Bayside teacher takes Outback tale from page to stage
By John Tozzi
Cardozo High School reading teacher Nancy Orens knew that she wanted to teach "Letters from the Inside," an Australian novel about two teenage girls touched by domestic violence, as soon as she read the blurb in the book catalogue almost two years ago. But she did not know the book would take on a life of its own that would bring a professional stage adaptation of the novel to the school.
On May 9 an auditorium full of Cardozo students, many of whom had studied the book, watched an exclusive performance of the two-person play, adapted by Manhattan-based director Robert Armin, and the students and educators were all smiles after the show.
"I will tell
you that this is one book that has absolutely made a major difference not only
in the lives of the children but in their interactions," Orens said.
The novel by Australian writer John Marsden - described as the Judy Blume of Australia - is in the form of two girls writing letters back and forth. One is in a juvenile detention center, for reasons that remain a mystery, and the other lives in her home with an unstable family situation. Orens said the book appeals to students because it deals with serious issues in a frank style teenagers can relate to.
"I would stay up to like 12 o'clock at night and want to keep reading it," said Vincent Fuentes, one of Orens' students who won an essay contest for writing about the book. "The best part about it was like going to class and having everyone share their opinions and everything started clicking."
For Orens, finding a book her students did not want to put down was invaluable for her ninth and 10th grade reading and writing classes.
"When we did the book, I would say there was at least 95 percent participation," she said.
That enthusiasm spurred her to contact Armin when she stumbled upon his Web site searching for materials on the book. Armin had staged his adaptation only once before, in Manhattan six years ago, and agreed to bring the play to the school.
More than a year after Orens first e-mailed Armin, hundreds of eager Cardozo students watched the two-person play in the school's auditorium.
Principal Rick Hallman praised the students for the attention they paid during the 90-minute performance.
"For students of today to be gripped as they were ... just speaks so much for the play itself," as well as the actors and the production, he said.
Like the characters in Judy Blume's stories, the girls in "Letters from the Inside" talk like real teenagers, including some salty language that might not be welcome in most high school classrooms.
"John Marsden does not mince words," Armin said. "He writes the way the kids talk."
The bluntness, both in language and subject matter, is part of what makes the story appeal to young adults.
"I think it's a really great play to do just because it does deal with a lot of issues that get swept under the carpet sometimes, like domestic violence," said Jenny Zerke, one of the actors Armin cast in the Cardozo production. She and Gretchen Poulos spent four weeks rehearsing for the show.
Orens said she was thrilled at how eager students were to talk and write about the book, and Armin said he would look into bringing other performances or a video of the play to different classes in the area.
"I'm pumping the book to get it into the other high schools," Orens said.
Reach reporter John Tozzi by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
or by phone at 718-229-0300 Ext. 188.
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