Indiana State faculty, alumni collaborate with area schools to help middle-schoolers feel they belong — by using their own words.
Life’s finer moments rarely come courtesy of the middle school years, which are often chockful of pre-teen self-doubt, confusion and general feelings of uncomfortableness in one’s own skin.
During a time that can leave children feeling like it is them against the world, Indiana State University theater professor Arthur Feinsod found a way to remind youth that someone understands — using their own words submitted in February to the annual Max Ehrmann Poetry Competition, hosted by Art Spaces Inc. and Indiana State University’s Community School of the Arts.
More than 150 individuals submitted original work addressing the issue of belonging and not belonging as part of the competition. From four different age categories, those who entered were people who live, work or attend school in Clay, Parke, Putnam, Sullivan, Vermillion and Vigo counties.
“I read through all of the submissions but kept circling back to the pieces written by middle school students, because these kids hit the theme right on the head,” said Feinsod, who chose 11 pieces from students of that age and arranged the poems from most despairing to hopeful. “I wanted to perform this piece for middle school students, because these are words right from their peers, which it makes it more relatable to them.”
Feinsod tapped Indiana State alumnus Bryant Clayton, ’16, to create music that would capture the emotion of each of the poems.
“Arthur came to me in April before I graduated and said he was interested in using the poems from the contest to make a play,” Clayton said. “I read them over and thought it was possible, but I wanted to make sure it would speak to students and a melody popped into my head. It was fun to make the music with Brandon Jones, because I think it will speak to middle school students in a way that is impactful.”
Clayton and Jones knocked out drafts of the music in about a month, an extraordinary feat for a nearly 30-minute piece.
“I’m a songwriter and have been arranging, writing, singing and recording for five to six years, but this was the first large work I’ve finished,” said Clayton, who accompanies the actors on stage with singing. “I’ve been performing ever since I was in the sixth grade, as far as a singing, but my first taste of acting was in ‘The Color Purple’ at Indiana State in 2014. Playwriting is a pretty new art form for me, but the beauty of making the music and performing in the play is that I’ve gotten to work with other people who are still growing in their craft and it’s impactful for middle school students.”
Feinsod presented the finished rap, gospel and hip-hop pieces they created to the members of Theater 7, a theater company co-founded in Terre Haute by Feinsod and Jeff Lorick last summer on seven founding principles — diversity, service, new work, stage simplicity, uplifting content, professional theater and the establishment of a core company dedicated to these principles.
A six-person cast of early-career professional theater artists began rehearsing for the show over the summer before the August debut of the show at Terre Haute’s Ryves Hall Youth Center. The responses were very positive as evidenced by performance surveys as well as media acclaim (an article appearing in the Tribune-Star by Mark Bennett and the airing of a story about it by Rondrell Moore on WTHI).
“Many of the students said the play made them feel safe and heard. It helped them realize that people do want to understand and reach out to them,” Feinsod said. “The play deals with images that are familiar to them, students bullying each other, feeling of rejection, but it shows the importance of knowing who you are and that it is OK to be different. It’s clearly about finding and accepting yourself for who you are and realizing that, in the words of the famous Terre Haute poet Max Ehrmann, ‘You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.’”
A second performance was held at the Indiana Theatre in September for members of the Terre Haute community and in November at the Bayh College of Education’s Sycamore Educator Day, where Feinsod said teachers and administrators had a positive response, including several requests to have it performed in their schools.
Thanks to a Wabash Valley Community Foundation grant, the theater group will perform the play for the five middle schools in the Vigo County School Corp., beginning Jan. 9. The performance is co-sponsored by Indiana State’s Bayh College of Education, which has worked in partnership with Theater 7 to get the performance into the schools.
“We in the Bayh College of Education are very excited to be working with Theater 7 to bring this play to the Vigo County middle schools. We can talk to students all we want about belonging and not belonging, but the message of this play is much more powerful because it is in the students’ own words,” said Denise Collins, interim dean in the Bayh College and a member of Theater 7. “By bringing this play to the schools and providing support for the students through discussions led by our school counseling faculty and students, we hope to start conversations about inclusion, diversity, and belonging, reinforcing the work that the Vigo County teachers, counselors, and administrators are already doing in these areas.”
While “Here in the Universe” is meant to speak to middle school students, Clayton said it touches on subjects that transcend age, like bullying and suicide.
“After our first performance, the middle schoolers found it hard to articulate what they were seeing, but parents and teachers found the connection immediately and it spoke to them and the time and place we are in politically,” he said. “It sends a message of inclusion and belonging, even if you’re of a different race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. I want the middle school students to walk away saying, ‘I now know what it is like to belong in the universe. No matter what I experience in life, I belong because I am me.’”
The actors don’t just speak words of inclusion, though. They live it as a cast of three African-American and three white actors.
“We all come from different walks of life but came together to speak through the voices of these characters,” Clayton said. “I was amazed to watch see people change from one character to another at a drop of a hat. It’s a cast that uses all their energy and heart to give 100 percent on stage. It made it fun to drive all summer from Indianapolis to Terre Haute to rehearse with this talented cast and make a play that these kids really need to see.”