Playwright Susan Rubin believes in theatre--and in the power of theatre to enrich kids' lives in the inner-city. Rubin, who is the artistic director of downtown L.A.'s Indecent Theatre Company, also teaches playwriting in Los Angeles Unified schools. Her specialty is to get 10th-graders--most of whom are from immigrant families and have never seen live theatre--to write a full-length play in one semester. She encourages them to write about "what makes you sad and what makes you happy, who you love, what makes you mad." The idea is to help them cope with life by turning their deepest feelings into stories actors can perform in front of an audience.
The 53-year-old Rubin, a transplanted New Yorker, has been teaching playwriting for five years, thanks to a program instituted and funded by the nonprofit Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre Project. She teaches two days a week and is a tough taskmaster with the kids, demanding that they turn in a full-length play by the end of the twelve-week course. Each child is provided with a "toolbox"--a photocopied list of the ingredients they will need to write a play: a theme, characters and a conflict. As revealed in a recent profile in the Los Angeles Times, Rubin's gift is to draw meaningful stories out of them that they might not even know are there.
"They bare their souls on crumpled pieces of paper that Rubin has to pry from their fingers," the Times said. "Whatever they present--trite or profound, indecipherable or legible, grammatically mangled or perfectly composed--she showers with encouragement."
After the kids write a scene or two, Rubin offers criticism and sends them off to rewrite. The next step is for professional actors to visit the class and read excerpts from the plays, which are then rewritten and expanded. At the end of the term, the best works are read by actors in front of a live audience at the Skirball Cultural Center.
"I've had one kid in all the time I've been teaching who didn't turn in a play," Rubin said. "He had committed murder the day before." The pleasure that Rubin takes from her students' achievements is tempered by the grim lives they write about. "It's a hard life to go into and keep pumping hope into," she said. "I need breaks from it." Her ideas of success have also changed over the years. "She no longer blames herself for not getting plays from students she never saw," the Times said. "What matters more was whether she got through to them." -- By Willard Manus
Southern California Correspondent