Center for Community Engagement

Going Public Goes Public

Going Public, an original play by Elias Johansson-Miller ’12, opens Thursday night in Kirby Theater


April 2012—story by Jenny Morgan, photos by Katherine Berry '12

In August of 2010, the Los Angeles Times brought summer vacation to a screeching halt with an unprecedented online publication. The newspaper published names and rankings of some 6,000 public elementary school teachers in a searchable, online database. The ranking tool, called the “value-added analysis,” uses students’ standardized test scores to calculate how much value each teacher adds to, or detracts from, student performance.  Overnight, the story ignited a controversy and sparked a national conversation on teacher performance and standardized testing.

 

The story also inspired the focus of Elias Johansson-Miller '12’s thesis, Going Public, an original play that explores public education through the real stories of teachers and administrators, including many who were involved in the 2010 Los Angeles teacher-ranking story.

Guest-directed by Andy Paris, co-creator of the Laramie Project and member of the Tectonic Theater Project, the play features a script crafted by Johansson-Miller and Paris, a five-member ensemble of both Amherst and Hampshire College students, and a musical number with— that’s right — dancing standardized test bubbles. Going Public opens this Thursday at 8 p.m. in Kirby Theater and runs through Saturday.

A double major in English and Theater and Dance, Johansson-Miller, like “any good Amherst overachiever,” had been thinking about his senior thesis since his first year in college. “Theater and public education are my two passions,” he says. “I thought it would be a great way to end college to do a project that combines the two.” From the outset, he wanted to create a play about public education using real-life stories. The challenge? Finding a compelling, relatable story. “I started fishing around for a story to tell, because you can’t just have a play where people argue with each other. That would be super boring.” Johansson-Miller was at an alumni discussion on public education when an alumnus mentioned the L.A. Times controversy, adding that a 39-year-old teacher had committed suicide shortly after the rankings were released. Johansson-Miller was instantly captivated. “My hunch was that this L.A. Times thing was kind of emblematic of larger things that were happening in public education.”

Johansson-Miller began creating Going Public by conducting 60 interviews of everyone he could find in public education. He collected stories in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, and Amherst; he spoke with teachers, journalists, administrators, students, and college professors. With the close help of Paris, the pair sifted through more than 400 pages of interview transcripts. Paris and Johansson-Miller were both particularly compelled by the stories of teachers, because it seemed that their experiences touched on nearly every aspect of public education. They selected five interviewees to develop into the play’s main characters, using voices from other interviews to bring in more perspectives. Johansson-Miller’s thesis advisor, Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Ron Bashford ’88, considers the play’s focus on teachers quite fitting. “It’s kind of all about the strains of teachers, who are quite interested in students and committed to teaching. But teachers are like the middle managers, stuck between a rock and a hard place. And yet they are the people who are asked to do this work as adults for society.”

Paris first started working with the cast of Going Public— which includes Johansson-Miller — in September of 2011. Unlike many first rehearsals, there was no script for the actors. In fact, the cast has only recently begun to work with the completed script. Instead, Paris directed the ensemble through a process called moment work, originally created by Paris and his colleagues at the Tectonic Theater Project. According to Paris, moment work is a “technique for theatrical exploration” that allows actors to manipulate the elements of theater— sound, light, movement, text, props— to create a dramatic moment. “You play with these tools and isolate them on the stage and see what imagery comes up and what forms arise. It’s an accumulation of theatrical information that we can then structure and sequence. It frees actors from the tyranny of the text.” The cast worked together to create moments and sequences that appear throughout the play. Crafting moments together helped to foster a deep sense of shared ownership in the overall production. “They’ve become really invested in the show [because of] this moment process,” Johansson-Miller notes. “They can directly see the things they have created in this play.”

Going Public follows the course of one entire school day, beginning with morning announcements and ending at the final bell. “We get introduced to the main characters, they run into some trouble, and then there is a kind of resolution to what happens from this trouble,” he explains. There are three themes that figure prominently in Going Public: the influence of high-stakes standardized testing, teacher-student relationships, and the general sense of distrust rampant in public education. Most striking to Johansson-Miller is the lack of trust in schools. “I’ve really latched onto this issue of trust, and the fact that really all parties involved— teachers, students, administrators, union leaders, outside reformers, people in philanthropy— everyone is distrustful of everyone else. No one thinks that anyone knows what they are doing.” In spite of this distrust, Johansson-Miller doesn’t like to harp on the “doom and gloom” of public education. “If people work together and trust each other, and you give everyone in the community a voice, you can make good things happen.”

Johansson-Miller isn’t yet sure how this year-and- a-half-long project has changed how he views public education, and it’s perhaps because his experiences with education are far from over. He grew up near public education— his mother is a public school teacher turned administrator— and he will soon return to it as an English teacher in a Los Angeles public school next fall. What is clear to those around him is just how much he has grown throughout the process. “He’s learned to cope with uncertainty and to see things from multiple perspectives. He’s comfortable now with creating theater from scratch,” Bashford reflects. Paris echoes Bashford’s praises. “In putting together the piece, he’s really been able to find himself as a theater-maker and not just a smart actor that had an idea. It’s been really exciting to watch.”

 

Going Public runs from Thursday, April 12 through Saturday, April 14 in Kirby Theater. All shows begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are free and no reservations are necessary. Learn more about the process of creating Going Public on the play's blog. See more photos of the play on Flickr. All photos courtesy of Katherine Berry '12.

Jenny Morgan is a CCE staff writer. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.