ARCHIVE - Igniting Sparks: Theatre for Social Change in Orlando Repertory Theatre Writes of Spring (3-31-15)

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We live in a ‘big picture’ world. We turn on the television, open a newspaper, or click into the Internet to find stories of epic tragedy and heroism. We sometimes even measure the worth of our efforts based on how many ‘likes’ or ‘views’ we attract on various websites and digital applications. It’s easy to focus on big picture stories, but sometimes the story’s origin is every bit as inspiring as the story itself. Theatre for Social Change offers theatre-makers and teaching artists a lens that dissects the ‘big picture’ into its initial inspiration. This is exactly what happened with Orlando Repertory Theatre’s Writes of Spring 2015 program. Orlando Repertory Theatre (The REP) describes the Writes of Spring program as such:

Writes of Spring is a unique writing contest designed to support literacy and promote creative expression. Each year we accept submissions from Kindergarten through 12th grade students, and the top entries are compiled to create an original play using the students’ words and ideas. The resulting script is produced by The REP and UCF graduate students, and presented in a fully staged production at The REP. The winning writers are honored and recognized at the performance and post-show celebration (www.orlandorep.com).

The project is a unique combination of a writing contest and the production of an original play. Every year, Writes of Spring begins with the announcement of a prompt, which inspires the writing of essays, short stories, and poems by hundreds of Central Florida students. The writings are adjudicated, and a previously determined number of winners are selected based on the adjudication scores given. The winning entries are adapted into an original play featuring the words and ideas of the young writers. The culminating event is a truly creative and unique experience for all involved. Previous years have yielded plays that explored themes inspired by prompts such as “The truth about me” and “When I look to the future, I see…” While the productions are highly creative and inspiring, the real treat of the evening is watching young audience members light up as they hear their words and see their ideas come to life on stage through the magic of theatre. IMG_0514

In its 12th year, The REP was approached by a generous, anonymous donor who sought out a program that would both celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and honor a local hero who played an active part in the Civil Rights movement. Mr. Robert Petree is a lawyer who noted 50 years ago that students in Central Florida were unfairly segregated in their schools based only on the color of their skin. Mr. Petree and his law firm, Bornstein & Petree PA, enforced change through lawsuits that eliminated laws supporting segregation, leading to the integration of public schools in Central Florida during the 1960s.

The REP immediately thought to pair this initiative with Writes of Spring. From that moment on, Writes of Spring 2015 became a special edition of an already special project. Adjustments were made to the prompt that would encourage students to explore social justice themes. Elementary schools students were asked to respond to the prompt, “I make a difference” with essays, short stories, and poems, while middle and high school students were asked to venture out into their community and interview someone who has made a difference; the interview would then inspire a biography, project proposal, or poem written by the student. The resulting entries were truly inspiring and of a higher quality of writing and content than in previous years.

Writes of Spring 2015 received over 900 entries; each one a special proclamation of how youth can make a difference in their community. From the 900 entries, 60 winners were selected and adapted into an original play. Individually, each winning entry was a beautiful testament to either a person or a responsibility that inspired the young writer to ignite a positive change within themselves or their communities. The entries ranged from teaching a young sibling to tie a shoe to writing letters directly to the mayor with thoughts on how to better the public school system. Each one was a powerful message of social change.

In an effort to maintain the integrity of each piece, the playwrights, Sara Brunow, Tara Kromer, Jessica Young, and myself, crafted a series of scenes that celebrated common themes found amongst the winning entries, resulting in the following eight scenes:

  1. “Prologue”: This scene featured events of the Civil Rights movement that took place in Orlando and the rest of the country, paired with an entry that personified the idea of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

  2. “Simple”: A scene depicting the epiphany that big picture change must first begin with a spark.

  3. Family and Friends: A look into how friends and family inspire us and encourage us to be better.

  4. “Homeless Heroes”: A scene exploring the definition of a hero, dedicated to the seen and unseen heroes.

  5. “Together! One! Two!”: A hip hop piece explaining how change is made in small measures, but grows with help from others.

  6. “Impact”: A scene questioning the materialism we face in our country and how our definition of beauty affects youth.

  7. “A Good Thing”: A scene exploring the difference between “I can make a difference” and “I make a difference.”

  8. “Epilogue”: A second visit to the Civil Rights Act in Central Florida, ending with a call to action for the audience.

The creative team soon realized that we were not presenting a play about the Civil Rights Act, but rather a play inspired by the Civil Rights Act. This play was not a big picture story, but rather a series of sparks that, if fostered, would grow and ignite change. This play was a theatre for social change piece. Each scene represented what the youth of today find important. We needed to find a through line that spoke to this theme. Without debate, we turned to a piece written by and 8th grader who provided us with not only a through line, but also with the title of our play. Below is an excerpt from the original poem:

I am a child and I have a voice,

Do you hear me?

I have been hurt and I am crying,

Do you hear me?

I am strong and yet weak as a lamb,

Do you hear me?

I struggle and say “I don’t care,”

Do you hear me?

I believe no one is there and I am alone,

Do you hear me?

Once the script was completed, the playwrights interacted with the winning students at the Writes of Spring 2015 Winners’ Workshop hosted by The REP. At this workshop, all winners were invited to come to The REP to interact with the playwrights, director, actors, and various members of the Writes of Spring creative team. At a planning meeting for the Winners’ Workshop, a few goals were selected for the event based on the inspiration for the script and the message behind the script: How can we thank Mr. Petree? How do we present the message of the script to the winners? And finally, how can we expand on the message of the script with the winners?

The Writes of Spring 2015 Winners’ Workshop was developed by playwright and assistant director, Sara Burnow, and took place on January 14, 2015, only two weeks prior to the culminating event. 42 out of 60 winners attended. Those that attended participated in a 90 minute workshop that connected students to the inspiration for the script and the message within the script. The workshop began with a presentation by Jessica Young, playwright and dramaturg, on the events leading up to the Civil Rights Act, including protests and actions that took place in our own community. She also enlightened the students on who Mr. Petree is and how his actions made a difference in our community and inspired our project. The winning students then participated in three stations:

  1. “Dear Mr. Petree”: Students reflected on the changes Mr. Robert Petree made in the community and wrote a thank you letter for making a difference.

  2. “I See/I Feel/I Do”: Students observed images from protests during the Civil Rights Act and dramatize them through tableau. Once in tableau, students inferred how their characters might have felt in the moment the photograph was taken, and then discussed what might have happened before and after the moment.

  3. “Change Is…”: Students responded to sheet of paper with the words “Change is…” written at the top. Students were asked to complete the sentence. Students were then photographed with their signs and their voices were recorded stating their thoughts on change. The photographs and recordings were then used to assemble a digital story, which was played in the lobby prior to the performance.

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After each student participated in each station, they came together as a group for a final reflection. The students cut out images from Civil Rights Act photographs and pair them with their own drawings inspired by the workshop in order to create a collage. The collages hung in the lobby of the theatre for the performance. Most student-created collages depicted the winning students’ thoughts on change, spanning from “Change is helping flowers grow,” to “Change is gradual,” to the popular response, “Change is awesome.”

On January 30, 2015, Writes of Spring 2015’s Do You Hear Me? performed for over 200 patrons made up of Writes of Spring winners, their families, their teachers, and community members at The REP. Upon first walking into the theatre, the audience was met by scenery featuring black and white images depicting change from the Civil Rights movement and present day. Throughout the play, actors exclaimed to the audience how to make a difference and ignite sparks of social change, but always ended each scene with the question, “Do you hear me?” At the end of the performance, the audience leapt to their feet at hearing the last words of the play and a simple call to action, “Be heard.”

Following the performance, the creative team, actors, winners, and all other audience members were invited to the lobby of the theatre for a post show celebration. During this time, the pride of ownership shared by hundreds energized the room. The air was thick with the impact made by the performance. Teachers took note of how theatre can influence education. Students realized that academic efforts can equal results possibly more satisfying than a grade, and people of all ages and backgrounds, most of whom were not theatre-goers, walked away with a taste of just how powerful theatre can be. The Writes of Spring 2015 project ignited change not just in the pages of its scripts, but also in the field of theatre education.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Augusto Boal, the father of Theatre for Social Change, once said, “We must all do theatre to find out who we are, and to discover who we could become” (Boal 62). Writes of Spring 2015’s Do You Hear Me? is a perfect response to both quotes. The process of Writes of Spring 2015 demonstrates how applying a lens of Theatre for Social Change highlights the origins of a story in addition to the story itself. Participants in the program found as much delight and satisfaction in the making of the play as they did in the play itself. By marrying Theatre for Social Change with history, participants experienced the anticipation and effects of historical events in addition to the events themselves. As a result, Do You Hear Me? is not a direct account of history, but rather a reflection of Dr. King’s belief that history makes us. And, what better way to reflect on how history has made us than through an art form that encourages us to discover who we could become, and how to identify and ignite our own sparks of change.


Boal, Augusto, and Adrian Jackson. The Aesthetics of the Oppressed. London: Routledge, 2006.


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Alex Bailey Hodson recently received her MFA in Theatre for Young Audiences at University of Central Florida. In her first year, Alex served as Assistant Project Coordinator for Writes of Spring and graduated to Project Coordinator for the project’s two most recent iterations.

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