Writer Creates Play About Pennsylvania School Funding

by | April 6, 2015

By Regina Medina

Philadelphia writer and parent Arden Kass became outraged a couple of years ago when the school district slashed its budget and classroom education suffered.

Teachers were laid off and class sizes ballooned.

"It seemed like they were attacking the school system," Kass said in an interview last week. "The budget cuts seemed almost punitive. It seemed like you had to succeed in spite of what was going on in the state."

Kass soon became obsessed with Philadelphia's school-funding issue and developed an idea that she pitched to a few funders and to civic leaders including Donna Cooper with Public Citizens for Children and Youth. The result is a documentary-based theater piece titled "School Play," which will be performed Wednesday and Thursday at the National Constitution Center.

"School Play" -- a collaboration among Kass, playwright Seth Bauer and director Edward Sobel -- is based on interviews with parents, students, teachers and state policymakers about Pennsylvania's funding issue. The play is also based on letters from students and other source materials. More than 100 interviews were conducted statewide by Kass and her team, including about 20 sessions here in Philadelphia.

"I hope that [people will] feel moved by the stories of some people in the play and it inspires them to become active participants in the dialogue around public education," Sobel said.

The play features five actors talking to the audience, speaking the words of those interviewed. It's similar to "The Laramie Project," a play about the reaction in Laramie, Wyo., to the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered because of his sexual orientation.

Kass and her team conducted an interview with Peter Schmitz, a man who had relocated from Minnesota.

"It was, um, immediately clear to me how huge the disparity was just five, six miles away, what resources the kid would have at his command. You'd see in the paper, OK a kid here they spend $30,000 per student and a kid down the street, well they spend maybe $12[,000], $13,000 per student," an actor playing Schmitz says.

"Wow, that's a big difference," he continues.

"We wanted people to connect on a human level, that's why we did this project," Kass said. "It is very difficult to get people to pay attention to big graphs and charts and they don't want to read those big, long articles full of numbers, but we knew that they would pay attention to human stories that they could relate to."

"School Play" will be performed for two nights, but PCCY will make the script available after Thursday's performance to students, educators and the general public to interpret on their own.

(c)2015 the Philadelphia Daily News