In response to the recent uptick in domestic violence:

Several years ago I received a call from a District Attorney, one of whose clients had been tried and convicted of a crime involving sodomy, rape, and murder. She was trying to keep him off of death row. He had been expelled from more than ten LAUSD schools, and she was trying to find a single teacher from one of those schools who could say something nice about him.

When she told me his name I vaguely remembered a small eighth grader who had briefly flitted, somewhat disruptively, through my drama class years earlier, before being expelled. At the time, I and his math teacher had voted not to expel him until he had been tested and recommended for placement in a program that could better serve his needs. The majority of the faculty just wanted to be rid of him.

“He’s not small anymore,” she said.

In preparing an argument for a life sentence instead of execution, she asked him to name a single teacher who might be able to say something good about him. He named two: me and one other. I could hardly remember him among the hundreds of kids who had passed through my classes, but he remembered me and one other teacher.

We were both theater teachers.

I am not saying theater could have changed him, could have redirected him, could even have saved him and the life of his victim; but I’m absolutely certain that was what HE was saying. And he wouldn’t be the first. You will probably never meet a theater teacher who can not claim to have “saved” a student and doesn’t have a story like mine. Most of the stories end happily. Most of mine do too. This one did not.

Students in our schools are desperate for avenues of self expression and self-definition. Experience in drama activities empowers students and gives them tools for positive and constructive communication. This has been true for hundreds of years and it will be true for hundreds more. Educators, take note.

7 replies
  1. Virginia (Ginny) Atherton
    Virginia (Ginny) Atherton says:

    Engagement in the arts can be profound, self-defining and transformative. Face to face interaction with eye contact inviting the “other” into empathetic relationship. Performing arts educators might be helped to construct activities that develop relationships, if only for the moment of the art-making.

    This can happen intimately chamber music and jazz, expanding the intimacy to chorus and orchestra. Relationship within orchestral contexts was evident during the recent El Sistema/YOLA National Symposium in LA: youngsters new to sectionals and small ensembles up to the extraordinary (auditioned) National Honors Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dudamel, were all on the path to empathetic collaborative music-making.

    I imagine theater classes to be uniquely suited not only for all students but especially for students with absolutely no other resources for art-making, self-exploration, empathy, and expression.

    Another important piece to be added to our educational mosaic is Council Practice as taught by Joe Provisor. Pro-active rather than re-active (Restorative Justice), Council Practice seems largely absent from schools who rush to RJ, unaware that CP might have provided the essential empathetic foundation for a culture of support on each school site.

    Thank you, Robin, for posting your insights!


  2. Laura Hamlett
    Laura Hamlett says:

    Robin dear,

    Tears ran down my cheeks as I read your blog! I agree that the arts can be the savior for so many of our troubled youth, and can also reflect upon several students that I was able to reach, motivate, and provide purpose for through the arts. With many of them (and their families) I continue to maintain contact.


  3. Terri Olson Walsh
    Terri Olson Walsh says:

    This is an amazing story, Robin! Thank you for the work you are doing now-it is absolutely necessary. The arts are one avenue for us to agree, enjoy, work together and tap into that part of us that is found in no other subject or genre. I was just at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State where I have taught piano and voice for 10 different summers. This summer my husband and I did not teach, but attended a beautiful orchestral concert and I sat with tears streaming down my eyes thinking, “Everyone needs to listen to fine music and realize how good we really have it! We need to get along and build each other up, rather than what we see every day on the news around the world.” This was following the horrible week of shootings around the country. Our niece has just moved to Dayton with her young family and the family is fine, but we are all in shock. I so agree that drama, acting, comedy and all areas of theater are crucial. Also dance and visual fine arts and of course music. WE NEED THESE IN OUR LIVES! We also need to treat our Arts Teachers very well. It is not an easy job and requires so much special training and a heart to match. I am praying that this work you are compiling will help to sustain the arts in our schools.

  4. Sherry J Kerr
    Sherry J Kerr says:

    These compelling stories resonate with most Theatre teachers. We have so many stories! What comes to my mind this morning is a highschool student, a notorious gang leader, who had never been involved in theatre. The teachers warned me to send him out at the first sign of resistance. He immediately entered the “drama world” shocking his teachers and his classmates. He chose to take the role in a process drama of “the guy fighting for the right cause.” Once he joined in everybody had permission to take a creative risk. It was magical!!!

  5. Paula Treichler
    Paula Treichler says:

    Hi Robin—as I read your email just now about violence (and blog related to book) I happened to be listening to a hair-raising NPR story about suicide behind bars (By bring this problem into the public. discussion, Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide may constitute his one positive legacy). The lead episode was about the correctional system, it’s secretiveness, and failure to understand or address mental health issues, failure often leading to suicide. In this case story, the boy who killed himself —diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic after two years in prison—might well have been saved by/through theatre. By the time he had 7 voices in his head talking to himself and to each other. Letting them talk to an audience might have given him some relief (plus medication).
    Barrie said your book was finished. Is it out yet? I searched on Amazon and what should turn up but The World According to Garth. Robin (Williams) plus (John) Lithgow. Something to think about.

    Love, Paula

    • robinlithgow
      robinlithgow says:

      Hi there Paula,
      No, the book’s not out. My site and the blog are part of the social media “platform” that is apparently necessary these days for a new nonfiction author (yes, I’m 76, no need to rub it in), so I’m doing the slog work. I’ve had some great feedback and a few nibbles, but not there yet. About to start looking into university presses. You’ve been there. Any ideas?
      Great to hear from you!


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