The Dramatic Work of Rich and Joyce Swingle

The High School Final

04.24.17 04:41 PM Comment(s) By Rich

Joyce and I with Cindy on a recent
visit she took to NYC.
Since about 1994 I've been performing in public schools through the invitation of Cindy Sebring.

That year I drove (back when I tried to keep a car in NYC) down to the DC area for a Christians in Theatre Arts conference. I remember the rain was also driving, and my windshield wipers weren't staying up with the volume. I ended up getting there in the middle of a performance by Frank Runyon, the third one-man play I'd seen, after Curt Cloninger and Roger Nelson. A gentleman in the back of the auditorium welcomed me, and after the performance we struck up a conversation. He knew some folks at the Lamb's Church of the Nazarene where I was an intern at the time. He asked me where I was staying, and I told him I hadn't figured that out yet. I didn't tell him, but I was hoping someone would give me a place to stay so I wouldn't have to spend a significant percentage of my savings on a hotel! He invited me to stay with his family, and to join them on Sunday at their church. 

That Sunday I met Cindy. Soon I was invited to perform at a retreat that church was hosting. Cindy offered to drive me to the retreat from DC. 

Soon after the retreat started Friday evening I told the pastor who would be preaching Sunday morning that I'd be happy to write a fresh piece to go with his sermon, but he didn't know what passage he'd be using. At about 10pm Saturday night he said he'd be preaching on John:15:1-17, about the Vine and the Branches. I stayed up until about 3am writing (and rehearsing) The Legend of Billy Branch, which came with some musical interludes. I discovered the next morning that Cindy's room was next to mine and she heard me singing as I rehearsed the piece! 

I'm pretty sure it was on that trip, despite her loss of sleep, that Cindy invited me to perform and teach workshops at her public high school for the first time. In those 23 years she only invited me if her classes were well-behaved, but there weren't many years I missed. 

I just returned from my final performance for her students. She is retiring in a couple of months. It was a very special trip, because these opportunities have been priceless.

This time around I performed The Fall, my one-act piece based on the novel Les Mis√©rables. I shared it with three classes, and after each I followed up with a sociodrama. The first one was short, so I just based it on Les Miz. I engaged them in an exercise which allowed them to express the most valuable thing to them. The winning vote was, interestingly enough, food. My one-act revolves around the bishop forgiving Jean Valjean for stealing his silver, after which the bishop gives him his silver candlesticks. In our scenario the bishop character was a homeless man. Jean Valjean stole his pizza. A police officer brought him back, but Jean Valjean said, "If he stole from a homeless man he must really need the pizza more than I do," at which point he gave him a $5. All of this came from the students. 

The other two classes had just read Fahrenheit 451, a novel about censorship. The title is the temperature at which paper burns. The main character is a fireman, meaning he sets fire to books. I told them some of the discoveries we've made visiting  Cuba, ChinaRussia, and two borders of  North Korea

The first of those two classes did a sociodrama based on a student who was told by his parents that if he didn't cut his hair he would not be allowed to cut his hair until after he graduated from high school in a couple of years. Afterward I drew from another story they'd read: Death of a Salesman. I pointed out that Willy Loman drew his identity in part from his son, Biff. Tim Keller uses this as an illustration in a sermon on the Breastplate of Righteousness. Then I pointed out that parents who, regardless of motives, have the right to raise their children in the ways they think best, but dictators controlling what their people are able to read and say is a very different thing. 

The last class also brought up a parental scenario, but I brought up the difference between parents and dictators right up front. The students ended up exploring a world in which it was no longer legal for us to speak to people outside of our nation. The main character was on the phone with a friend in Russia. The police knocked on her door and told her they discovered that she was on an international call. She hid her phone, but the police did a sweep of her home and discovered a computer, which the enactors decided in the moment was also illegal. She complained that she had purchased the computer when it was legal to have one. One of the officers told her she should have thrown it out the window when the law was passed. (I pointed out that this was an SAT word posted in the halls of their school: "defenestrate.") In the end the young woman was able to escape with her hidden phone. I asked them if Fahrenheit 451 felt more real after living through a similar scenario. There was an overwhelming agreement that the sociodrama had helped make it more real. 

I hope there will be other opportunities to share my plays and workshops in public schools, so if you know of a teacher who might be open send him or her to

A Clear Leading, one of the plays I've shared at Cindy's school, tells the story of Quaker abolitionist John Woolman, who spoke against slavery a century before our Civil War.
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