The widely acknowledged failings of the U.S. educational system have been a hot topic in both the media and on stage and film for many years now, not to mention in virtually every current presidential campaign. Perhaps part of those failings has to do with the fact that, as a country bent on success by any means possible, Americans tend to reward accomplishments in the classroom through test scores alone. Far too little is said, by contrast, regarding the actual bravery and strength of the American teacher. It is in this highly-distressed Columbine era that ArtGroup presents Betterland, a new play that calls into question the ethics of present-day education.
Betterland is the story of a veteran schoolteacher who, faced with dismissal, realizes that her outdated teaching principles - one leavened with discipline - are no longer valued by the institution she serves. She is snapped into this reality by the arrival of her first genuine student in years. Her other students, sensing a true bond between teacher and student, trigger the events that force the teacher into her final act of defiance.
Written by David Lohrey, Betterland was originally written as a one-act monologue. A teacher for fifteen years at the time he wrote the piece, Lohrey was teaching at The Watts School in South Central L.A. Thus set in the heart of urban gang warfare, the school was frequently shut down due to the continuous acts of violence that often turned the campus into a battlefield. "What I found particularly disturbing," Lohrey says, "was the way in which the administration and the students handled the situation. No one really found the violence to be a problem and they would carry on with their regular business as if it were normal." Being in this complacent environment was what ultimately drove him to write the one-act confessional monologue that has now evolved into Betterland.
After some additional script development, Lohrey felt the play was ready for an audience, and submitted it to a new play contest sponsored by Theater Resources Unlimited (T.R.U.), a New York-based support organization serving non-profits and individual artists alike. Contest winners received T.R.U.-sponsored readings of their plays, and soon, Lohrey's work caught the attention of ArtGroup.
Based in the South Bronx, ArtGroup was created in 1981 by Ray and Gordona L'Dera as a counter-attack to the commercial theater. Worried that the theater was becoming too expensive and too exclusive, they elected to "go after" the substantial segment of the New York community "who had never even been inside a theater, to create a loyal audience." Rehearsing and performing in available churches and community centers, ArtGroup has been creating affordable live theatre in and around the metropolitan area, including communities as varied as Newark and Yorkville, Murray Hill and East Harlem, the East Village and Roosevelt Island, plus detours through Tribeca, Hell's Kitchen, and the rest of Greenwich Village.
ArtGroup's latest venture is called The Crossover Company, a series of "community sensitive" projects through which the group hopes to build a bridge between professional and community theater. The project joins the company's home community, the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, with the Hell's Kitchen community along Manhattan's west side. Crossover's uptown host will be the East Side Settlement's Mott Haven Community Center, a venue featuring a 138-seat theater space as well as classrooms and an outdoor performance stage. The company is currently searching for an equally suitable host in Hell's Kitchen.
Having chosen Betterland as the first production of ArtGroup's Crossover Company season, L'Dera clearly feels the intensity of Lohrey's play will easily transport to the Bronx. That is not to say, according to L'Dera, that the Bronx is as crime-ridden these days as its long-scarred reputation would suggest. "The neighborhood," he says, "[has] nice, quiet, friendly people. People still expect to see the burning South Bronx from the '60s and '70s." Hopefully, the gentrification that The Crossover Company is shooting for will also give the neighborhood an even cleaner slate.
Maria Calviet, a graduate of both New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and The Acting Studio, directs Betterland, and the cast includes Brandon Beach, Cooley, Lucille Duncan, Deborah Kahn, Gordona L'Dera, Marilyn Mineo and Michael Schwartz. Be sure to check out the production's website, located at www.betterland.cjb.net.