Olivia Bouler: Taking Flight


Twelve-year-old Olivia first gained fame two years ago when she offered her paintings to people who donated to the National Audubon Society in response to the BP Gulf oil spill. To date, she has created more than 500 paintings and raised more than $200,000 for the Audubon Society. She’s also published a book, lobbied on Capitol Hill for environmental reforms and spoken to school children in different states and countries about her passion for animals.


In August, she was honored for her work at the International Year of Youth Culmination Celebration at the United Nations and personally invited by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama this past December to attend a holiday reception. Over the February winter break Olivia traveled to Costa Ricato study bird wildlife in their natural habitat. Her first gallery show is in the planning stages for this coming season.

And if she had not had the opportunity to pursue the arts, Olivia emphatically exclaimed, “Oh, my God! My life would be over!”  The Arts have not only been the conduit through which she channels her energy and enthusiasm for her causes, but also a respite for coping with her emerging adolescence:  “I’ve seen other kids who don’t have the arts and they turn to the wrong things . . . if they had considered taking [an art class] instead of another class with another grade and another period of the day, it would have saved them.” And it’s not even about being able to draw.  The ability to freely respond to any given moment has transcended to her writing skills.  Praising her English teacher, Olivia can compose two pages to a written prompt within 10 minutes.  Playing the saxophone challenges her to take risks and improvise:  “You just keep on going;  just pick up that pencil and start writing. I can tell you there are brilliant writers [in my class] there are brilliant players, brilliant singers [who will] never be heard because they are so scared of doing a solo because they’re afraid of what people might think; they will just not get up in front of that stage and expose themselves even in a group.”

Besides the arts’ capacity to instill courage for anyone who dares to accept the risk, Olivia is cautious about protecting her personal boundaries.  “Kids, personally, don’t like me in school.  I’m just too different, and bouncy and boisterous.”  Despite composing a song to perform for the school talent show Olivia decided that it was too revealing emotionally and decided to do another selection.  ‘It’s really good, it’s really put together and I may perform it at another event where kids won’t attack me because kids [can be] monstrous.”

It’s this secure sense of self-esteem that the arts have armed Olivia to pursue her dreams.  For as long as she can remember she always wanted to “do something crazy, radical, and kind of awesome with my life.”  Her “epiphany”, if you will, was the moment her parents put a pencil in her hand.  Since picking up that pencil, she has 30,000 people who follow her on Facebook and is more determined than ever to do something really amazing for the arts and the environment:  “We are like birds! We have to sing our song before our time goes out . . . we have to sing our songs NOW before it’s all gone.”  By her example, we can be certain that her message will resonate for all humanity and be realized in our lifetime. “Go birds!”

Contact Olivia on her website and Facebook!

chandra thomas: ACTOR-WRITER-PRODUCER-YOUTH ARTS EDUCATION ADVOCATE

For as long as she can remember, chandra thomas ACTOR-WRITER-PRODUCER-YOUTH ARTS EDUCATION ADVOCATE credits her family for instilling a love of storytelling. Entrenched in her upbringing between Harlem and Long Island was the importance of enduring the history of her family, expressing her insights and opinions about everyday occurrences, from the mundane to the sublime: “Learning about my world through stories became a big influence in terms of my own journey to this quadruple title world that I now live in.” Drawn to work that tells stories, chandra is inspired to tell “unique, stories that aren’t just recycling of stories we have already heard.”
chandra-ACTOR has the capacity to delve into a character’s spirit through their need to tell their story. She actively seeks subjects whose stories might not have been told.  Her mother is an ardent believer in the importance of the arts and took chandra to her first play at the age of five to see Big River.  Although awed by the spectacle and magic of live theater it wasn’t until she was in high school when she went to see Rent  that she had her “aha” moment:  “I saw people who I knew…people who were in the neighborhood that I grew up in, friends that I hung out with, family that I recognized.  There were people whose stories I had never seen on a stage, no less a Broadway stage, before.” Armed with this new vision, chandra-PRODUCER makes it her mission to promote points of view that might not have otherwise been heard.
And this is why chandra-YOUTH ARTS EDUCATION ADVOCATE  co-founded viBe Theater Experience whose mission is to empower teenage girls through the collaborative, performing arts.  For ten years she has been working with teen girls form all over New York City to create original plays, performances, music, poems, videos, poetic performances originally derived by the young women in a collaborative environment:  “It’s really about the girls speaking from their own voices; it’s often the first time girls [have their voices] validated…to be able to say what they have to say [and that] it’s important, that someone wants to hear it, and very often it’s the first time they discover they are not the only one [who shares similar experiences].”  Using the arts as a vehicle, these young women develop skills such as literacy, critical thinking, cultural competency, marketing, advocacy:  “Our goal is to create well-rounded, well-informed young women who are prepared to meet all challenges, all triumphs ahead…we’re preparing young women to make decisions about what their future is and create the path to achieve that future.”  Girls have gone on to medical school, some in politics, law school, English teachers, and some even become artists! One particular story stands out for chandra: She came to the tryout on the arm of a viBe Alum and spent much of the session detached from the discussion.  When asked why she was interested in being a viBe Girl, she sat there stunned.  In the most eloquent terms, she described how this was the first time she was in a space “where people just listen to me.” Not only did she thrive as a member of the project, but also went on to receive a full scholarship to St. John’s University; a girl who never even considered going to college as an option before working with viBe!  “She found the core of her real story,” interjects chandra, “she had all these other things around it, but it was really…she didn’t know that [she] could afford it.”  Had she not been in the kind of supportive environment she might not have realized her destiny. Today she’s interested in being an English major; this is a “viBe success story. Even as this young woman has academic pursuits outside of” The Arts”, this is a success story as viBe uses art as the vehicle not the destination.”
chandra-WRITER  upcoming play, a one-act called Standing At…  and tells the story of 2 women from the South Bronx  who are long time friends, and one is surviving HIV.  It has poetry woven throughout, original songs that capture traditional Gospel songs, and  ”it’s that storytelling.  “It comes right back to where I started—that storytelling.  That really specific story of two real people being in the same space and how much beauty there is right there.” The play opens March 30th at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue, NYC.  Follow chandra  on her website, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

An Interview with Tricia McDermott

The Little Theater Who Could…
An Interview with Tricia McDermott.
Founder/Producing Artistic Director Airmid Theatre Company.

This following article recently appeared in the 2012 January/February Arts and Entertainment issue of GEM Magazine.

Despite arts advocacy groups’ efforts to prevent the decline of arts inclusion, the budgetary solution remains to be that the arts are perceived as an amenity. To challenge that notion, my blog First Online With Fran interviews ordinary people doing extraordinary things in The Arts to make our world a richer, deeper, better place to live. The Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Airmid Theatre Company, Tricia McDermott shared her thoughts and vision for women in the theater and how the work at Airmid enriches our community.

Although Tricia was adamantabout NEVER starting her own theater company, the professional director/producer/consultant/educatorfelt compelled to promote classical works of women playwrights when theopportunity arose.  After the success ofthe Broadway revival of Ibsen’s A Doll’sHouse reaped Tony-Award winning accolades with Janet McTeer’s performance,McDermott found an original source called TrueWomen and wanted to present the play. When she was unable to find aproducer she pioneered the idea of a production company that would bespecifically devoted to classics by women. Founded in 2000, Airmid Theatre Company creates a safe home for womenartists, igniting broad public recognition of the essential contribution womenhave made to the worlds of theatre and dramatic literature.

One of Airmid’s missions isto establish the history of playwriting by women by professionally producingtheir work with actors of both genders, and to thereby broaden discussions ofwomen’s roles today.  Tricia shared ananecdote of a 60 year-old man who supported the theater and attended a readingof a piece called Making a Scene, acompilation of scenes of 16th to the 20th century womenplaywrights.  Although he consideredhimself to be a male feminist, and believed that he saw women as equals, “hedidn’t quite do that as much as he thought he should.”  In an email he told Tricia “He recognized thatseeing this same event told through the eyes and experience of a woman [made it]a different world.”

Airmid has an intern programwith college age students and works with some high school students in variousprograms.  A public reading of two playswritten by the German nun from the tenth century, Hrosvita of Gandersheim, wasattended by a high school English and Drama class from Babylon High School.Students were enlightened to learn through the reading that “all things of areligious nature are not strictly about religion.”

Tricia commented on thevalue of the arts, particularly the theater: “Theater lands in a very unique place. It makes people well-rounded.  Andno matter what time you start your child off, or even yourself, and getinvolved in theater, you get an opportunity to collaborate with people andcreate a team.”  As far as the new CommonCore Standards is implemented across the nation’s curriculums to prepare studentsfor college readiness Tricia felt that working in the theater fulfills thatgoal:  “You have to do it on a lot ofimagination and very little money.  Youhave to work within a budget.  You oftenhave to create something out of nothing. And you then have to market it and sell it to the world.  Theaters have an accounting office and oftena contracts department, a development department that writes grants.  We have every other aspect of business; itjust happens to be that the product is a piece of art.” 

This construct is to createjobs, to create an economic and tourist destination. Tricia explained howtheater is community based:  “The communityhas to be engaged.  It’s people speakingto each other, breathing each other’s air. It’s experiencing the same moment. For me, there is a great affinity to finding a spiritual life within thetheater whether it’s as a participant or as an audience member. But whetheryou’re participating in the actual creation or the experience of it, there’s acommunion that happens.  And you findyourself engaged with people in a way that you don’t in any other art form.”
Let us Know:  Airmidcontinues its search for performance space and is presently looking at sitesboth on the South and North shores of Long Island.  To learn more about Airmid and their programofferings go to www.airmidtheatre.org

If you’re an ordinary persondoing extraordinary things in the arts, then be sure to arrange an interviewwith First Online With Fran at www.francesmcgarry.com

"The Arts Saved My Life" An Interview with Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston co-founded CAT’s College/Adult Program, which provides interactive learning experiences on independent living skills, college and workplace readiness, financial literacy, and parenting.

Following are selected highlights of an interview with Keith Johnston, Director of the College/Adult Program at The Creative Arts Team conducted on Thursday, August 25, 2011.

Career Arc & Personal Experiences: “I love this work. I could go on and on about stories of tapping a child’s genius, or people stopping you on a street and saying how much a workshop changed their life . . . It saved my life.”

Arts in Education/Educational Theater: “The Arts IS Education – any form of the Arts demands certain disciplines that are academic. The Artist is the highest form of human beings because they are the Creators. They are the Innovators. The arts is the only way things can actually change because you see it, you feel it, you smell it, you taste it, and you’re forced to deal with it.”

Consequences of Arts Reduction: “We live in a capitalistic country and this is my political understanding. . . Education is not the primary goal in the United States. It’s about making money.” Case in point is reality television. “Reality shows have no reality to them. Producers found that humiliation sells as good as sex. It could be a scheme to get our society to volunteer personal information on social networks and surveillance. We’re being seduced into not thinking for ourselves, which is what art is. “The Arts are being taken out of school. Kids don’t have access to it. They’re bored; they’re not being challenged.” Our country has become separated: “We’ve become such an individualistic society that we have generations that don’t know how to talk to one another.” They’ve turned into self-centered individuals on their IPODS. Robots. Chips for a political agenda. People have better relationships with machines than with human beings.”

Success Stories: A head of The Bloods gang was reduced to tears during a diamond poem exercise. Reflecting on past deeds he wept with remorse for “all the people I’ve hurt in my life to get these cars and women . . . None of it is worth it. I never looked at it that way.”

RESPOND: Can Arts inclusion be the solution to fixing our nation’s educational institution?

“The Arts Saved My Life”
An Interview with Keith Johnston

Following are selected highlights of an interview with Keith Johnston, Director of the College/Adult Program at The Creative ArtsTeam conducted on Thursday, August 25, 2011.  

Rather than deliver an oral presentation, Keith Johnston chose to fail his high school English course. A mediocre student to begin with, the thought of speaking in front of a group of people paralyzed him. Reading aloud was another challenge because of dyslexia and the notion of being an actor and teaching educational theater was not only a remote possibility, but also an endeavor he would have NEVER considered as career options. But, here he is, co-founder of the College/Adult Program and working for over 18 years doing the work he is so passionately committed to at The Creative Arts Team. He took the leap to confront his fears when an introverted kid in his class was taking acting lessons. “If he could do it,” he pondered, “then why can’t I?” Acting was the conduit for him to examine his true authentic self and discover the talents that lie within. It was the vehicle to access his confidence and genius: “[The Arts] gets people to think for themselves,” remarked Keith, “it gives people the tools to be better human beings . . . to gauge and look at themselves a little harder, even if it hurts. Acting is not about pretending; it’s about tending; dealing with circumstances that we may not deal with in our own lives. It’s about being authentic, honest, studying yourself to understand and reflect the human condition.” The span of Johnston’s career is a living testament of this declaration: he is a working actor, successful musician, a teacher and artistic director at the American Theatre of Harlem, and presently, CUNY CAT’s representative for the Black Male Initiative.
Growing up with the mindset of his parents, that the arts are separate from education, Keith came to understand that, in fact, the Arts IS education: “Everything comes from the arts. The chair we’re sitting on — someone drew it. Someone imagined it; someone built it.” Art is universal: “Everything in life is sound, color, and light.” Specifically, he noted how Educational Theater accesses what exists within each and every human being by getting people up on their feet, raising questions, addressing social issues. “I love this work. I could go on and on about stories of tapping a child’s genius or people stopping you on a street and saying how much a workshop changed their life.”
Keith simplified the complexity of the arts left out of education by pointing to the fact that children are only tested in two areas: Linguistics and Logistics – Math and English. The arts enhance both areas of intelligence however the spatial/visual, kinesthetic/bodily and rhythmic/musical learners are left out of the educational equation. To illustrate, he recalled a workshop conducted at a high school wherein all seniors were required to read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye for graduation. Students were struggling with the book. He devised a 10-day curriculum to “take it off the page and put it on the stage.” Once they were able to translate the central themes utilizing drama strategies, students “started reading the book like you could not believe.” Unfortunately, there is not enough acknowledgement given to this practice. The Arts are being cut from school curriculums and the education institution is failing. “We live in a capitalistic country and this is my political understanding. . . Education is not the primary goal in the United States. It’s about making money.” Case in point is reality television. “Reality shows have no reality to them. Producers found that humiliation sells as good as sex. It could be a scheme to get our society to volunteer personal information on social networks and surveillance. We’re being seduced into not thinking for ourselves, which is what art is. “The Arts are being taken out of school. Kids don’t have access to it. They’re bored; they’re not being challenged.” Our country has become separated: “We’ve become such an individualistic society that we have generations that don’t know how to talk to one another.” They’ve turned into self-centered individuals on their IPODS. Robots. Chips for a political agenda. People have better relationships with machines than with human beings.” He referenced the desensitization and passive communication of our youth. “They don’t have to listen to anyone. [They] can have their say texting or blogging and turn off.” So many students are going into college and taking remedial courses: The Arts IS Education – any form of the Arts demands certain disciplines that are academic. “The Artist is the highest form of human beings because they are the Creators. They are the Innovators. The Arts is the only way things can actually change because you see it, you feel it, you smell it, you taste it, and you’re forced to deal with it.”
Success. Here are some stories as proof of an arts inclusion education. Keith cited his own life as an example, as well as his children’s experiences. Both were enrolled in CAT’s Youth Theater Program and continued to utilize those skills as successful academics. His daughter is a theater and English major at Lawrence University and earned a McNair scholarship for her Master’s and Doctorate; his son, is a musician, poet, modeling talent who’s completing his Business degree at Skidmore College.
At a restaurant, Keith was delivered a chocolate cake by a busboy. “So, that’s for you. It’s on me.” Unable to recall the young man’s identity, Keith asked him to refresh his memory. He was an inmate at Horizon’s Academy [at Riker’s Island] and is now writing plays for the National Black Theater.
A head of The Bloods gang was reduced to tears during a diamond poem exercise. Reflecting on past deeds he wept with remorse for “all the people I’ve hurt in my life to get these cars and women . . . None of it is worth it. I never looked at it that way.”
All these examples show how “Theater holds up the mirror for them to see themselves,” summed up Keith, “no matter how you look at it. Everything around you was created by an artist. How could we not be supporters of the Arts? It saved my life.”