Literature to Life is a theater based literacy program I co-founded with artistic director, Wynn Handman, over nineteen years ago at the American Place Theater, and now is part of Young Audiences New York (YANY). Literature to Life brings books on the public high school reading list to life on stage, using verbatim text, one actor, a few props, and simple costumes, engaging student’s imagination. Performances occur all across the country on sweeping stages of major cultural centers, small black box theaters, school auditoriums, public libraries, under the florescent lights of a high school classrooms. Through the actor’s performance of multiple roles and their passion for the language students become engrossed in the story and discover the real joys of reading. Before and after the performances there are facilitated discussions with a Teaching Artist, encouraging students to respond with their own experience to the ideas in the book and articulate their thoughts. Often students who are silent in class will surprise their teachers by speaking out in our discussions, which are then followed up by written response and further in depth work in the classroom. Literature to Life also conducts longer residencies in schools and engages in professional development with teachers, using the performances as a spring board for student and teacher engagement.
Literature to Life started when I was with artistic director, Wynn Handman at American Place Theater in New York, one of the first “off Broadway” theaters to place new plays and significant writers at the forefront of their mission. I was hired to select and develop “new American plays ” but at a certain point it seemed more to the point to be developing “new American audiences,” so I assembled a task force of artists and educators committed to figuring out what specifically American Place could do to help students engage in theater or use theater to engage students. The resulting programs were diverse, ranging from an ensemble of actors in the classroom teaching social studies (Teamworks), to our creating plays with students (Urban Writes), but the program that captured the essence of Wynn’s vision and endures today is Literature to Life, which combines educational needs with the theater’s focus on outstanding writing. Over time, Literature to Life became the sole focus of American Place Theater, and has served over 450,000 students in its local and national programs, with upwards of twenty books in repertory. I have adapted and directed several books: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Giver, House on Mango Street, and count them among the most deeply gratifying and enduring work I’ve done in theater. Click here to learn more and donate to this terrific literacy program: Lit to Life.