Being a teenager can be really hard. Especially if you’ve flunked out of school. Or your dad has disappeared.
Or you’re incarcerated at a juvenile detention center and don’t see much hope for the future. And teaching those teenagers can be pretty hard too, as Judith Sloan can attest. She works with at-risk youth, teaching theater, writing, and juggling in alternative schools and jails. Most of her students are angry and at first reluctant to express themselves. But often, with some coaxing, they eventually do. And then Judith finds ways to shape their words and expressions into stories that are part-drama, part-documentary, and part-music.
One story in particular, Sweeping Statements, explores this process and the complicated lives of Judith's students.
Judith Sloan is an actress, audio artist, oral historian, and educator whose multi-character solo performances combine humor, pathos, and a love of the absurd. Her work has been published by W.W. Norton, Second Story Press, and the New York Times OP Ed, and produced for National Public Radio and in theatres throughout the U.S. Sloan often collaborates with her husband, Warren Lehrer, with whom she co-founded EarSay, an arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated. Together they created the award-winning book and multimedia project Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Judith Sloan
Could you tell me a little bit more about your work as a teacher? Why, at this particular point in your teaching career, have you decided to document and reflect upon your work in this way?
I’ve never been a regular teacher, if there is such a thing. I’m also a practicing artist. I bring radio and performance work into the schools and universities. Working and living in this self-created space between academics and artistic expression feeds my perspective and keeps me "on the street."
Many of my students in inner-city schools live with extreme hardship and face the problem of meeting basic needs like food and shelter. I also work with a lot of African-American and black immigrant teenage boys. I hear their stories about how often they are seen as dangerous or suspicious, about getting profiled by the police, and how elements in their lives collide to inspire rage and anger. I listen to their words, to their stories, and help them find ways to channel their frustration.
In jails or rehabilitation centers, I’m working with boys who have committed serious crimes and I bring in very specific goal-setting lessons. When a group of boys complained that juggling was too hard, I said: “How did you learn how to play basketball? Did you go out on the court when you were five and throw the ball 1,000 times in a row? Now you’re 15, and you can’t expect to learn something by trying it only once or twice." I break down the juggling pattern, they practice and repeat it, and I hope they apply the same process to writing and other kinds of learning. That’s the theory. People who can focus easily can pick up new technologies or skills. But people who have a thousand messages going on in their heads telling them that they are worthless can have a harder time. Some people are fueled by that negativity, but that kind of fuel can backfire and kids sabotage themselves.
Bell Hooks writes about "teaching with love” so eloquently and in situations where there is a crisis of meaning in our schools. How can we inspire a basic love of learning in this atmosphere? How can we nurture someone’s authentic voice? My husband and a good friend have been encouraging me to write about what I see, to keep my voice, and to use all my "old school" skills as an actress. As supporters with very critical ears, they are editors in a traditional sense. "Sweeping Statements" was a way of organizing my thoughts about the teaching process and looking back on my own life. And it was a lot of fun to rehearse and produce.
Why did you choose to imitate / perform the voices of your students instead of recording their voices and using them in the story? It’s an interesting creative choice.
It wasn’t so much a choice as a creative impulse. I’ve performed multiple character voices on stage and on radio for the past 20 years, but more recently have been producing radio and audio documentary works. I approached the piece as a producer, a writer, and an actor, asking what this particular story called for after I was happy with the writing. I’m not only performing the students, I’m performing myself: the “voice inside my head” and “me when I’m tough."
I’ve been talking with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker about stories we witness but choose not to record in order to protect people’s privacy. I have a lot of respect for stories that are "incredible" but perhaps the real people need to remain in the shadows. It's an ethical choice whether to take cameras and recorders into certain situations. It’s important to ask, Who should be exposed? Do these people need to be re-traumatized by making their story public? When? Why? Is it just for sensationalism?
I also work with teenagers who are undocumented and who live in the shadows. I direct them in performances and it's not always the right choice for them to come out of the shadows. This creative approach allows me to represent the stories with my own voice and to reveal thoughts, ideas, and concepts without exposing people unnecessarily. My perceptions and the personalizing of the experience are also part of this story. We are not robots when we go into prisons or schools or detention centers.
The music adds a lot to the story. Could you talk about the creative process of working with a musician? What role do you think the music plays in the piece?
For me it’s not a "straight out of the box" process with the music. I recorded and edited my voice tracks and emailed the MP3 files of my voice-only tracks to a couple of different musicians.
Taylor Rivelli’s music ended up working the best and I took the ProTools files home to change some of the arrangement. My husband and I batted around ideas for changing some of the instrumentation and for the guitar to mimic my voices or what was going on in a scene. I grabbed some music from another project of mine, specifically talking drums, and took the session to Taylor’s studio.
I had some pretty strong ideas about what I wanted the listener to feel, especially in the personal aspect of the piece and the shifts in scenes. I explained all that to Taylor. I wanted the guitar to be a voice, and to do some "complaining" -- which is how the “whah, whah” thing came about. Taylor was thinking “urban youth." I was thinking “women over 40 who work with urban youth.” He was thinking “song." I was thinking “story."
After we finished Sweeping Statements I liked working with him so much I said, “Umm, would you be interested in more of these? I just happen to have some pieces sitting around -- like about 30.” I’ve been going back into his studio for about six months, recording and editing my voice tracks little by little as I get the money to pay for studio time. Now Taylor and I are working on a series of stories like Sweeping Statements. There are obstacles for me, which include time and money. Taylor and I come from different worlds and I think the work is unique because of that. He’s thinking “CD.” I’m thinking “radio and theatre."
Would you call this story a documentary? Dramatic monologue? Something in-between?
I’d call Sweeping Statements eyewitness-documentary-poetic-reportage. And I’m using the skills of dramatic monologue. I’m inspired by people whose work crosses definitions -- like Jimmy Breslin, an investigative journalist, columnist, and personality. Or Andrei Codresu, a poet, essayist, screenwriter, and commentator. I’m writing a lot about what I’ve witnessed over the years being in and out of many worlds and about the present, often inspired by something I see in the news. Since I’m an actress, an audio artist, a radio producer, a writer, an oral historian, and a teacher, it makes sense to embrace all the definitions and marry them together. My good friend calls these new pieces: documentary / commentary / reportage / prose poetry / performance. I’m definitely connected to a tradition of this kind of reportage and, with Taylor, I’m doing it to a funky beat.