium to a full house of family and friends, and even some former Step Right Up! students who graduated last year but came by to relive some of the magic. And that’s just what it is when you let kids unleash their inner creative spirit… magic. This is why we do it—Mary and I, and all other Teaching Artists, working so hard to bring these programs to the schools that need them. We do it because we get to be part of the magic, too. It’s not a job. It’s life. And it’s the best way to live it.

So, Dear Green School, I think you rock too. I’m looking forward to the next program too. Hang in there till then. <3

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