A Co-Production Between KIPP and Jeremy Weller & The GMP

July/August 2011. Jeremy Weller was honored by the invitation to create a 5 week pilot project for KIPP. The KIPP philosophy is one he shares; education has been the driver in his company’s creative work for the last 20 years. The Grass Market Project (G.M.P.) has worked all over the world, and with thousands of participants from the poorest (but often emotionally richest) sectors of society. Jeremy uses traditional theatre and his self-devised creative process to enable his students to tell their personal stories through art.
The program empowers individuals to speak out and realize their potentials beyond inherited socioeconomic limits.

Jeremy’s method is complimentary with that of KIPP because it allows students to begin the long process of addressing and processing the emotional and social issues that they face within and outside the classroom.The production’s rehearsal space is a safe haven where participants feel engaged and supported. There they shape difficult experiences into theatrical performances. Students learn to use art to process and dramatize the events of their lives; this exercise has proven to be transformative. In this way, participants are able to share their stories with others, and we can all learn about them in a deeper and more intimate way through the gateway of their own creativity. Jeremy Weller’s work with The GMP has won 18 prizes for theater including 6 Edinburgh Festival Fringe Awards.

About the Project

Do You See Me? I See You. is a collaborative project between KIPP NYC and Jeremy Weller and the GMP. The project was crafted to work creatively with 9th and 10th grade College Prep KIPPsters interested in drama. The program aimed to use the students’ shared stories to produce a professional, albeit unconventional, show about themselves.
Many of the cast members lead lives of hardship marked by unstable households, bullying, prejudice, and violence; this project allows the students to speak freely about their pasts and their beliefs through a process that inspires reflection, bravery, sharing, and solidarity.

The program included 20 young people between the ages of 14 and 16. Both KIPP and GMP have high expectations for the young people they work with. For five weeks the cast was called from 9:00am until at least 3:00pm Monday through Friday.

“Itʼs like when I go home, Iʼve made the most mistakes in my family and they keep bringing it up and it makes me feel bad. But, like when I do theatre itʼs like I have a second family. It makes me mad comfortable.” – Jannerys, KIPP Participant

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  • Students interviewed at KIPP for entrance into the program – 54
  • Students chosen for the program – 20
  • Students who completed the workshop to perform in the theatre production – 20

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The Staff

KIPP staff

  • Natasha Rothwell – Director of the Theatre Program at KIPP NYC
  • Liz DeSario – Career and Summer Program Counselor
  • John Zeiler – KIPP Board Members

GMP team

  • Jeremy Weller – Director
  • Christie O’Carroll – Assistant Director
  • Ben Lewis – Dramaturge
  • Chris Baker – Actor/Acting Coach

Christie O’Carroll has worked freelance with the GMP since 2004, projects that she has been involved with include, The Foolish Young Man (Camden Roundhouse, London) and The Boys (Royal National Theatre, London).

This was Ben, Chris and Lucy’s first time working with Jeremy, and through this project they, along with Natasha, were trained in his methodology. It was advantageous that Lucy worked previously in the classroom at KIPP Academy in 2008/9, and therefore knew members of the staff and some of the students before the project had started.

“What makes Jeremyʼs dramas so startling is not simply the fact that that they are devised and written in collaboration with the people who are living these difficult lives for real, but that these same people get to appear on stage or on film as themselves and to speak their own stories in their own words. This gives the work its authenticity and makes its protagonists truly visible to us, the audience – perhaps for the first time. I think that both they and we end up in much better shape as a result.” – Susan Sarandon

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Overview of KIPP

KIPP NYC has been educating young people for 15 years. 83% of their students from low-income families. Through high expectations and an excellent staff, 95% of their students have graduated high school, which is twice the national average of the demographic group. Young people at KIPP are expected to work hard throughout an extended school day.
There are many crossovers between the KIPP and GMP philosophies and objectives. The work that the GMP makes is consistently of a professional standard and is often showcased or compared to work performed by professional actors. The GMP, like KIPP, has high expectations for its cast and expects a full commitment. Both organisations believe in empowering the young people that they work with

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Overview of the GMP

The Grass Market Project was founded by Jeremy Weller, the
Artistic Director in 1989, and has since created pieces with people all over the world. The company’s methodology has been a topic of study for over 20 PhD’s, Master of Arts dissertations and Post Graduate study, as well as being studied by students at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The company specialises in working with ‘non-actors’ and gives those who may feel like they do not have a voice, a platform in which to be heard. The immersive technique Jeremy uses means that the young people, through role play, games, and improvisation reconstruct their real life situations and gain the insight to choose their own narrative. Jeremy employs a team of artists who have been trained in the GMP method. The program is studied at Kings College London University, Reading University, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (R.A.D.A), Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (R.S.M.D.A), as well as other universities and drama schools around the world.

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“You get on stage – you think you got it, but you donʼt. I got off stage and thought about what you said and it was like a light bulb went off, and I got it. “– Erik, KIPP Participant

The GMP 5-Stage Program

The GMP works within a five-stage methodology, which was applied to the KIPP production.

Phase 1 – Research

Through meetings with KIPP staff, and board members, the company became familiar with the backgrounds and cultures of the participants in order to design a process that would best benefit them.

Phase 2 – Selection Workshops

Jeremy Weller visited KIPP a week before the project began to speak to all the interested participants. As over fifty young people wished to participate, there had to be a selection process. Jeremy had one-on-one interviews with KIPPsters in order to make this difficult selection. Twenty students were chosen. Twenty is a large cast for the GMP, however, such was the demand, and Jeremy adjusted his system to include as many KIPPsters as possible.

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“I’m glad that you let me see the real you.”  – A KIPP counsellor 

Phase 3 – Rehearsal Workshops

The workshop took place in KIPP College Prep’s Mott Haven auditorium. The group members were encouraged to work with different people and break out of their friendship comfort zones. Despite the fact that they attend the same school many of the students hardly knew each other. The group bonded tremendously through the challenging dramatic process. This was clear for all spectators at the open dress and final performance who commented repeatedly on the subject. The KIPPsters grew to support each other and stand behind their performance as a collective and united family. These daily workshops began at 9:00am, and involved an hour of games and warm ups, lead by the GMP’s Acting Coach and Assistant Director.
Warm up was followed by extensive time accumulating potential material through interviews, storytelling, and improvisation. The cast was assigned to write their own monologues and scripts in order for the scenes to reflect their sentiments through personal voices. The
team challenged students to work on skills that spanned far beyond drama as they wrote creatively and exhibited astounding character building while growing together as a cast. Written skits and monologues were performed and filmed and then filtered for material to transcribe and work on further.
During this period, the young people were working on their individual scenes as well as performing in the work of others, so they had to take responsibility for time management. Ms. Rothwell noted that in school, the teachers are constantly standing over and watching the students; in this process, the staff gave the KIPPsters more freedom. Jeremy Weller and GMP believe that selfmotivation and discipline are crucial life skills also vital to further education, an aim of KIPP.

Phase 4 – Pre-Performance

Once the final scenes had been selected, the group began to work as a full company. During this phase, the cast experienced a technical, dress and open dress rehearsal. The open dress rehearsal gave busy KIPP staff members the opportunity to see the piece in it’s final stages. This last rehearsal was also an excellent opportunity for the cast; it was important for the students to see a fresh audience respond to their work and for them to hear constructive and complimentary feedback. After the show, even the GMP staff was in awe; it was astounding to see how far the students have come in since the start of the program.
During the open dress rehearsal there was a huge breakthrough moment, where the words
one cast member sang really hit home, and this proved very emotional for the whole company. After five or so weeks, there are often moments like that; unearthing deep truths brings tears to the surface. This important pain gives time to talk about and deal with emotions. However, as this process occurred over an accelerated five weeks, the break though happened far along, only a day before the performance. The students’ counsellors were in the audience, as well as Ms. Rothwell and the GMP staff, so the cast found themselves with a lot of support. The emotional development that occurred that day is a testament to the passion of the cast and their commitment to this important show.

Phase 5 – Performance – August 11, 2011

The cast performed twice. Jeremy felt that this provided a useful learning curve for them, granting an opportunity to reflect on the first performance and make changes for an improved second show. The KIPPsters also faced the challenge of keeping their energy up after the buzz and adrenaline of the first performance faded. The student’s counsellors came to watch the dress rehearsal and the matinee in order to talk with students who were feeling emotional, and to help design plans for discussions about the show with family members. Some individuals find it is easier to express themselves through art than to talk face to face. Therefore, this performance allowed the young people to tell their counsellors, as well as their families, friends, and teachers how they really feel. The work of the counsellors was immensely helpful. It is fantastic that KIPP has provided that support network for its students.

“I am finally able to tell a story about myself without hurting anybody elseʼs feelings. I feel as if the people in this play have become my family and itʼs amazing to have the confidence enough to be able to share my story out to the play…. I see art as a way of painting a picture. It is a way of entertainment, while telling a story.” – Elianna, KIPP participant

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“This project has changed my view on art because it has shown me that art isnʼt always just make believe, actually the most realistic things in life are the ones that affect people the most.”- Mannielly, KIPP participant

Letter from KIPP Counselor Laura Rodarte

“This is the most powerful play I have seen be put on by young people and I have been in education for 11 years.”

One of the things that struck me right away when I watched the last rehearsal was how you wanted the kids to continue expressing their emotions/ feelings.  It is very rare to encounter an   adult who is comfortable with this process and that you got the rest of your staff to do so as well.  I find that most people shy away from allowing people to share their emotions, especially crying.  I believe if we bury our emotions, it contaminates our future encounters with the world and/or makes us ill. Expressing our emotions/feelings helps us to grow into emotionally sound people.    
Something else that struck me was how these kids felt comfortable/trusting enough to share such intimate information about themselves.  You were able to create an environment where these young people were able to pour their hearts out, bring out their talents and in such a short period of time.  That is amazing!
In my life, especially as a counselor, I have witnessed the power of listening and being listened to.  It is a huge contradiction in our society, not only to allow these young people to share their emotions fully, but also to have an environment(s) where they feel they are being listened to, like in your class/play.   I think most of our problems in the world would be easily remedied if we just took the time to just listen to one another – free of judgement…  Being listened to helps peoples’ self-esteem grow.  
Something I found particularly interesting – those kids I worked with more in counseling were able to share more of themselves.  What these students shared is so important because it is where they are at emotionally.  The skits they shared with us, tell us what issues they are dealing with on a daily basis.  As adults and professionals, we can help our students get through these
issues through having them take an acting class (like your summer class), being in a play, and/or counseling session(s).  This will help them resolve these issues so that they may take on new ones and progress through life.  
Your play was not only powerful for the kids performing it but also to the spectators.  This is the most powerful play I have seen be put on by young people and I have been in education for 11 years.  I could relate to everyone of the skits and I know that many of the others in audience could as well.  It is important to listen to the words and emotions/feelings of our young ones so that they may flourish in all areas of their lives. Thank you so much for being a part of this wonderful growth!!
~Laura

Future

“This made me a better person I have grown up and learned to open up. I changed my view on life because instead of thinking I was the only person with my problems I came to realise that there are more people out there. The work changed my view on art because it showed me that it is not always the words but the image that can impact people.”
– Shirley, KIPP participant

The GMP believes that Jeremy and KIPP are a good fit. KIPP has been incredibly accommodating and encouraging throughout the endeavour. Both staffs communicated their concerns and suggestions well, and were able to respect the boundaries of the other program. Most importantly, the GMP and KIPP staffs involved agree that the cast has learned a great deal and engaged in an invaluable experience this summer.
The programs complement each other. They both believe in creativity as a tool for learning, high expectations for staff, partners, and students, and empowering the young people they instruct. Due to the nature of the home lives of many of the participants, a chance to explore themes and issues that have affected them, through a safe and creative environment seems to have been a very positive experience. Through the performance, the young people were able to tell those closest to them how they really feel, something many felt they could not have done before.
Having Natasha Rothwell involved was a true gift. She knew all the students intimately and she played a vital role in this shows creation.
After such a successful project we believe it would be ideal for the GMP to continue the partnership with KIPP. This could include collaborations with industries like Julliard and The Public
Theatre to provide actors and performance space.
Seeing as over 50 young people from KIPP NYC alone wanted to participate in this first project, we feel that there is certainly a demand for the program on a larger scale. KIPP and the GMP have the potential to grant a memorable, enjoyable, and empowering experience for KIPPsters and their families.

“You have something special here and it doesnʼt end this summer.”- A KIPP counsellor

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