Since the market crash of 2008, myriad arts faculty positions at elementary, middle and high schools in Utah have been cut back to half-time and, in some cases, the programs either relegated to after-school activities or cut altogether. Funding for buses for field trips has also become so limited that the once-common arts field trip is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah boasted the largest average class size but still managed to rank 12th nationwide in per-pupil spending in 1996. By 2012 (the most recent comprehensive data available), Utah still boasted the largest average class size but had dropped to 50th in per-pupil spending ($6,193 or 70% below the national average of $10,608).
In response, Plan-B launched its Free Elementary School Tour, the first-ever educational tour from a professional theatre company in Utah focused on new work created specifically for elementary students. Envisioned as a six-year project featuring five commissions (the first year of the tour was PETER AND THE WOLF, a rare Plan-B production of an existing title), the goal is to provide free, professional, in-school performance at Title I schools while adding five new plays to the canon of theatre for young audiences (two for 4-6, three for K-3).
During last year’s tour of DIFFERENT=AMAZING by Matthew Ivan Bennett (an anti-bullying piece drawn from the real-life experiences of Utah elementary students), I was energized by how well we were connecting with 4-6 graders. A few schools opted to include K-3 students in the audience, which created a light-bulb moment: although some of the material landed with the younger grades, the majority did not. It was clear that we needed to create a similarly themed, age-appropriate piece for those grade levels.
Which brings me to Jenifer Nii, RUFF! and the third year of the Free Elementary School Tour.
When Jenifer submitted her first script to me in 2008, I was immediately intoxicated and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I recognized instantly that her writing possessed a tremendous sense of rhythm and language and clarity. I wanted to see where that would lead so I invited her to join The Lab, Plan-B’s monthly closed table-reading series where nine local playwrights share their work.
As Jenifer began sharing work in The Lab, I learned that her writing guides one to a soulful place, a place of passion, a place where the elusive marriage of thought and feeling happens almost effortlessly. So I began commissioning plays from her.
Jenifer left the corporate world in early 2013 to focus on her two passions: dog training and playwriting. She began training my Miniature Pinscher Stanley, so I have witnessed first-hand Jenifer’s skill at humanizing interaction between dogs and their people without anthropomorphizing one or shaming the other. Although she had never written for children, I offered her one of the five Free Elementary School Tour commissions. She readily accepted. I didn’t know until months later when she told me about RUFF! that I had terrified her.
During one of Stanley’s training sessions in late 2013, Jenifer shared some data with me from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the organization tracking dog intakes and adoptions in Utah. From January through October 2013 (the most recent data available), there were 53,827 intakes but only 16,980 adoptions took place. That means that 36,847 dogs were euthanized. Jenifer then elaborated that amongst those who train dogs in our community, a hypothesis is afoot that Utah’s standing as having the largest family size in the nation, combined with the desire to provide dogs as pets for children, plus the realization that not all families are prepared for the responsibilities of dog ownership as indicated by the statistics above, creates this disproportionately high euthanasia rate.
So what does this mean? Clichés abound about how dogs and children change you. And it’s true. They do. Maybe this all matters to me because at the age of 43 I have a 22-month-old toddler who loves dogs and seems to be completely constructed of light and wonder. In fact, his birth mother told us that she chose me and my husband from a stack of profiles for one reason: we had a paraplegic Chihuahua named Stella who got around using a cart on wheels. She said, “If you can love and care for that dog that much, I can trust them with my baby.”
So with the Free Elementary School Tour in general and RUFF! specifically, I’m listening to my gut, which has been quite dependable over my 14 seasons with Plan-B. Helping elementary students learn what lies behind commonly misunderstood canine behavior can only be a good thing. A good thing that may lead to greater empathy for others. A good thing that just might help curtail the impulse to bully.
RUFF! is a metaphorical “tail” of two shelter dogs: Axel (a shelter regular) and Buddy (a shelter novice). Together they discover what’s possible when dogs and their people learn to see past stereotypes and summon the courage to be the best they can be.
RUFF! will be staged simply. The unofficial mantra of the Free Elementary School Tour is that it needs to fit in a compact car while fully engaging the imagination of the students. So there will be a few hand props and some tailor-made dog ears. But it will be mostly actor dependent with the added bonus of the presence of therapy dogs courtesy of our friends at Intermountain Therapy Animals.
Why therapy dogs? Because they’re trained to interact with all humans calmly and equally so that each student will truly have a positive experience with an actual dog.
A lovely spin on animal testing.