By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO July 4, 2000 -- Periwinkle National Theatre, with offices in Monticello and New York City, is the oldest nonprofit professional educational theatre in the country.
Operating under the credo To Unlock a Mind, You Must First Open a Heart, Periwinkle Theatre was founded in 1963 by executive director Sunna Rasch. Since its creation, the innovative theatre company has reached an estimated 5 million students and young adults, including more than 50,000 in Sullivan County.
According to Rasch, Periwinkle develops their programs based upon student and curriculum needs, and utilizes a multi-cultural cast of young professional actors to connect with students through thought-provoking productions and workshops.
Our mission is to make a positive impact on children and youth through issue-oriented theatre, she said.
A Life of Involvement
Rasch grew up in a small upstate town near the Vermont border, a hometown with a population of about 1,800. At the age of 20, she came to Monticello to take a teaching job.
Noting that acting was the only thing I ever cared about, Rasch began her theatre career when she was about eight years old in a play she organized for an audience of neighborhood kids.
I was afraid to charge more than a penny, so I decided to charge a safety pin, she recalled.
Although Raschs father once confided to her mother that, if his daughter pursued a career in the theatre, shed wind up married to a bohemian, Sunna Rasch went on to establish the Sullivan County Dramatic Workshop with Barbara Newburg in 1950.
As a junior high school teacher, Rasch discovered she was able to use creative theatre as a way to positively motivate kids. Later, she combined her careers as a teacher and parent to follow her dream of getting involved in childrens theatre. In 1963, her principal asked Rasch to create a play that would get students excited about poetry because the school librarian said kids werent taking enough books off the shelves.
Periwinkle Theatre was born on Raschs kitchen table and, in the following 37 years, gave birth to a national touring company.
A Good Start
The first production designed to get kids reading poetry was entitled Poetry in 3-D: Dynamic, Delightful and Different. It was updated over the years to become The Mad Poet Strikes Again.
Periwinkle sparked the interest of the folks in charge of NYCs School District 22 in Brooklyn.
That started to lift us along the way, said Rasch.
Today, it is part of a collaborative group receiving a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Office of Education to develop a five-year violence reduction program, through District 3, Manhattan, for the Wadleigh School in NYC.
Locally, the arts-in-education theatre for young audiences has worked closely with Sullivan County BOCES and several area school districts.
Onward and Upward
During the last decade, Periwinkle National Theatre has focused on issues affecting kids in todays complex society: drugs, alcohol, violence and abduction.
The power of the plays opens dialogue and changes lives, said Rasch.
Noting that, in recent years, the once free-flowing federal dollars for anti-drug programs have started to dry up, Rasch added, Its a struggle, but were persistent about it.
According to Periwinkles founder and creative guiding light, she conducts research for each production right here in Sullivan County before taking them on the road in statewide and national tours.
In the early 1990s, Periwinkle lit up local school stages with the help of a NEA development grant with Hooray For Me, a play about a boy who didnt fit in and was ready to do almost anything to be accepted.
The workshops extended the theatre experience into the classroom, said Rasch.
In Hooray For Me, students explored a wide range of topics including attitudes, changes, pressure (peer, parents and school), family relationships and fears.
Halfway There is Periwinkles anti-drug/alcohol production that captivates young audiences in a play about feelings. It is based on the real-life struggles of teens in a treatment center and their efforts to reclaim their lives from the darkness of addiction.
This kind of impact is exclusive to the live theatre experience, said Rasch. Teenagers see themselves in the characters portrayed on stage. They are moved to reflect on their own behavior, a key factor in motivating change. This is the most direct way to address the problem of drugs and destruction that is cutting to the heart of our youth and our country.
Its a play about hope and the capacity of people to change, she added.
Two years ago, Fleet Bank provided a grant to support performances of the play, which is based on the actual experiences and writings of recovering teenagers, in several local school districts: Delaware Valley, Fallsburg, Liberty, Livingston Manor, Monticello, Roscoe and Tri-Valley.
And the Honors Keep Coming
Periwinkles award-winning drug prevention play Halfway There was highlighted at the 2000 National Youth Crime Prevention Conference in Atlanta, Ga.
In May, Periwinkle National Theatre opened the third annual United States/Mexico Bi-National High Level Conference on Demand Reduction with their innovative and provocative production of Halfway There. At the bi-national conference, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy, presented a special recognition award to Sunna Rasch and Periwinkle National Theatre.
Through your dramatic performance of Halfway There, you have educated more than 800,000 youth and adults about the devastating impact of substance abuse, said McCaffrey.
Four days later, in the nations capital, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education presented Periwinkle with the Sara Spencer Artistic Achievement Award, the highest national honor currently awarded for artistic theatre practice of long duration and wide recognition.
Periwinkle National Theatre is also the recipient of the Jennie Heiden Award for Excellence in Professional Childrens Theatre.
Other local venues for Periwinkles productions: Sullivan County Community College, the Sullivan Country Recovery Center, Delaware Valley Job Corps Center and Community General Hospital of Sullivan County (detox unit).
And the Plays Keep Coming, Too
Over the years, Periwinkle has toured the county with over 14 different productions, primarily at the elementary-grade level. Many of the tours included workshops conducted in the classroom.
Periwinkle National Theatre recently created Little Red Riding Hood Finds the Saftey Zone, an anti-abduction play which updates the classic story of a child who didnt listen when told not to talk to strangers.
Last spring, Periwinkle opened Rooftop, a violence prevention play about bullies, as part of NYCs Stop-the-Violence effort. Targeted at grades 2-6, the production focuses upon the message that violence doesnt solve anything, that communication is the secret to solving problems, said Rasch.
Periwinkles newest production, The Birthday Party That Almost Wasnt, seeks to answer the question about what happens to a little boy who doesnt know how to play nicely and almost ruins his own birthday party.
For information about the many nonprofit arts-in-education productions offered by Periwinkle National Theatre, call their Monticello office at 794-1666, in NYC at 212-772-0363 or 1-800-888-8271. Their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Periwinkles website at www.te2000.com/periwinkle.