Collected Stories Imparts Important Lessons

Palm Beach Dramaworks always makes good on its promise to present theater to think about. For its latest production, Collected Stories, onstage February 3 to March 5, Dramaworks is using the play’s themes of plagiarism and artistic intent as an opportunity to teach Palm Beach County high school students about the importance of making ethical decisions.

Written by Donald Margulies, Collected Stories explores the relationship between budding writer Lisa and her mentor Ruth. When Lisa decides to use an experience from Ruth’s life as the inspiration for her first novel, it raises questions of ethics, integrity, and betrayal.

Gary Cadwallader, Dramaworks’ director of education and community engagement, believed he could use the themes in Collected Stories to impart ethical lessons to high schoolers. The result is The Dramaworks Ethics Project, a grant-funded initiative that asks students to create digital storytelling projects that will force them to think critically about their own ethics and principles. Here, Cadwallader speaks with PBI about his own educational philosophy and the main elements of this new initiative.

Gary Cadwallader

PBI: How do you go about planning educational components to a play? 

Cadwallader: I look at the relevance of why a play is important today. Some plays may be [contemporary], but some are older and they still have that resonance that kicks in today. The more things change the more things stay the same. We really want to look at how it affects people’s lives today and how it’s still important. That’s where I start from, and that is why [producing artistic director] Bill Hayes picks the plays, because he knows they’re relevant to the audience.

I read the play multiple times and I get a really good sense of what the playwright’s big idea is. And then I write a study guide based on that. I look at the sociological context and historical context as well as at the playwright and his or her life, how it contextualizes from there, because playwrights write about what they know. So I look at where they get these ideas and why they are expressing them in this particular way at this particular time in their life. Having all that context helps me, but it also then helps the students look at the play in a full, deeper way.

What themes or big ideas in Collected Stories did you want to highlight?

Themes of intellectual property rights, the creative process, and plagiarism. The character [Lisa] has some success with writing what she knows, and then has no idea what to write next. She feels like she has already done everything from her life that was important. And the other character [Ruth] says to her, “We’re all rummagers, all writers are rummagers at a tag sale, picking through the neighbor’s discard for material, whatever we can get our hands on, shamelessly. Why stop with our own journals?” So that’s the advice the mentor gives. She then tells a story about her relationship with poet Delmore Schwartz when she was a young girl and, of course, the younger character takes that idea after getting that advice from the mentor and uses that as a springboard for her story. Well, that doesn’t go well.

I thought, well, what is intellectual property? What is plagiarism? And what are the ethics that support someone doing that or not doing that? So that’s the main idea of the play, the main conflict of the play. And I know that teachers deal with plagiarism now more than ever and the ethics of it. So I said, “Let’s do a project where we have students think about choices.” If they’re stressed out and  need to write something at the last minute, which most students do, how can we make them think about what those choices would be?

Keira Keeley and Anne-Marie Cusson in Collected Stories at Palm Beach Dramaworks. (Photo by Samantha Mighdoll)

How did you go about building a project around this idea?

I wrote a grant proposal to PNC Arts Alive (PNC Bank and their Arts Alive program) and won a grant for what we’re calling The Dramaworks Ethics Project. The project is two parts. Every high school student in Palm Beach County is being given the opportunity to do digital storytelling. So I’ve sent lesson plans to the teachers to use ethics as a prompt to have each student or class do a digital story based on these ethical prompts. And then, for a certain number of invited students, we have special student matinees for Collected Stories. They will come to the play, and then I will have an ethics expert do a talkback at the end and have a discussion with the students about what they saw and what the characters went through. Who feels that Lisa was right and who feels that Ruth was right, and have an ethical discussion philosophical about the themes of the play and what they just saw. We’re really excited about that and that’s kind of the arc of this project.

Ideally, will the students see the play and then work on the storytelling projects afterward?

Yes, right. Every school has until April 28 to turn in their digital storytelling projects. But the fieldtrips are in February, when we’re doing the show. I’ve invited certain schools to those because we only have a limited number of performances.

So some may see it, some may not see it, but they’ll all be working off the same idea.

Yes, exactly.

Ultimately, what do you hope students get from participating in this project?

All we want to do is plant a seed about thinking about the choices that we make. What we really want to do is have these young people stop and think about their choices. We are all stressed out and we all have that opportunity, but what is the ethical choice? As we know, it’s not always black and white. Ethics can be gray. I think a lot of times, we just need to present those decisions to have them think critically about them. Young people are in a place right now where they get more and more homework in high school. They’ve got college [to prepare for]. They’ve got lots of activities, whether it’s band or sports or art. They’re busier than ever and there’s so much going on in their lives that they’re working toward. So, what do we do when we’re overwhelmed? Because this is how we live as adults. It doesn’t get any easier. But those seeds that are planted make us think twice about the ethical choices.

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