Growing our Aesthetic Education Program

Some of my most fulfilling work with We Players has been running programs with youth. In the early years of our organization, Ava and I both offered education programs rooted in We Players’ practice of connecting with our sensing bodies, communicating honestly and creatively, and fostering healthy relationships with one another and place.

My experience with the youth at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center during our residency on Alcatraz was quite profound, and it planted seeds for someday growing an education program that would seamlessly integrate with each of our major site-integrated theatre productions.

In developing our Aesthetic Education Program, we chose to first target teenagers for a few reasons: our park partners have some amazing education programs, but there are few opportunities for teens to creatively engage with these public resources; people are generally introduced to Shakespeare and other classics (central to our work) during their teen years; and, while I know many in our culture struggle to understand and communicate with them, the formative teen years are full of vitality and deep questioning and I personally find sharing time with teenagers incredibly enlivening and meaningful.

In my five years of experience running nature awareness and primitive skills classes and performance workshops, I’ve learned how important it is for teens to have a driving purpose and I’ve seen how brilliant, dedicated, and truly helpful our youth can be when their vision is clear.

We Players is taking our site-integrated artistic practice in a new direction to craft Aesthetic Education Programs with the express purpose of training the creative problem solvers of tomorrow.

We acknowledge the fact that our planet is facing major legacy issues, and our AEP is designed to prepare our youth for the tasks at hand. We empower young people by stretching their imaginations and offering skills for coming together to solve new-paradigm problems across social barriers. By inspiring curiosity to explore the delicacies and intricacies of the environment and to remember the tremendous capacity of the sensing body, our programs organically encourage stewardship of both natural and urban environments.

Our introductory workshops offer a taste of our practice on school grounds. As we expand our programs in 2014-15, I look forward to bringing a core of dedicated teenagers to our project sites to take their (and our) work to the next level. Our timely project themes are water, the mysteries in the deep, and our tenuous human relationship with the natural world… there’s so much to explore!

-Lauren D. Chavez
Managing Director, We Players

Letter to Ancestor Highlights

Going through the JJC students’ letters to ancestors with a fine toothed comb.… I find gems that sparkle with hope, yet even more dark rocks of truth, crumbling from our current realities.

Selections will be printed and all original letters will be presented in We Players third exhibition on Alcatraz, opening June 11th.

If you’d like to be involved with our July 23rd Youth Conference, please contact us!

Dear Ancestor,

Would you rather live in my time or your time if you had a choice?


How did you guys survive through wars, riots, crises and depressions? I am only 16 and I’ve been through a lot. I have a daughter and I’ve been shot. The one think that keeps me motivated is my mother.
– A

In the times that we are living in now it is worse than everything you went through. Young black people are dying everyday. We come from a community where there is no unity. I would rather walk in the shoes you walked in to replace all the tragic memories I suffer from seeing all my family and close friends die.

Being whipped by a Caucasian slave master wouldn’t hurt me as much as being shot by a brother of the same age and same color.

So many people are very heartless where I come from. I wonder if it was the same when you were growing up.
-Kishawn

I know you worked hard in your days because my family works hard now.

How many kids did you have or did you have kids? What did they get in trouble for and what were the consequences? Because I got beat with a belt.
– Don

There is so much technology in our society today that people believe it will destroy the human population and the world will soon come to an end. Our nation has been at war for so long that I believe there is truth to some of it.

Life in here is nothing compared to real jail, so I’m fortunate. But there is nothing funny about not having your freedom and getting told what to do.
– Amarion

I was doing good, following all the rules. I had some rough times, but I always managed to pull it together. Then I made one mistake by going to a place I had no business going to. Now that place has me wearing a green sweater and khaki pants again, county underwear, socks that millions of people had on. Who am I really? Why was I put on this earth to go through this struggle?
– Jamariea

Most of the family are living in housing projects and struggling to find a job. Most of the young ones in the family are getting caught up with the law. How do we stop this and move on to a better life?
– Thomas

I’m not in the best position today because I’m incarcerated. But I won’t let our family’s hardwork be in vain.
– Jon

I’ll see you in maybe 30 years.
– Anonymous

Ancestor, you would be mad at us because of the way we act. And the way we’re killing our own people. We’re going to jail and you fought for us to be free. You fought for us to get an education. Now people our age don’t go to school. We don’t do anything our ancestors fought for.
-E’zahna

A lot of people have lost that family unity. People don’t respect their elders.
– DeNeal

I’m not going to do anything but be dead or in jail. At least that’s what the judge says. But when I get to this group home I’m going to prove her wrong.

The system is not cool. Once you’re in they don’t want to let you out and they are always trying to send me off, so I guess they don’t want to see me do anything good with myself.
– Zaybang

My grandfather told me, “time waits for no man, man just wasts time or uses it best as he can. Life goes on without a meaning or a purpose, but if you life it, then when the time comes to die, you’ll know that it was worth it.”
– Joshua

Even though we have freedom and rights, we are still going through hard times. I feel that we aren’t really free. And it drives me crazy.
– Lamont

Here in America there are barely any African Americans who know their native background. Everything here is usually technology-based, cutting out traditional things like cooking, reading, hunting, etc. Our people are sometimes discriminated against due to stereotypes and certain people who have done stupid things in the past. Today they have systems that can take away your freedom and rights no matter what age you are. I am currently in Juvenile Hall, which means I have no freedom or rights.
– S.M.

Today there are more youth dying because of what neighborhood they stay in, or because of the people they know. Today there are a lot more gangs because teenagers don’t have anyone to look up to.
– Diamonique

First off, I would like to apologize for disgracing your family name. I realize that I am the first and only person in our bloodline that has been incarcerated, but I vow to make it up to you and make you proud of me.

The world is a mess right now. Maybe it always was? Maybe it’s just more obvious now?
– Ashton

I remember I used to love.
I’m not that person anymore.
Reality has changed me.
– Carey

People think that my life is going good, but it’s not. People nowadays judge you for all you got, how you look, and what you wear.
– Shakari

Orange Blossoms

Thank you Evan Bissell for leading a wonderful workshop on Alcatraz this past Saturday, June 4th!

Despite the rain, an intimate group of participants gathered at Pier 33 to ride the ferry through the gray day to Alcatraz. The scent of our oranges, which we used in awareness and drawing exercises, lifted the cold weight of the prison walls with the burst of imagined earth and scented blossoms. We wrote letters to our ancestors, some specific, some vague and imagined, to capture a slice of the present moment in time and perhaps connect with our sense of self in the great stream of time. This workshop was the same starting point Evan used when developing the portraits with the men and youth featured in the artworks displayed in the most recent exhibit on Alcatraz.

We Players borrowed this same exercise during our workshop at the SF Juvenile Justice Center. Masks and letters to ancestors that grew out of the weeks with the youth at the JJC will be featured in our next exhibit on the Rock. We are excited to host a Youth Conference on July 23 and are inviting teens and young adults from a wide array of backgrounds to join us that Saturday afternoon! If you know someone, or group of teens, who may be interested in a unique trip to Alcatraz, please contact us!

Thanks, friends!

first day at SF JJC

Thanks to a connection through one of our stellar Hamlet on Alcatraz volunteers, We Players is facilitating a workshop at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center this spring. Once a week, for the next 7 weeks, I will have the privilege of listening to young peoples’ stories and their perspectives on the Alcatraz themes of justice, incarceration, isolation and redemption.  I will support four units of youth (~12-18 students per unit) in creating art that expresses their truths.  At the end of the term, Ava and I will work together with the youth for a solid week.  We will play with all the material they generate this spring and pull together a final piece/ pieces for presentation on Alcatraz during our June event and third gallery cycle.

This first Tuesday was all about introductions.  We Players protocol is to begin sessions with check in.  With new groups (and in non-We Players group settings) I like beginning with a thanksgiving address.  I asked every young person, each in their khaki pants and unit-specific colored t-shirt/sweatshirt, to share their name and something for which they’re feeling thankful. A few folks passed in most units, but otherwise, the responses were mostly “I’m thankful to be alive,” “for my family,” or “thankful I’m getting out soon.”   Not much originality, but most spoke their gratitude with conviction and I could see them all warming up a bit just having to think about that question.  What are you thankful for?

I explained I was with We Players, a site-specific performing arts group that transformed public spaces into realms of participatory theater.  I mentioned that We Players is really interested in helping people engage all their senses and expand their awareness of the history and energy of a space, more fully awakening to the magical world around them.  I described our partnership with the National Park Service and our three year aesthetic exploration of the Alcatraz themes.

I then did a rapid fire telling of Iphigenia and Other Daughters and Hamlet, while showing images of our productions on Alcatraz.  They were riveted. I noted the cycles of vengeance that perpetuated murder in both stories.  I presented Iphigenia’s questions about freedom at the end of Ellen McLaughlin’s play, and noted how her understanding and compassion and choice not to spill blood finally gave her brother peace. I returned to the cycle of vengeance with Hamlet, highlighting the major revenge themes on the play in my 10 minute summary. But I also emphasized Shakespeare’s focus on an internal dialogue, a man in isolation/ depression pulled in different directions by familial obligations and his own conscience.  After all the death, at the end of Hamlet (esp. as emphasized by We Players portrayal of Fortinbras’ arrival), we are asked to hear the bloody story and choose a new path.

We have some rights of memory in this kingdom, which now to claim our vantage doth invite us.”

These youth are  excited to share their voices, to express the truth of their lives and their experiences within our justice system.  And I’m excited to share their expressions with the ~5,000 visitors that tour Alcatraz every day.  I feel like our 2011 intention of connecting the Alcatraz themes with current realities is actually happening.

-Lauren Chavez