During the late 1970s, Philip Lopate (“Being with Children,” a memoir based on his teaching career), challenged a group of fifth and sixth graders in New York City at PS 75 in his writing program (part of the Teachers and Writers Collaborative) to what must have seemed, even then, like a foolhardy project, staging a full-production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in an abandoned off-Broadway theater a block away from their school.
Lopate wrote an essay called “Chekhov for Children” in 1979 about the experience that has been anthologized since then. University of Iowa professor and documentary filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer participated in that experimental production, as a 10-year-old directing assistant to Lopate, and nearly three decades later, had the opportunity to explore the impact it had on everyone involved as they found themselves at the same age as Lopate then (36 years old), and Chekhov (39 years old) when he wrote the play. Her film draws its title from Lopate’s essay and comments on a quote from the piece; “Where does one draw the line between experimentation and self-indulgence?”
That question, while not directly posed during a recent phone interview with Dayton City Paper, hangs pregnantly (and quite Chekhovianly) over the conversation as it veers towards contemporary educational and political concerns.
Dayton City Paper (DCP): What led you to diving back into your past and the story in this way?
Sasha Waters Freyer (SWF): I teach at the University of Iowa and we have a non-fiction writing conference. In 2005, Philip Lopate came and was a keynote speaker, so I ran into him at the conference and discovered the existence of this tape. I said I would love to see the full “Vanya” performance. It had personal nostalgia value, not anything more. I forgot about it until several months later [when] he sent it to me. As soon as I started watching it, it certainly had that personal nostalgia value for me because it was my group of friends, but also the magnitude of the project hit me as an adult. This idea of performing Chekhov with 10-year-olds and I thought the performances were really interesting. So, I decided to track people down. I think that if I had discovered the tape 10 years earlier though, I’m not sure I would have been inspired to make a movie about it. There’s something about being middle-aged and being a parent and being a teacher that made me want to explore those issues.
DCP: When you were participating in this program, was it something outside the classroom experience? How was that set up?
SWF: Half of the school was very traditional, very structured and half had this open-corridor, where the classroom environment was much looser, so a lot of times we were being pulled out of class, away from regular lessons to be involved in this writing group that evolved into the “Uncle Vanya” project and then sometimes we were doing things after school. It was definitely something that ate into the regular school day in a way that I think would be extremely difficult, if not impossible now. In good schools, I think there are people doing interesting things to supplement what is happening in the classroom, but there is so much structure now in the classroom that it doesn’t allow for that kind of creative play and flexibility as it did back in the 1970s, depending on where you were.
DCP: You had this wealth of documentary footage allowing the participants to see themselves and talk about that (experience) as adults and what it meant to them. As you were working on this, what was the experience like for you because you were involved on a couple of different philosophical and critical levels?
SWF: Well, it took a long time to make the film because I had small kids and I teach full-time, so I told people when I first started filming these interviews that (they) weren’t going to hear from me for awhile, but don’t worry, I’ll be working on it and gathering material and editing. [But] I had the lucky opportunity to connect with everybody involved in the project whereas they didn’t necessarily get to connect with everybody, although I had a screening in New York last month and almost everyone was there, so that was the first time where everyone came together in the same space. So for me it was this interesting opportunity to go back and reconnect with people who I had been very close with when I was young, yet had not seen. Growing up in New York, in a neighborhood, but then people go to different middle schools and high schools and you completely drift apart, so I hadn’t seen anybody in nearly 30 years. And in particular, one of the other reasons the film took so long was because my friend Slim [one of the key participants in the play] who had a lot of mental health problems while I was filming. That was really hard too, both figuring out how to include that and represent it in the film in a way that was fair and just dealing with the logistics of trying to interview him and it not working out. I would definitely say that the whole process brought me closer to everyone involved, but particularly closer to him.
DCP: In light of the debate about the state of public schools in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” your film doesn’t directly speak on the issue, but you are providing an example of what was going on in a public school at a specific time. How do you feel about “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and where schools are right now?
SWF: It’s interesting because I’ve been working on my film so long, it’s a coincidence that it came out at the same time as this really big documentary on education. A friend of mine described my film as not very political and I think that’s true if you’re thinking capital “P” political documentary that depicts a problem and then tries to articulate some kind of solution to that contemporary problem. But for me, “Chekhov for Children” is political in the sense that it is a celebration of public school teachers and public education and the kinds of possibilities that were available and I think could still be available. This was during a time of total fiscal crisis in New York and yet there was this energy and interest to bring the arts into the schools and giving kids this opportunity and not being obsessed with this teaching to the test mentality. In some ways, one could argue that there are schools that have more flexibility, more openness, and those schools are charter schools and/or private schools because they don’t have to adhere to the strict federal guidelines of No Child Left Behind that the public schools have to, but [part of] my concern with charter schools has to do with [the fact] that charter schools, depending on the school, don’t necessarily have to take special needs children, children with intellectual and social issues, and that runs counter to the public school where everyone can come in and participate. PS 75 was a school where there were children of people on welfare and children of Columbia University professors. There was a real socioeconomic mix in that school and I think that’s important. (tt stern-enzi)