In the Moment: ‘Poetry Out Loud’ at Signature Theatre on February 6, 2015

DCMetroTheaterArts is constantly on the look-out to learn about ways local theater companies make their venues available for community activities beyond presenting plays and musicals. We are aware of a nation-wide competition called Poetry Out Loud sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Poetry Foundation. So, we investigated in one area, Northern Virginia, to learn more about kinship with the DC metro performing arts community.

53 state Poetry Out Loud Champions at the 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Finals in Washington, DC. Photo by James Kegley.
53 State Poetry Out Loud Champions at the 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Finals in Washington, DC. Photo by James Kegley.

Poetry Out Loud provides high school students with the opportunity to develop public speaking skills through spoken word even as it helps students delve into a great literary tradition that is so well-connected to theatrical performing arts. That is the memorization and recitation of classic and contemporary poems along with their analysis and interpretation. After all, reciting a poem involves what the spoken word does to convey feelings, ideas and information meant to bring forth an audience’s responses and emotions. There is rhyme, rhythm, sound, imagery, style, form, mood, and more.

With that as background, DCMTA’s David Siegel set off to learn more.

In 2014 Virginia’s Poetry Out Loud competitions reached over 10,000 high school students from across the state through school competitions, regional competitions and the statewide final competition. The state-wide winner than went to the national competition held at Lisner Auditorium at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

What’s clear is that that not only athletics involve large number of students in a competitive environment. And, it is not only the performing theater arts that have students stand-up before an audience and judges to deliver through their voices the power of words and emotions.

In the Northern Virginia area of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Fairfax City, and Falls-Church, the regional Poetry Out Loud event has been held at Arlington’s Signature Theatre for the past several years. In February, 2015, Signature Theatre will once again host the Northern Virginia regional Poetry Out Loud event. This is the jumping-off point for this DCMTA article.

This article is based upon phone and email interviews with representatives from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and Arlington’s Signature Theatre.


David: Why did Signature Theatre become a venue for the Virginia’s Poetry Out Loud competition?

James Gardiner: Publicist/Community Relations Manager of Signature Theatre: Signature was approached by The Virginia Commission for the Arts about becoming a venue for Virginia’s Poetry Out Loud competition. We’ve gladly hosted the event at Signature Theatre for the last several years. Along with our own education outreach programs, Signature Theatre strongly supports any venture that gives students access to the arts.

What are the connections between presenting a poem and performing in a live theatre production?

The main connection between poetry and live theatre is self-expression. Both art forms give students the opportunity to build self-confidence and sharpen their public speaking skills. Regardless of whether or not a student decides to pursue a career in the arts, we believe that a student’s access to it is imperative.

Note: Signature will also be producing its annual Signature in The Schools over two weekends in later January, 2015. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Signature in Schools. This year’s Signature festival will include four productions from DC area schools and students. More information is here.

Why did the NEA decide to partner with the Poetry Foundation to create Poetry Out Loud?

Eleanor Billington, NEA Program Coordinator for Poetry Out LoudThe NEA and the Poetry Foundation created the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation contest to introduce students to great classic and contemporary poems through memorization and recitation. With this program, we wanted to bring poetry back into the classroom in a way that could be challenging as well as fun for students and their teachers.

The art of recitation is an ancient one, dating back to the very first Olympic games, and we intend for Poetry Out Loud to be an extension of this honored tradition. The NEA and Poetry Foundation also wanted to give students a national stage on which to be recognized for their achievements in interpretation and performance—it’s no small task. It probably comes as no surprise, but many young people are not reading poetry. This program gets participating students—and often their peers—excited about writing and exploring poetry. For many students, Poetry Out Loud is their first experience with a poem.

Why does reciting poetry matter?

Not only does reciting poetry build self confidence, it also teaches students to read and think critically. In order to successfully memorize and internalize a poem, students must fully understand each line and each word. They must learn new vocabulary and wrestle with complex syntax and sometimes, unfamiliar dialects and figures of speech. Students are challenged to digest their poems and then reinterpret them in a way that will clearly convey the poem’s meaning to an audience.

Also, when students recite their poems, when they have the courage to stand up in front of their classroom or their school assembly and share a piece of art, it is incredibly empowering for them. They spread the wisdom of these poems to their community, and that is life changing for the teller as well as the listener.

How does recitation of a poem assist a high school student in school achievement and/or life accomplishments?

Many students say that the confidence they gained through participating in Poetry Out Loud encouraged them to take other risks in learning—to try painting or take a challenging science course. Finally, these poems remain in the minds and hearts of students for their entire lives—no matter where they are, they can always draw on the words of a poet or the lessons of Poetry Out Loud to guide them. That is a huge gift, an immeasurable one.

Why is it important for high school students to memorize and recite a poem?

POL2014_colorCasey Polczynski- Arts in Education Coordinator, Virginia Commission for the Arts (VCA)Memorization has become a lost art form in part to the rapid pace of our consumer based society. High school students are naturally [drawn to] major poetic themes such as injustice, loss, love, anger, death and life. Poetry Out Loud provides high school students the platform to explore an expansive anthology of poetry and then to select poetry that resonates with their own experiences and preferences. Poetry recitation naturally encourages the development of memorization and interpretation to connect with the deeper context and meaning through the powerful medium of the human voice.

Why does the Virginia Commission for the Arts sponsor the annual Poetry Out Loud competition

Virginia Commission for the Arts is a state arts agency that receives funding and program resources from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry foundation. State Art Agencies are the primary source for coordinating Poetry Out Loud statewide throughout the United States. Click here to register.

What can we expect at the regional competition that will be held at Arlington’s Signature Theatre?

On Friday, February 6, 2015 the Poetry Out Loud Region 4a [composed of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Fairfax City, and Falls-Church ] competition will take place at Signature Theatre. There are 14 students participating from home school groups, public, and private schools. Each student is responsible for memorizing two poetry selections from the Poetry Out Loud Anthology. (note: there are about 600 poems in the Anthology). The regional winner and runner-up both advance to the state finals which will be held on Friday, March 13, 2015 in Richmond, VA.

What other information would you like to provide about Poetry Out Loud?

VCA is partnering with our local PBS station, WCVE to create a 30-minute Virginia Poetry Out Loud Documentary. This is through funding support with the VEA (Virginia Education Association) and VCA. Each of the six regional competition will be recorded along with the state final in March, which will take place at the WCVE studios in Richmond. This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight Poetry Out Loud across the commonwealth.

Note: Each winner at the state level receives $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip with an adult chaperone to Washington to compete for the National Championship. The 10th Poetry Out Loud National Finals will take place April 28-29, 2015, at Lisner Auditorium, at George Washington University, in Washington, DC. The state winner’s school receives a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. The first runner-up in each state receives $100, with $200 for his or her school library. A total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends is awarded annually at the National Finals.


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