Teaching artist Alex Stein (foreground) works with students as part of an EPIC class at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park. Credit: Airan Wright

What is a conflict?” Levi Holloway asks.

It’s 7:30 AM on a Wednesday in the first-period senior drama class at Morgan Park High School on the southwest side. About 20 students are already here; a few more will filter in later. Some slouch in their seats or hunch over their desks, but they’re listening. Holloway looks around the room and waits for someone to answer his question.

“A problem,” one student answers.

“A turning point,” another student ventures softly, “when something goes wrong.”

Holloway and the students are talking about playwriting, specifically how to build a story, but they’re also talking about the state of the world. It’s the last week of September, and there are examples of the three classical forms of conflict everywhere. The weekend before, NFL players had protested against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, much to the displeasure of President Donald Trump. (Man versus Man.) Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, was underwater and without power. (Man versus Nature.) “Everything is horrible,” one student told Holloway before the bell rang. “I just want a day to sleep.” (Man versus Himself.)

Today’s discussion addresses these things obliquely. Holloway asks the students to identify examples of different forms of conflict from movies they’ve seen, which they’re more than happy to do. (For Man versus Nature, someone mentions The Revenant. “That was traumatizing,” she adds. “The bear scene was way too long,” another student adds. “For no reason.”) Conflict, they learn, is what moves a play along.

By the end of the semester, the students will have learned enough about playwriting to write their own ten-minute plays. But, if all goes according to plan, they will also be learning empathy. That sounds like a grandiose goal, but it’s one of the main reasons for the existence of EPIC, or Empathic Playwriting Intensive Course. For the past four years, the Silk Road Rising theater company has been sending actors and playwrights, like Holloway, into Chicago Public Schools classrooms to teach students the fundamentals of dramatic writing. When you write a play, the thinking behind EPIC goes, you’re forced to assume the voices and, therefore, the perspectives of multiple characters. Making them believable requires a degree of empathy.

Brenna Reilly, the regular teacher of first-period drama, believes the lessons of EPIC go beyond playwriting. “The students have a lot to say,” she says. “Trump, the NFL, the refugee crisis. There’s a lot of people sharing facts and views and saying ‘Here’s my opinion.’ But there’s not a lot of ‘Let’s talk about how the person we’re talking about might feel.’ EPIC opens up that discussion more.”

Malik Gillani, who was born in Pakistan, and Jamil Khoury, whose father was born in Syria, founded Silk Road Rising 15 years ago as a response to the rise of Islamophobia after 9/11.

“There was a very dramatic shift, an overt fear of South Asian or Middle Eastern people, as if they were all complicit,” Khoury recalled in 2011. “On a community level, people were dealing with hostility, thrown on the defensive. One’s Americanness was called into question.”

Gillani and Khoury decided that the best way to fight rising xenophobia in the United States was to show that people who lived in Asia and the Middle East were human beings, too, not cliched terrorists who wanted to bomb America back to the Stone Age. They would do this by producing plays by Asian and Middle Eastern playwrights. These glimpses of lives in other communities, they believed, would generate, yes, empathy in American audiences.

From the beginning, Gillani and Khoury wanted to expand their mission beyond the small world of Loop theater. “The idea has been that, as a public trust, we should serve all peoples of the community,” Gillani says. They were particularly interested in serving the city’s young people. Since many of them were unlikely to find their way to Silk Road Rising, Silk Road Rising would go to them, via CPS.

Initially, the theater ran a program called “Myths to Drama” that incorporated mythology from five Silk Road civilizations into schools’ regular curriculum. But about five years ago, during a review of Silk Road Rising’s programs, Gillani and Khoury decided that they wanted their school program to better reflect the theater’s mission of building audience empathy through drama. In early 2013, EPIC made its debut at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood (which, Gillani notes, requires all its students to study either Arabic or Chinese, two of the main languages of the historic Silk Road). It now works with approximately 500 junior high and high school students every year.

Usually the EPIC program lasts ten weeks, with two sessions a week with a teaching artist. The curriculum is a mix of classroom activities, writing exercises, workshops, and individual tutoring sessions. It costs $5,000. Silk Road Rising always pays for at least half and helps schools find and apply for grant money to make up the difference. Still, Gillani says, “no matter how many schools we find, no matter how much money we raise, it’s never enough.”

The program culminates in a staged reading of the students’ plays by professional actors of color, many of whom have previously performed in Silk Road Rising productions. The staged reading is one of the most exciting parts of the program for the students, Reilly says: hearing their words read aloud by a real actor—instead of a friend or a classmate—makes them sound more important, more real. The readings are recorded and posted on the Silk Road Rising website so, as Gillani puts it, “Work migrates from the island of the school into the mainland of the community.”

Stein teachs an EPIC SPARK class as part of the history of democracy unit of a world studies class at Westinghouse.
Stein teachs an EPIC SPARK class as part of the history of democracy unit of a world studies class at Westinghouse.Credit: Airan Wright

This is no small feat. Khoury and Gillani intended for EPIC to serve communities that have traditionally been underserved, mostly on the south and west sides, where people, especially young people, may not think their voices are heard or valued. While the curriculum emphasizes the writing process, the teaching artists and the students also spend a lot of time talking about social issues, especially power.

“Power became a good lens to understand how someone would say and act on things,” says Brent Ervin-Eickhoff, the former EPIC coordinator at Silk Road Rising. The day after the 2016 presidential election, several EPIC classes met and the discussion, naturally enough, turned to Trump and the people who had voted for him. Teaching artist Lindsay Hopkins asked her students at Solorio Academy High School in Gage Park (who, ironically, that week had been discussing antagonists) why people who felt powerless would feel compelled to vote for someone like Trump. If they couldn’t empathize with the candidate himself, they could at least try to empathize with his supporters.

Some of the power also belongs to the students. Through writing, they have a way of making their voices heard by their classmates, their teachers, and people in their communities. This can be a revelatory experience. “For me,” says teaching artist Alex Stein, “the end goal is not to create 28 students who want to be playwrights, but giving students an opportunity to have a voice and to work through having that voice.”

Ervin-Eickhoff recalls that a few years ago, during his first residency as a teaching artist at Julian High School in Washington Heights, one student told him she wanted to write about the news. He thought she meant something from the news. “No,” she told him, “I want to write about what they’re doing to us.” “What are they doing to you?” he asked. “The news wants us to think that people like me are hurting other people like me,” she said, “and no one else [outside the community] wants to help because they think it’s not their problem.”

One of the requirements of the EPIC curriculum is that each student write from at least one perspective that’s different from their own. Some students have used their plays as a way to examine issues that are relevant to their own lives, or the lives of people they know, such as what to do about a teen pregnancy or how police violence affects a community. Others use the play as a way to imagine themselves in other times or places, like France during the Revolution or present-day North Korea.

“Against a backdrop of politicized culture,” Khoury says, “there’s something profound about 16-year-olds crafting debates that are respectful toward opposing viewpoints. EPIC is also teaching democracy and the ability to hear and appreciate other views. That’s something sorely missing among adults.”

The question, though, is whether students will continue to think and, more importantly, act empathetically after their EPIC session is over. For the past two years, Tom O’Brien has been using EPIC SPARK, an abbreviated seven-session version of the program, as part of the history of democracy unit in his world studies class at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park. O’Brien thought the course would be an interesting way to break up his usual classroom routine of assigned reading and lectures, giving students a different way of looking at social issues.

“Empathy is difficult to measure,” O’Brien says. Which is true. It’s not something that usually comes up on standardized tests. He does note, though, that for the past two years, the unit of the history of Islam has immediately followed one on the history of democracy—and EPIC. Most of his students aren’t Muslim. “There’s an immediate need for them to be able to think empathetically and have discussions that are empathetic, touching on topics that are pretty sensitive and have the potential to bring out the worst in students,” he says. “The last two years, though I can’t claim it’s been a direct result of having done EPIC just previously, I’d say that the Islam unit has been been very successful and that, yeah, there’s no question that there’s been an increase of empathy in the discussions we’ve had.”

EPIC is far from the only outside arts-enrichment program in CPS classrooms—the Poetry Foundation, Goodman Theatre, Smart Museum of Art, 826CHI, among many, many others, have developed programs of their own—but it’s one of the longest, and also one of the few that emphasizes playwriting. “Several decades ago, CPS started to whittle away at its own internal arts programming, cutting the arts programs in schools,” Khoury explains. “The nonprofit arts sector in the city has taken on the mantle of providing arts education. In many ways, we’re looking at deficiencies, what’s lacking, and how can art provide for that, how can art fill in those gaps. No one’s going to innovate, no one’s going to lead, if they’re not able to think creatively.”

“It’s a way of giving back,” Gillani adds, “a way to give to a system that’s underfunded and underserved.”

Back at Morgan Park High School, Levi Holloway is guiding his students through a five-minute free write on the idea of “struggle.”

“How did it go?” he asks.

“It was a struggle,” one of the students quips.

“We’re on theme,” Holloway replies drily.

“I got things off my chest,” another student says. “I see people who don’t have tools to change their living situation. They don’t have clothes to go interview for a job. Then there are people who sit around all day and complain. That really irritates me.” A few of his classmates snap their fingers to show agreement.

“We’re onto something if we’re putting words on a page and reacting and responding,” Holloway says. “It may sound trivial, but maybe there’s something to it in terms of your play. Does anyone want to share your free write?”

“Struggle is hardship,” one girl reads. “After my parents got divorced, I kept to myself. My dad’s new wife is not my favorite person. It took years to get over the resentment. Struggle is something you survive.”

“Can anyone empathize?” Holloway asks.

And all across the room, hands go up.  v