Category Archives: Education

A discussion of education as it is currently practiced.

Behind the Fourth Wall: I’ve got a Barn. Let’s put on ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘The Nutcracker’ or…

Tommy Steele as Scrooge in the Palladium Theatre’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Now let me play the holiday season’s favorite character—Scrooge! That’s the bah humbug part, not the money grubbing, no time off for family and friends part, the part that asks: “Does Washington really need all of these Christmas shows? I mean—really?”.

Scrooge McDuck as Scrooge.

It’s bad enough that TV has begun airing its traditional favorites from White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Streetto Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, to new favorites likeNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story to newer favorites like The Grinch and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but they are also piling on additional 21st century ones from It’s Christmas, Carol and Hitched for the Holidays to Matchmaker Santa and That Cyborg Santa’s Got an Ax (not really, but a sci-fi fan can dream!).

And it’s even worse that Black Friday, that beginning of Commercial Christmas’s selling season—though not yet an official holiday—has become solidified in our national consciousness as a day where it is our patriotic duty to shop for Santa. Although stores have been starting their sales in Black Friday’s wee hours for 30+ plus years and, then, last year many opened at midnight, this year Target and Walmart moved Black Friday into Thanksgiving Thursday. Pretty soon, those Black Friday sales will have Labor Day in their sights!

Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 film version.

And to top it off Fox News has made “The War on Christmas” its annual holiday event, during which its pundits claim that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idea of Christmas is under siege by atheists and civil libertarians alike, who are out to do away with America’s number one cultural obsession.

So do so many of Washington’s theatres have to make a Christmas show such a cultural given as well? According to my research, this December there are no fewer than 17 professional Christmas shows in the immediate Washington area alone: no fewer than 6 Christmas Carols and 4 Nutcrackers, A White Christmas, a couple of gritty punked out Christmas shows, a Christmas show on the prairie and one in Ireland, a Christmas pageant, and a one-man version of A Wonderful Life. And I’m not even counting the Christmas concerts!

I mean, is all this abundance really necessary? Does it help theatres meet their bottomline? Does it help them fulfill their patriotic duty? Does it help people get into the Christmas spirit? Are Christmas shows like prayers helping us all bring Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Men? If they are, then one would think that there would be a little more evidence that their abundance worked. Last I looked, however, our politicians are still just as gridlocked in their nastiness, the war in Afghanistan still wages on interminably, the Middle East is still on the verge of Armageddon, and traffic in DC is just as hostile as its ever been. Hence, these shows do not seem to be bewitching anyone’s disposition—even briefly.

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The Performing Knowledge Project

Michael is the director and founder of The Performing Knowledge Project: where performance and education meet, which is a project of The Sanctuary Theatre, co-founded by Michael, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre.  For more about The Sanctuary Theatre.

Every person has his or her story to tell: every community, every family, every institution, every issue, every piece of ground, every thing. When we remember the country of our birth, when we stand in the middle of a parking lot and consider what once was there, when we walk with aging parents and listen to the tales of their youth, we are made new by the recollections: because each person, each place, each moment possesses a history, and that history provokes a sense of who we are.  When we make sense of those stories and the worlds that inspire them, we rediscover ourselves.  These stories are all around us; they are deep inside us as well.  We hear these stories everyday.

At The Performing Knowledge Project we care about the stories and the communities they inhabit.  The story might be about Edgar Allan Poe’s poetic persona, or it might be about a senior citizens’ home, or it might be about technology and how it affects who we are.  We at Performing Knowledge explore these stories, what they look like in line and color, what they sound like with melody and chord.  We want to know how they feel, both to the storyteller and to those to whom the story is told, and how they make sense of the world around us.

Stories exist within a context, however; they inhabit a community, to be sure; but they also happen at a particular time and place.  At Performing Knowledge we seek to advance the relationships between those stories and the way in which they are told.  We synthesize the goals of performance with those of education, and by doing so the two disciplines work in harmony.  By orchestrating their relationship with one another, we elevate the “felt-thought” making it all the more palpable, transforming it into an experience.

The story of The Performing Knowledge Project begins with poetry workshops and the production of Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance.  The Sanctuary Theatre, the Project’s parent institution, dates back to 1983 and its inaugural production of Jesse and the Bandit Queen.  Its story then weaves through over two decades and dozens of productions, workshops, staged-readings, and educational programs, in collaboration with numerous organizations and communities.  The Performing Knowledge Project is the theatre’s new story and announces a decidedly different direction for the Sanctuary organization.

The Performing Knowledge Project seeks to build a collaborative of artists and scholars of all kinds: theatre artists; historians, musicians; poets, literary critics, writers and playwrights; sociologists; technologists and visual artists; dancers and beyond.  We seek to create original works in collaboration with communities and individuals, crafting the tales that make worlds come alive.

Our next projects include MotherStory and Song of Myself: the Whitman Project.

For more about The Performing Knowledge Project

Justice and the National Debt

President Obama got it right about Egypt.  In his speech following the collapse of the Mubarak Regime, he said: “Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence.”  The only problem is, as it always seems to be with Americans these days, we don’t listen to our own speeches.  He continued: “For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence— not terrorism, not mindless killing … that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”  What Obama failed to insert into his short list of actions that fail to achieve justice was the simple phrase “not war.”  And why would Obama forget such a phrase?  Because America has a long standing addiction to war as a pathway to justice.

Immediately, I think of the much-ballyhooed platitude to all challenges to military action: “It’s a dangerous world out there.”  And, to be sure, the world is dangerous, as I’m sure the Egyptian protesters will attest.  But the fact that we live in a world wrought with danger does not justify our seemingly unquenchable thirst for a larger and larger military.  And I do not make these statements because I harbor moral objections to military action.  I recognize that violence, or the threat of violence, can sometimes stop worse crimes against justice from happening.  What I am asserting is much more practical.  The use of military violence does not move the world closer to achieving justice—either moral or economic.  More seriously, it also diverts much needed attention and resources away from the pursuit of justice.  One need only look at recent American history to see this effect.

Only nine and a half years ago we were dealing with our budget problems.  The government had a surplus; we had a world without a competing superpower; we had Republicans in control of government (the party supposedly in favor of smaller government); and we had begun the difficult job of reforming the Welfare State.  Then a small group of men, being directed by an even smaller group of men living in caves in Afghanistan, carried out a bold and improbable suicide mission.  They flew airplanes into buildings.  Then we, behaving like so many of Pavlov’s dogs, lost our collective minds.  The National Security State ballooned, the financial sector acted like it had no future and no ethical limitations, and the American people shopped, be it for expensive homes, huge SUVs, or just one more happy meal.  And now, we as a nation are on the verge of bankruptcy.  Yes, I’ll say it.  The United States of America is on the verge of bankruptcy.  And Osama Bin Laden must feel oh so close to victory.
And why?  Because we cannot accept the simple reality, which we are always preaching to others: violence cannot achieve justice.  We have built the largest, most expensive military industrial complex in human history; yet justice slides ever further beyond our grasp.  It’s like what we parents preach to our children about the pitfalls of magical thinking.  We so want our children to understand the consequences of their actions, even as we, the parents, engage in magical thinking all the time.  We want our leaders to deal with the nation’s looming deficit; yet, we don’t want to reduce the cost of healthcare except rhetorically.  We want our leaders to slash discretionary spending; yet, we do not want them to put the largest discretionary spending programs, i.e., the military, on the table.  We want our country to have a huge National Security State capable of protecting us from all possible threats, but we don’t want our taxes raised to pay for it.  As a long time teacher of high school students, I am more convinced than ever that the magical thinking engaged in by young people has been taught to them by the adults in their lives.  In other words, we adults are excellent teachers: we are a nation of magical thinkers.
It’s time for all Americans to get real.  To save this country from ruin, we are going to have to cut the federal budget, starting with the military.  We are going to have to raise more revenue, starting with the wealthiest among us.  We are going to have to stop looking for a handout, starting with those who can take care of themselves.  And we are going to have stop blaming the other guy or gal, starting with whomever is standing on the other side of the aisle.

Letter sent to our leaders

Dear Sir:

Republicans and Democrats continue to argue about the size of government and the cost. The bottomline is this, however: the end of the Clinton era demonstrated that a government that operates within its budget is a good thing; a government that does not continue to rob from social security is a good thing.  Another simple historical truth is this: after 9/11 this country lost all sense of perspective. We have let a group of Islamic radicals dictate government policy, getting us involved in two wars and spurring us to create a huge National Security apparatus with massive increases in defense spending and the formation of Homeland Security.

We are in a budget crisis. We are also, however, in a psychological crisis. Even as we created a budgetary nightmare, we want to pretend that our ideologies can not change. We pretend that we can continue to spend on everything, cut taxes for everyone, and shop.

It’s time for our leaders to get real. It’s time for our leaders to cast off the magical thinking that has gripped this country for the last decade and beyond. Yes, we need to cut spending. Yes, cutting spending will cost jobs. Yes, there are alternatives. We need leaders who are willing to redefine America. A Global Empire is unsustainable. In other words, it costs more than in creates.

People everywhere want their freedom. They do not want to live under the shackles of empire, no matter how wonderful that empire is or thinks itself to be.  It’s time for a change we can believe in, but that change must begin with the assertion of a different belief in ourselves.  It must begin with a redefining of ourselves, our purpose in the world, our mission in the world. If non-violence is the truth for the Egyptians, then—by God—it’s the truth for Americans as well.

Let’s change.


Robert Michael Oliver