Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - February 6, 2008
Editorial: Children's Theatre drama is a tragedy
A cherished Palo Alto institution stirs hearts and some wrath from its generations of supporters, capped by grief at the death of Assistant Director Michael Litfin
A wave of sorrow swept through the Palo Alto community when news broke Jan. 24 that the Palo Alto Children's Theatre was closed indefinitely due to a "financial crimes" investigation by police.
That was augmented the following week by news that Assistant Director Michael Litfin, who had been with the theatre for more than three decades, was seriously ill with cancer.
And it was capped by outright grief at Litfin's unexpected death Friday night. A week earlier, Litfin shared with the Weekly how angry he was about the investigation and how concerned he was about the impact on longtime Director Pat Briggs and two other staff members placed on administrative leave during the investigation.
Tributes to Litfin's mix of stern coaching and direction combined with his personal warmth and humor are pouring into the Town Square forum at www.PaloAltoOnline.com — including some from professional actors and other professionals who credit him with giving them a solid foundation for their lives.
Regardless of the outcome of the continuing police investigation, Litfin's legacy of being a dedicated, caring mentor of young actors will remain in the hearts of the many young people he inspired and instructed over the years. He will be difficult to replace.
As for the other staff members, it is important for the police to finish the investigation and release information about it to the community — we hope with significantly more finesse has been evident thus far in how public information has been handled.
But it is also important for all of us to honor the tradition in American jurisprudence that people are innocent until proven guilty. Let the tragedy unfolding before us progress without second-guessing the final act.
Editorial: Sharon Erickson defined what 'city auditor' means
City Auditor Sharon Erickson's impending departure for a bigger challenge in San Jose will leave behind a model for what a Palo Alto city auditor should be
Sharon Erickson came to Palo Alto at a time when "city auditor" was akin to a dirty word in many departments, up to and including the city manager's office in a prior administration.
She will leave soon for a challenging new job in San Jose being the most trusted person in Palo Alto city government, with a reputation for fairness, courage, balance and a rare mix of firmness and diplomacy.
Her performance in the complex job shines through in report after report, as one of four council-appointed officer positions. Her investigations cut through difficult bureaucratic knots to outline clear, constructive steps to improvement, often with the willing acceptance of those who were being criticized.
Even her report late last year that many of her earlier recommendations were lagging or in danger of being ignored got fast response, especially from members of the City Council.
One of her latest reports, the 85-page "Service Efforts and Accomplishments Report for 2006-07," richly details city operations in virtually all key areas, from police to public works, utilities to community services. Detail-laden appendices more than double the report's length, adding more than the average person may want to know about the city in which they live or work. (The report is on the city's Web site at http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/knowzone/reports/auditor.asp .)
There is gold here for both critics and defenders of the city's performance.
Erickson's approach to her job is in marked contrast to that of her predecessor, Bill Vinson, who resigned abruptly in August 2000 after eight years on the job — almost the same tenure as Erickson. But his tough, some felt overly harsh approach to the job left people feeling hostile and defensive to the point of creating a chasm. Some top officials reportedly refused even to read his reports, not conducive to their effectiveness.
Not so with Erickson's recommendations.
As the City Council proceeds with the search for a new auditor, finding someone who fits the "Erickson model" would serve the city well for the next eight years or so.
Posted by Olivia Killingsworth,
a resident of another community
on Feb 8, 2008 at 8:37 am
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
I tried out for my first show at the Palo Alto Children's Theater in 1994. It was GODSPELL, and I didn't get in. I volunteered to work on the backstage crew instead. Michael Litfin's staging called for the whole cast to remain onstage for most of the show; as a result, it was pretty quiet and lonely backstage. I watched them from the darkness, yearning desperately to BELONG to the laughing, dancing, singing family they'd created for themselves onstage; at the time, I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere.
You've heard the stories about the scores of kids who passed through Palo Alto Children's Theater; how they started out as awkward nobodies in the wings, and eventually moved on to bigger and better things. I'm one of them: I'm a professional actor, living and working in New York City. But you've already heard that story from countless other alumni. So I'll spare you.
But let me say this: the Palo Alto Children's Theater's brand of theater education is a rare one. It's simple, honest and, for most participants, free. More than that, though, it creates something that I like to call the Ripple Effect. It's an effect that is common to all theater - and all art, for that matter - when it's created with dedication, respect and love. It's simple: theater inspires people. It inspires them with a kind of inspiration that is so strong, it bubbles over to the people around you. It's infectious - that sense of joy in creation, of shared purpose, of hope, of belief that we can be and do more than what we think is "possible." Our beloved Michael Litfin was especially skilled at creating these little ripples in people's lives we can still feel them today, as remembrances and appreciations of him pour in from across the country. It is the Children's Theater Ripple Effect, more than anything else, which makes it such a unique treasure - one which the City of Palo Alto should think twice about before recklessly endangering the future of the program, as it appears to have done in recent weeks.
I'm a very slight person, with youthful features. When I work as an actor, I typically play kids and teenagers. So you can imagine my friends' and family's reactions last year when I told them I'd be taking a teaching job with a theater company, running a workshop with a group of all-male juvenile offenders at a detention camp in Los Angeles (code for "poor underage black and Latino gang members.") I soon discovered that these kids weren't that different from how I'd been at their age. They had low self-esteem, and they didn't fit in at school or at home. They were used to rejection; a lot of them pretended to be "tough" in order to bear it, but they all secretly yearned to BELONG. The only difference was that they hadn't had the opportunities I'd had. There hadn't been a Palo Alto Children's Theater in any of their neighborhoods; instead, they had found community, empowerment and self-expression in the thriving gang culture of Southern California. They had decorated themselves with tattoos instead of makeup and costumes; they had memorized gang signs and rap lyrics instead of dance steps and musical librettos; and instead of coming to a deeper understanding of themselves and others by working together to solve problems in rehearsal and production, they resolved their disputes with each other in the only they way they knew how: with violence.
However, when we offered them the opportunity to write, rehearse and perform their own play as an alternative way to make new friendships, express themselves and gain the respect of their peers, many of them responded in amazingly positive ways. The program was a huge success; we introduced them to a "high" that was better than any feeling they might get from beating each other up or doing drugs. Many of them thanked us for believing in them when others wouldn't, and they kept in touch with us once they were "on the outs." Watching their transformations, I discovered a new "high" that felt almost as good as the "high" I get from performing at the peak of my potential: the one that comes from inspiring others to perform at theirs.
And that, truly, is the Ripple Effect in action. If I hadn't watched Pat, Michael, Allison, Rich and Andy, and all the other staff at the Palo Alto Children's Theater through the years, working so hard to inspire us and push us to do our best, I would NEVER have known where to start with those kids. I would never have been able to inspire them to be more than what they, and most of the rest of society, thought they were. But because I'd been a Children's Theater "kid" for so long and seen the program in action, I truly believed in the transformative power of theater. So I jumped in with those "scary gang members", helped them learn their lines, wished them broken legs, and sat in the back row and yelled "DICTION!!!" at the top of my lungs.
My students frequently asked me how I could be their teacher and do so much to help them, when I wasn't much older than they were. Did I go to a special school, they wanted to know? "Nope," I answered. "I just grew up in this awesome place. It's called Palo Alto." Please, please: don't endanger one of the wonderful institutions that makes Palo Alto such an awesome place in which to grow up. Don't stop the ripples.
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