Students learn skills in playwriting

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Northern Idaho – Students on both the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce reservations are learning to express their thoughts and feelings at playwriting seminars. This marks the fourth year seminars have been conducted on the Coeur d’Alene reservation but the first year for the Nez Perce reservation.

Tom Kellogg is founder and artistic director for the California based Mentor Artists Playwrights Project (MAPP) and the Young Native Playwrights Initiative. These literacy programs for Native youth are conducted not only on reservations but urban areas as well. Other workshops are being held in Portland, Ore, Anchorage, Alaska, and Oakland, Calif.

Nine students, ranging in age from sixth grade to high school, recently completed the writing portion of the workshop on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. The week-long session lasted three hours a day with the final day running from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. on a Saturday. Each student is paired with a mentor who helps guide them through the writing process. Mentors at this workshop were from North Idaho College and the University of Idaho.

Ginger Rankin is one of those mentors, now helping for her third year. She and her husband were so moved by the experience the first year they established a scholarship fund at the University for Native students wanting to pursue a degree in the performing arts. Rankin comments, “This is an example of real education. The kids have stories. To give them the time and respect and to help them bring the stories out is what education is. I think it’s important for them to have their self respect and know we really want to hear their stories.”

“They write in metaphor,” Rankin explains. “They choose an animal or a force of nature, that sort of thing. In that way their whole story comes out because they’re not really talking about themselves or their experiences. I think that’s one of the secrets of the success of this program.”

Rankin was mentoring Carmen Flemming, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member and seventh grade student. Asked why she signed up for the workshop, Flemming replied simply, “I like writing.”

At the conclusion of the weeklong event Kellogg and the mentor for each student sat at the front of the class and read that student’s one act play with the student sitting alongside. Flemming’s play was about “Thunder Man and Thunder Woman” talking about how to raise their child. The scene is set in the winter of 2008 in Russia’s biggest forest with snowflakes coming down and kids running around in joy. Thunder Man’s family lives in the sky but in entering their house we find anger, frustration and non-support. Thunder Man is yelling at his wife and she is trying to appease him, saying “you made your choices by creating tornadoes and lightning every time you get mad. Just because you grew up in an angry family doesn’t mean you have to take out your frustration on our son.” The play continues and the audience is left to interpret the meanings in Flemming’s play.

The Nez Perce workshop began the following week, Nov. 17. Eleven students were signed up ranging from ninth grade through high school. The Lapwai school is about 85 percent Native so the workshop included both Native and non-Native students.

Verna Johnson was largely responsible for the workshop. She teaches special education at Lapwai, a Yakama tribal member but married to Tony Johnson, former Nez Perce tribal chairman. Verna was first exposed to the workshop when she witnessed the script readings on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation two years ago. “I wept the entire time,” she recalls. “I was astounded at the scripts because of the themes of their writing which included divorce, trust, and faith. The depth and brevity of their creativity was amazing to me. The way they were able to transcend their insights on life I found very astounding. It became my heart’s desire that it could come to our reservation.”

Now that it’s happening she said, “I’m so thankful. This is a very unique program and I think it’s an honor. I think it’s a big deal for Indian country. It’s very notable what they’re doing (MAPP). They’re not in it to make a lot of money. It’s really a philanthropist work. What we’re looking for is to give the students a better perspective. I am so thankful.”

Mentors for the workshop were from Lewis and Clark State College in nearby Lewiston. A grant from the Idaho Arts Commission funded a portion of both workshops. Johnson gave particular kudos to the Nez Perce tribal council for believing in the program and helping the youth by also providing funding.

Next spring, possibly in connection with Native American Awareness Week, professional Native actors from California will return to the reservations and present the students’ one-act plays in front of audiences while the student writer of each play sits in the front to accept the acclaim and applause at the end of each play. The plays are emotionally moving, combining life experiences and humor that often brings tears to the eyes of those in attendance.