Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Covid Couldn't Rain On Our Parade!

 My first time back to New York since the fall of 2019 was a thrilling and emotional experience. We had tickets to see the two big revivals, FUNNY GIRL starring Beanie Feldstein and THE MUSIC MAN starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.  We flew out two days after the Tony Awards. Just before leaving, an email  landed in my inbox from Broadway.com announcing that Hugh Jackman was out with Covid.  Fighting down frustration, disappointment and a little irritation that no one appeared to have masked at the Tony's, I decided to hold on to our mezzanine tickets anyway.  Then, in the airport, another alert popped up on our phones.  Beanie Feldstein was out with Covid.  Boom. Covid strikes again. Only a couple of weeks earlier,  a local production of OUR TOWN, to which I had been invited, closed because too many cast members had tested positive. 

Directors at every level from high school to Broadway have faced the same challenges and the same questions - Will the show go on? Can the show go on? The Covid cloud hung over my entire theatre season. Mask mandates.  Quarantines. Testing. My season theme  mocked me.  "A Season of New Beginnings"  seemed like a good idea in the spring of '21 when we mistakenly expected that we would be returning to normal. Nothing has been normal in the theatre except the constant anxiety that has accompanied any and all plans, schedules and performances. 

So when we got the news about Beanie and Hugh, it was an all too familiar feeling. The surprising silver lining, however, was the electric excitement that came with watching the standbys step into these iconic roles - ready, willing and able. As Fanny Brice, Julie Benko was extraordinary.  Life was imitating art as she belted out "I'm the greatest star, I am by far, but no one knows it." They do now! 

As Professor Harold Hill, Max Clayton was charismatic, charming and utterly engaging. He held his own with the superb Sutton Foster.  Thanks to audience cancelations,  our mezzanine tickets got upgraded to house row H center orchestra seats. We  clapped along to Seventy Six Trombones and cheered wildly at the curtain call. 

I felt a kinship with the Broadway theatre community at both of these performances.  I felt a surge of emotion, bordering on catharsis, as I entered the Winter Garden and August Wilson houses after three long years.  I realized how much I had missed Broadway. And perhaps more importantly, how much I love the theatre. Why this came as a surprise, I don't know. But when you come so close to losing what you love, there is a renewed appreciation for its place in your life. 

This has been a long tough road.  Like all theatre directors and educators, I'm desperately weary. But I'm also deeply proud to be a part of a community that has proven itself to be incredibly resilient, determined,  creative and supportive of one another. Bravo to the standbys, swings and understudies who have kept the stage lights on with their talent, professionalism and heart.  I learned an important lesson on this return to New York:  The show must go on! 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

When the Curtain Fell: A Theatre Educator's Pandemic Story

Like a lot of theatre educators, the Covid-19 Pandemic forced me to be creative in new and imaginative ways. I can say that the pandemic changed me.  I’ve grown in ways I never could have anticipated.  And now, fifteen-plus months later, as I come up for air during my long -awaited summer break, I am just beginning to process what happened. Writing this is harder than I thought it would be partly because my stomach churns remembering what we had to do just to get through. I don’t really want to relive it. And it isn’t over. Despite appearances the threat of variants and vaccine inequities persist leaving us with a complicated relationship with masks and continued uncertainty about the future.  Yet, I feel a need to capture my story while it is still somewhat fresh. The time-warp of the 2020/2021 school year is real. The memory of it against the backdrop of a global pandemic, civil unrest and horrific loss is at once vivid and blurred.  I often heard the analogy that we were learning how to build the airplane while flying it.  This is an excellent metaphor for what we did in those early days.  The urgency, fear, anxiety and uncertainty that gripped the artistic community leveled the playing field. High School directors and professional theatre producers were all asking the same questions. And no one had the answers.  This was at once comforting and frightening.      

When we “went out” in March of 2020, my students and I were a couple of weeks away from opening our spring musical.  The set was in. The costumes were ready. The show was in great shape. After a last-minute flurry of activity and one final rehearsal to prepare for a potential delay in opening due to the rumored stay at home order, on March 14th, 2020 the curtain fell. Like everyone else, I was in utter denial about how long our quarantine would actually be.  As the reality set in and our return-to-school date kept being pushed further out, I continued to hold on to the hope that our show would go on if not in April perhaps in May or June or July. I surveyed my cast and crew on their availability. I held brush up rehearsals over the computer and continued giving acting notes.      

And then unbelievably, we were told we would not be back until September at the earliest and no one knew exactly what school let alone theatre would look like.  I was urged to let the show go. No need to push a boulder up the mountain.  I melted down dissolving into uncontrollable sobbing.  Eventually my grief transformed into a new level of problem solving.  Disbelief, bordering on complete shock and intermittent panic set in as I desperately learned how to use Zoom.  I participated in every webinar available on how to produce theatre online.  I struggled with the limitations of music and singing over Zoom.  Like a warrior going in to battle against an unseen enemy, I plotted, planned and immersed myself in the unfamiliar landscape of a virtual world. With indefatigable energy I soldiered on determined that my students would not lose their spring musical.  

We arranged a drive-by costume pick up for the cast. No one was allowed out of their car. Masked and gloved my production team carefully deposited costumes and essential props into their trunks.  Our tech rehearsal shifted from a cue to cue in the theatre to designing virtual backgrounds on Zoom.  I adopted a new directorial language that included “hide non-speaking participants,” “gallery view,” “mute,” and when all else failed, “just duck out of the frame!” We did it. The show did go on however crudely and imperfect.  The bar was not exactly lowered. It was just a different bar.  And the fact that we did it despite all of the obstacles brought immense joy and satisfaction. While creativity, teamwork and passion inspired our “show must go on” attitude, I now know that something else less obvious and more profound was happening to me.  I was growing and learning. As my thirty-first year of teaching began in August of 2020, I felt like a first-year teacher. None of my experience had prepared me for what lay ahead. 

I was learning to let go of the idea that I had control over anything. 

Technology became my lifeline and my nemesis. Immersed in the world of online teaching, glued to a computer screen for hours, toggling from one screen to another, I learned to let go of frustration as my clumsy fingers navigated my virtual classroom.  I learned to accept lagging WIFI, audio issues, screen sharing, ghosting, and the imperfection of the process. I learned to slow down. I learned to be flexible.  I learned to be patient.  My vocabulary both expanded and reduced to a few repeated words and phrases: asynchronous, cohort, hybrid, blended plus, social distancing, streaming, resilience, pivot, unmute, please activate your camera and I don’t know! 


I learned to use new tools like Flip Grid and Microsoft Teams. Isolated and alone, in an eerily quiet, empty black box classroom, I tried with all my might to penetrate the distance to give my students at home an experience of theatre. Whether at their kitchen tables, in their garages or slumped on their beds, I asked my zombie-eyed, often depressed students, to stand up, move their bodies, warm up, and play games that forced them to connect.  Mental health check-ins, sparkle fingers in lieu of applause, collaborating in channels and break out rooms all became the new normal. 

 I learned how to conduct virtual auditions, virtual rehearsals, virtual Thespian meetings, virtual parent meetings and direct virtual performances.  I learned about virtual choirs. I learned how to stage socially distanced productions.  I learned that masks work better than face shields outside when the weather is cold because face shields fog up. I learned how to call camera cues for live-streamed performances. I learned what it feels like to finish a show and have a cast bow to no one and to be the only one in the theatre applauding. 


Yes, we produced a full season of shows that included a virtual murder mystery, a one act compilation of Shakespearean scenes and monologues in face shields outside under scorching sun in the midst of fires and smoke that caused us to delay the show a week. We performed a small-scale musical with a canned orchestra, singing in masks in freezing weather in a week of rain that caused us to move our opening night inside for a tiny, socially distanced audience. We streamed a radio show and we held a virtual Broadway Cares talent show that was in fact a technical train wreck. I learned humility. I learned perseverance.  

I learned that I love theatre even more than I realized. I learned that live theatre cannot be replaced. I learned to never take a live audience for granted ever again.  I learned that while I was not prepared for the pandemic, I was prepared to face it. 

The gift of age? The gift of perspective?  Perhaps. 

 What I know now that I didn’t know when the pandemic started was that my life journey had prepared me for this moment.  I was equipped to help my students get through it. That is an important lesson for us all. We bring our unique life experience with us in every circumstance. The obstacles, challenges, loss, grief, pain and suffering are our teacher. The pandemic robbed the class of 2020 and 2021 of many milestones. But, the gift in the experience is perspective. When they face unknown challenges in the future they, too, will be prepared.  Above all,  I learned what Theatre on Purpose truly means.  And now, so do my students. 


Monday, June 15, 2020

A Theatre Educator's Pledge

As a theatre educator, I am asking myself a lot of questions right now.  This is a time for deep introspection and hard truths. It is a time to challenge systems of oppression in all forms and to work for justice and equality. This is a time to assess white privilege and to define what is meant by anti-racist. It is a time for painful learning.  It is a time for change. It is a time for transformation.  It  is a  time for truth. I am asking myself where I have been complicit in perpetuating the status quo.  I am looking in the mirror to see my own unrecognized biases. I am seeking to educate myself so that I can be a positive example for my students.  
As a Theatre on Purpose practitioner,  I have been committed to giving students a voice through the arts. I have always believed that theatre is transformative because it offers students both a window and a mirror to see the world. Theatre is a window through which we can see others and thereby grow in understanding, empathy and knowledge. Theatre is a mirror because it allows us to see ourselves and reflect on our own reality, motivations and actions. 
Arthur Miller said, "I regard theater as a serious business, one that makes or should make man more human, which is to say, less alone."  I have always been moved by this quote. I agree, theatre is serious business. As a theatre educator and practitioner I can make a difference by exposing my students to diverse cultures and experiences while delving into the historic contexts across time and place.
In IB Theatre, the aim is to "develop internationally minded people who, recognizing common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world."  I embrace this philosophy but am asking how it can go further.
Language and words matter.  Here is my pledge:
         As a theatre educator,
         I pledge to listen more.
         I pledge to educate myself on race, white privilege and oppression.
         I pledge to pay more attention to the stories we tell on stage and the plays we read in class.
         I pledge to offer my students the opportunity to use their voices to make our world a
         a better place.  
         I pledge to maintain a theatre program that is a safe, judgement-free space for students to
         I pledge to engage students in meaningful, impactful, purpose-driven artistic projects that
         directly tackle difficult topics about race, identity, Anti-Semitism, harassment,
         and oppression.
         I pledge to maintain a spirit of goodwill.
         I pledge to resolve conflict.
         I pledge not to use violence in thought, word or deed.
         I pledge to work with others to build a world that is more loving, compassionate and just.
         I pledge to seek first to understand.
         I pledge to be more courageous.
         I pledge to use theatre on purpose.
         Theatre on Purpose - Now more than ever.


Friday, April 17, 2020

I Ain't Down Yet...But...

I find myself struggling during this open-ended time of waiting during the Pandemic of COVID-19.  I'm a highly organized person. As a director and theatre educator, schedules, deadlines and calendars rule.  I am also a problem solver.  I don't give up easily.  In high school, I was Molly in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  My mantra is "I ain't down yet." But right now all bets are off. What happens when the show can't go on?

I remember a line from the play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the true story that bears witness to the children interned in Terezin during the Holocaust.  Irena, the teacher who inspires and motivates her students to write poetry and draw pictures about their experience, says to young Raja, "waiting days are long days."

These are long days.  I am waiting, like everyone, for this to be over. But that is not likely to happen any time soon.  Given the reality, what does that mean for my students who have rehearsed and were ready to perform their spring musical, Into the Woods in April?  At what point do I holler uncle?
I'm walking a fine line between tenacity and insanity.

We are not returning to school for the rest of the year. I have given up on the notion that we will be able to perform for a live audience. So what choices are left?   I've envisioned everything from the actors coming back when it is safe - maybe late summer  or even over Thanksgiving - performing with clear face shields. The cast members could apply their makeup, do their hair, dress in costume and warm up at home.  But is that even feasible?

There are a million dominoes. The set is installed but nothing has been teched. No light cues have been programmed.  Does this make sense? Or would we be better off figuring out a way to do an audio recording of the cast?  These students deserve some kind of "finished product," don't they?
Or is this just another casualty of COVID-19.  Another loss for the class of 2020?

I don't know. Will the answers come? At some point will the answer be obvious? Will it be dictated to me? Somebody, anybody, tell me what to do!?

Unwinding the show will have its own set of complications - set, props, costume returns. Negotiating contracts. Retrieving musical scripts and scores. What else?  I don't know what I don't know.
But what will the emotional toll be on those kids?

Waiting to mount the show some time in the future without any idea of when that might be seems unreasonable. Reassembling a cast that would then include graduates,  reinstalling the set, re-assembling the costumes.... at what expense? Is that even possible?

I always say, "safety first." This is the ultimate, "heads up!" call.
We cannot do the show until it is safe to do so.  That line is clear.
How long to hold on to a full scale production is not so clear. When do you cut your losses, regroup and create something lasting in a different way?

Waiting days are indeed long days.  I ain't down yet...but it's feeling like the iceberg is on the horizon.
I'm willing to row. But where is the life boat?

Monday, April 13, 2020

From Football to Theatre: A Lesson on Great Coaching

I just listened to a new podcast episode entitled Flying Coach With Steve Kerr & Pete CarrollTwo Champions on Mentors, Philosophies and Why They Coach on The Ringer NFL Show.  Why would a high school theatre educator be the least bit interested in listening to a sports oriented podcast? Well, truth be known, I'm a huge Pete Carroll fan but more than that, I am an avid student of great coaching.  I'm fascinated by how coaches motivate their teams to win game after game.  I am wildly curious about what it takes to have a championship mentality.

 I love college football and (full disclosure) I am one of four USC alumni in our family so USC football has always been a favorite fall pastime. Over the years, I've observed differing coaching styles on display along the sidelines of college football games; the stern-faced authoritarian,  the clipboard-throwing bully and the exuberant enthusiast. Pete Carroll falls into the latter category.

When I saw that there was to be a podcast interview with Pete Carroll about his philosophy of coaching, I had to tune in.  Never a big NFL fan, once Pete left USC and joined the Seattle Seahawks, I suddenly cared about the Super Bowl.  Pete Carroll's energy, focus, and enthusiasm is effervescent. Watching Pete on the sidelines, chomping his gum is pure fun. He loves what he does. His passion is evident. His intensity is palpable.  His positive spirit is infectious.

Now, forty-years in, Pete Carroll's personal charisma combined with his skill, daring and determination are legendary.

Here are my five takeaways on coaching from Flying Coach With Steve Kerr & Pete Carroll: Two Champions on Mentors, Philosophies and Why They Coach  that can be applied to high school theatre directors:

1. Be authentic: It's not all about the "X's and O's" of play calling. Translated for theatre - it's not just about the blocking.  Bring yourself, your passion, your unique approach to directing and trust yourself.

2. Be consistent: I couldn't agree more. In high school theatre, consistency provides clarity of communication and expectation. This is not easy because there is always the exception to the rule. Theatre educators need to be aware, intentional and fair. Five minutes early is on time for everyone!

3. Have a philosophy: This falls right in line with my belief in the Theatre on Purpose approach to teaching. Know why you are in educational theatre. It's not something to "fall back on." It's a calling.

4. Do the hard work: Training, discipline and developing the tools necessary to create theatre are imperative. It takes practice, rehearsal, and self-discipline. Theatre, like football, requires a team effort. Not everyone can be the quarterback. But without the kicker or receiver there isn't a team. Technicians, stage crew, and the ensemble are equally important as the leading actor.

5. Make sound choices: This one is personal. Life-work balance. To thine own self be true. Not always an easy thing to achieve, but regret is real so think about the choices you make along the way.

I once heard that Pete Carroll would tell his team to  "go out there and do it better than you've ever done it before." I have quoted that "Pete Carrollism"  many times to my students. You've got to show up ready to perform; seasoned, healthy and focused.  The simple notion of doing something better than you've ever done before is a straight forward and clear directive.

And that's how we should live our lives, too, isn't it? Each day, shouldn't we be striving for excellence? Each day shouldn't we be trying to be the best version of ourselves?

I appreciate great coaching in educational theatre and recognize that it is all about the process. As I always say, if the process has integrity, the product will have integrity.

Theatre on Purpose is student-centered, nurturing, disciplined, passionate, authentic and above all, joyful!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Into the Woods and Through the Fear, You Have to Take The Journey

My spring musical, Into the Woods, scheduled to open April 1st is postponed.  This April Fools' is no joke. Sets abandoned, costumes hanging on their racks, wigs sitting idly on their styrofoam heads in front of makeup mirrors all waiting for somebody to call "places."

Technology has allowed me access to my cast. But when you're trying to rehearse Parts 1 - 9 of the prologue of Into the Woods on Zoom from 56 remote locations, let's just say, it doesn't work.
Wifi signals vary. Lags in transmission play havoc with Sondheim's already complex rhythms creating a cacophony more dissonant than the score itself.

Anyone who knows me, knows that Into the Woods is my favorite musical. But as the Meme going around theatre circles says, "When I said I wanted life to be more like a musical, I didn't mean Act II of Into the Woods."  Eerily on point. Equally chilling was my choice of our 19/20 season theme - Courage.  Irony? Premonition? Intuition? Coincidence? Bad luck? You pick.

"No more questions. Please. No more tests....comes the day you say what for... just no more!" 

The drama we are living will no doubt result in great art.  YouTube is already bursting with creativity.  I've always said, theatre people are the most generous of human beings. With no lights and no stage, they are finding ways to reach out to support the community of out of work performers, writers, directors and most notably, young theatre students through multiple social media platforms.

It will be left to this generation of emerging theatre artists to tell the story of "how it all happened."
An unseen, microscopic giant has come into our midst.
Through our social isolation, we are conversely coming together out of responsibility to the community.  "Careful, no one acts alone."  

As a theatre educator, I am reminding myself every day as I strive to keep my cast inspired, hopeful and connected through tablets, iPhones and computers, "Careful the things you say. Children will listen."

It may be "Hard to see the light now. Just don't let it go. Things will come out right now. We can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is alone."

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

VOICES OF COURAGE: A lesson in devised theatre and life

     VOICES OF COURAGE just closed.  The show ended up being a promenade-style semi-immersive hard-hitting experience performed in six locations around the campus culminating in an inspiring and uplifting finale.  
     We began in August experimenting with various approaches to devising.  Given most of the students had never attempted an original work, it was important to introduce them to the process of creating original theatre using various starting points. At the end of the first session, the students began to feel confident that they could do it.  
     For three weeks we played with style, approaches and techniques equipping the students with a vocabulary for devised theatre.  We drew from practitioners such as Anne Bogart, Brecht, and Grotowski. We explored the physical theatre techniques of Jaques LeCoq and Frantic Assembly.  We also explored and unpacked the theme of courage.  Vast and unwieldy, one of the most challenging aspects of the process was narrowing the theme to digestible topics. The whole group brainstormed on the question of what courage looks like.  Their responses ended up as a word collage in the finale of the show.  Each student had to ask themselves where they have been courageous in their own lives and where we lack courage in society today.  We then took all of these ideas and sorted them by different types of courage: Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, Moral and Personal. 
     The structure of the piece began to emerge – certain topics continued to bubble to the surface.  Students took an inventory of their passion, interests and skills and groups began to organically form.  Ultimately the casting of each ensemble was left to the Story Weavers (Directors) based on the requirements for their performance.  We all agreed that the whole piece had to have a variety of theatrical styles and topics. The issues the students selected for their individual ensembles were: Anxiety, Body Image, The Environment, and Disabilities.  We agreed that the finale needed to bring it all together by focusing on voices of courage throughout history. We ultimately used projections, tableaus and music for the ending. 
     Some of the creative choices were dictated by logistics. Our black box can hold up to sixty people. Were we to have a capacity audience of 240 this would necessitate that we have four ensembles. Each Story Weaver was given the freedom to scout locations on campus to fit their particular piece.  The site- specific locations were anchored by the black box and our main stage theatre which we had determined would be the site for the finale.  The audience would be divided into four groups and would take different paths to the theatre while watching ten -minute performances in a different order. 
     We wanted to tackle the issue of immigration so we elected to start the show  with a prologue at the front gates of the school which became an immigration processing center where the audience was processed in a harsh, dehumanizing way and divided into their groups by being separated into detention centers. We knew there would be some push back from some audience members who did not want to be separated.  This of course, was an intentional choice emphasizing the dehumanizing effect of family separation at the border. Images of Ellis Island and contemporary immigrants at the southern border were used to establish the setting.  
    The marketing team went to work creating tags akin to the identification tags worn at Ellis Island. Biographies of famous immigrants who had made a contribution to the USA were affixed to the back of each tag. As the audience was processed they received a Voices of Courage lanyard with a stamped number corresponding to their assigned detention center.  A guard stood watch, dressed in a costume that was vaguely suggestive of a Nazi concentration camp guard. Lighting was harsh and bright and the feeling was intended to be disorienting.  The show opened with narrative and poetry showing three points of view about the issue of immigration: Those opposed, those supportive and the voices of the immigrants seeking safety and  work. 
     The paths were revised numerous times by a student who created elaborate, color-coded maps. The sets, lights, and sound for each location were designed by students.  The costume design team decided to use a similar lyrical dance-wear style with each ensemble being assigned a specific color. This provided a unifying effect throughout.  Tour guides led each group along the path to each ensemble. The performances drew from original material, poetry, and song. The students incorporated voice over, video, and projections in their performances. They staged their pieces to fit the sites they had chosen. 
     The Environmental ensemble effectively used a grassy, tree-lined area of campus for their piece entitled “Our House is on Fire.”  The ensemble that focused on anxiety in “Alex and You,” selected a courtyard surrounded by classrooms. The physical theatre piece that included “mind monsters” progressed along a path as the story unfolded forcing the audience to move along with the characters on the journey to healing.
     In their piece “A World that Wasn’t Made for Us,” the black box ensemble transformed the space into a fractured and multi-leveled environment using projections and sound to capture the experience of disability. The piece incorporated poetry and movement in a highly impactful way which elicited empathy and enlightenment. 
     In “Adjusting to a Sick Society,”  the ensemble interpreted lyrics through three choreographed pieces focused on domestic violence and body image.  A dance floor was set up in a courtyard with imagery painted on flats.
     There were four rotations. The audience was then immersed in a human rights protest march during which the cast of each ensemble converged outside the theatre chanting “Listen to our voices of courage. We rise up with voices of courage.”
The doors of the theatre were opened and a loud sound- scape of  famous protests from the march on Washington D.C.  to Parkland were played with images of the protests projected on stage.  Ensemble members carried signs and banners were hung over the stage with messages that reflected the issues addressed in Voices of Courage.
     The show ended with a performance of the song “Draw Your Own Conclusion,” by Andrew Lippa debuted at the International Thespian Festival for the 90th anniversary of the Thespian Society. 
     The process was not without its challenges.  One of our greatest artistic difficulties was how to transition the audience from one performance to another. We experimented with numerous approaches and ended up simply tying each piece together by asking the audience a question that began with “Do you have the courage to….?”
     We had hoped to encourage discussion among the audience members but this was only moderately successful.  Ultimately, the subject matter of each performance was so profound that the audience needed time to process before transitioning to the next piece. We adjusted our talk back approach multiple times. 
     Another challenge we faced was that each performance started at a slightly different time. While they all were ten minutes in length, the staggered timing created an issue for the actual transitions.  Thanks to walkie talkies and trials, we opted to allow each performance to begin as the audience settled and then to transition at the same time once the “talk backs” had concluded in each location.
     Weather was on the whole favorable for us given that three of our locations were outside.  It was a warm, October California week. Wind provided a few challenges leading to a lot of gaff tape and sand bags to prevent sets from blowing over. A rainy-day plan bringing all performances into the main theatre was put in to place. Light cues and transitions were recorded just in case of foul weather. 
     The cast of each ensemble was responsible for set up and strike of their individual performance areas each night of dress rehearsal and performance since the campus needed to be cleared for the next school day.  It was a labor-intensive job but provided a lesson in teamwork for all. 
     The result of the entire experience was nothing short of a success.  The students had total ownership of the piece.  They grew by leaps and bounds both personally and artistically.  Each night, I asked them to find their center and to feel the ground beneath them. They stood, solidly rooted to the floor. That center, I told them,  is the strength from which they would find their voice of courage.  I took the opportunity to remind them that while this process was based in devised theatre, the take away are many life lessons.  They overcame challenges. They worked collaboratively as a team. They used their individual gifts to do purposeful work. They persevered. They questioned and doubted but kept going.  In this age of angst and anxiety, they are stronger than they know. I urged them to draw on their experience to always remember that they are not victims. They are strong and resilient.  They are voices of courage.