Custom Class: post-landing-hero

Gallery Owner and Artist Traces Passions Back to Rowland Hall Education

Bonnie Phillips '60 and her husband, Denis, founded the Phillips Gallery in 1965, and now it holds the title of the oldest-running commercial art gallery in the Intermountain West. Mature shade trees form a canopy over their tidy historic storefront that for 50 years has held its own against newer, bigger commercial buildings on the block. Much like its owners, it's comfortably elegant and teeming with fascinating stories.

The gallery holds a special place in Salt Lake as a factual framework for Utah art history. Artists Bonnie and Denis built their successful business by representing—and often befriending—other regional artists, including Rowland Hall alumni Lee Deffebach '45, Stephen Goldsmith '72, and Hadley Rampton '94. In the late 1960s, Utah Art and Sculpture magazine recognized the Phillips Gallery for "challenging the bounds of Utah taste through their intelligent promotion of less traditional art" and called the business "the first viable modernist and avant-garde concern in the Utah art market."

Indeed, Bonnie has done more than establish an alluring storefront: she's cultivated a community of creatives and served as an ambassador for Utah arts, according to Hadley, a gallery fine art consultant. Phillips Gallery almost exclusively shows pieces by Utah artists, and clients visiting Salt Lake from major art centers such as New York City or Los Angeles "are just blown away by the quality and variety of work here," Hadley said. Salt Lake is lucky to have Bonnie, she added. "Our community here is very strong...she has definitely contributed in a big way."

Denis and Bonnie grew up in different Salt Lake neighborhoods and met after college, yet both credit the daily presence of art in their youth for what would become a mutual passion. Bonnie fondly remembers Rowland Hall as a "warm and friendly place" where teachers appreciated and nurtured her love of art. One of those teachers was the late George Fox, a beloved Rowland Hall art educator for 32 years—read more about him on page 40 of the Spring 2012 Review. With a laugh and a shudder, Bonnie recalled a memory from the so-called "A Building" on the old Avenues Campus: she watched Mr. Fox make the risky climb to the top of the foyer to open a light well so students could enjoy the sun.

"I remember the light streaming in through the huge Avenues Campus windows, illuminating the art on the walls," Bonnie said. "Some was student work and other was by professional artists—but it was all honored."

Nearly seven decades later, much of the art now illuminated on Rowland Hall's walls is there thanks to Bonnie—she has loaned the school 114 paintings from her personal collection with the hope of enriching students' educational experiences, just as the school once enriched her childhood.

Nearly seven decades later, much of the art now illuminated on Rowland Hall's walls is there thanks to Bonnie—she has loaned the school 114 paintings from her personal collection with the hope of enriching students' educational experiences, just as the school once enriched her childhood. The collection appropriately includes 17 pieces by Bonnie and seven by her husband.

In the Beginning School, 19 loaned works contribute to the calm, beautiful environment carefully cultivated by Principal Carol Blackwell. In one piece—an untitled 2002 acrylic painting by prominent Utah artist and Rowland Hall parent Willamarie Huelskamp—a red stag turns to look behind him, toward a sliver of red moon. The other pieces also depict colorful, creatively interpreted insects, animals, and plants. Such works enlighten our youngest learners, who appreciate art's intrinsic value and worth: "Children can observe shape, color, emotional qualities, and intangible traits such as kindness," 4PreK teacher Kate Nevins said.

For Bonnie, Rowland Hall nurtured some of those good, intangible traits. She grew up with grandparents of mixed religions and remains grateful that whether at home or school, adults around her emphasized a message of inclusion: "At Rowland Hall, we began school every morning singing hymns together in chapel," she said. "It didn't matter what your religion was at home, we all sang together. It was such a wonderful way to open our hearts and minds to learning for the rest of the day. It was truly spiritual."

Years later, Bonnie combined her passion for art with the lasting impression of kindness and spirituality to form the Golden Rule Project, an organization based on the law of reciprocity—do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The ideas that led to the Golden Rule Project first percolated in Bonnie's mind as Edna Traul's fourth-grade student at Rowland Hall. Mrs. Traul had students memorize and recite poetry, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the golden rule. "The pledge seemed sort of exclusive, whereas the golden rule had a sense of fairness," Bonnie said.

The lessons intrinsic to the golden rule continued to simmer in Bonnie's heart, and with the help of her mother, Jane Dooly Porter '36, the Golden Rule Project became a reality in 2003. Two years later, Bonnie worked with Urban Crossroads Center and then-State Senator Fred Fife to introduce a state resolution asking lawmakers to consider the rule as they carried out their duties. Now, the project is a thriving nonprofit that combines art, mindfulness, and communication. It encourages people to incorporate the principle into their daily lives, in part by promoting the rule's many artistic representations found across faiths, philosophies, and teachings.

When Ms. Porter died in 2008, she donated her spacious, art-filled house at 1229 East South Temple to the project. Her memory lives on through the home, nicknamed Jane's House, a place designated for diverse gatherings and discussions.

Jane's House has expanded the Golden Rule Project, but art remains at the heart of the message. Beautiful variations of the golden rule hang in schools and organizations nationwide, including the Utah State Capitol. Each formulation is a unique two-page, framed diptych, measuring 21 inches by 13 inches (golden mean proportions), and letterpressed on paper hand-marbled by local artists.

Bonnie said she believes deeply in the principle. Each night, she assesses her day by asking herself, "Have I done unto others as I would have them do unto me?" The Rowland Hall community certainly thinks so. In 2009, the school inducted Bonnie into the Alumni Hall of Fame for her countless hours of service to the community.

Dooly-Phillips Family Rowland Hall Alumni

  • Peggy Dooly Olwell '33 (Jane's sister and Bonnie's aunt)
  • Jane Dooly Porter '36 (Bonnie's mother)
  • Bonnie Phillips '60
  • Ellie Olwell Roser '60 (Peggy's older daughter and Bonnie's cousin)
  • Carol Olwell '62 (Peggy's youngest daughter and Bonnie's cousin)
  • Ben Phillips '87 (Bonnie's son)

Alumni

Bonnie Phillips '60 Lives a Vibrant Life Championing Utah Artists—and the Golden Rule

Gallery Owner and Artist Traces Passions Back to Rowland Hall Education

Bonnie Phillips '60 and her husband, Denis, founded the Phillips Gallery in 1965, and now it holds the title of the oldest-running commercial art gallery in the Intermountain West. Mature shade trees form a canopy over their tidy historic storefront that for 50 years has held its own against newer, bigger commercial buildings on the block. Much like its owners, it's comfortably elegant and teeming with fascinating stories.

The gallery holds a special place in Salt Lake as a factual framework for Utah art history. Artists Bonnie and Denis built their successful business by representing—and often befriending—other regional artists, including Rowland Hall alumni Lee Deffebach '45, Stephen Goldsmith '72, and Hadley Rampton '94. In the late 1960s, Utah Art and Sculpture magazine recognized the Phillips Gallery for "challenging the bounds of Utah taste through their intelligent promotion of less traditional art" and called the business "the first viable modernist and avant-garde concern in the Utah art market."

Indeed, Bonnie has done more than establish an alluring storefront: she's cultivated a community of creatives and served as an ambassador for Utah arts, according to Hadley, a gallery fine art consultant. Phillips Gallery almost exclusively shows pieces by Utah artists, and clients visiting Salt Lake from major art centers such as New York City or Los Angeles "are just blown away by the quality and variety of work here," Hadley said. Salt Lake is lucky to have Bonnie, she added. "Our community here is very strong...she has definitely contributed in a big way."

Denis and Bonnie grew up in different Salt Lake neighborhoods and met after college, yet both credit the daily presence of art in their youth for what would become a mutual passion. Bonnie fondly remembers Rowland Hall as a "warm and friendly place" where teachers appreciated and nurtured her love of art. One of those teachers was the late George Fox, a beloved Rowland Hall art educator for 32 years—read more about him on page 40 of the Spring 2012 Review. With a laugh and a shudder, Bonnie recalled a memory from the so-called "A Building" on the old Avenues Campus: she watched Mr. Fox make the risky climb to the top of the foyer to open a light well so students could enjoy the sun.

"I remember the light streaming in through the huge Avenues Campus windows, illuminating the art on the walls," Bonnie said. "Some was student work and other was by professional artists—but it was all honored."

Nearly seven decades later, much of the art now illuminated on Rowland Hall's walls is there thanks to Bonnie—she has loaned the school 114 paintings from her personal collection with the hope of enriching students' educational experiences, just as the school once enriched her childhood.

Nearly seven decades later, much of the art now illuminated on Rowland Hall's walls is there thanks to Bonnie—she has loaned the school 114 paintings from her personal collection with the hope of enriching students' educational experiences, just as the school once enriched her childhood. The collection appropriately includes 17 pieces by Bonnie and seven by her husband.

In the Beginning School, 19 loaned works contribute to the calm, beautiful environment carefully cultivated by Principal Carol Blackwell. In one piece—an untitled 2002 acrylic painting by prominent Utah artist and Rowland Hall parent Willamarie Huelskamp—a red stag turns to look behind him, toward a sliver of red moon. The other pieces also depict colorful, creatively interpreted insects, animals, and plants. Such works enlighten our youngest learners, who appreciate art's intrinsic value and worth: "Children can observe shape, color, emotional qualities, and intangible traits such as kindness," 4PreK teacher Kate Nevins said.

For Bonnie, Rowland Hall nurtured some of those good, intangible traits. She grew up with grandparents of mixed religions and remains grateful that whether at home or school, adults around her emphasized a message of inclusion: "At Rowland Hall, we began school every morning singing hymns together in chapel," she said. "It didn't matter what your religion was at home, we all sang together. It was such a wonderful way to open our hearts and minds to learning for the rest of the day. It was truly spiritual."

Years later, Bonnie combined her passion for art with the lasting impression of kindness and spirituality to form the Golden Rule Project, an organization based on the law of reciprocity—do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The ideas that led to the Golden Rule Project first percolated in Bonnie's mind as Edna Traul's fourth-grade student at Rowland Hall. Mrs. Traul had students memorize and recite poetry, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the golden rule. "The pledge seemed sort of exclusive, whereas the golden rule had a sense of fairness," Bonnie said.

The lessons intrinsic to the golden rule continued to simmer in Bonnie's heart, and with the help of her mother, Jane Dooly Porter '36, the Golden Rule Project became a reality in 2003. Two years later, Bonnie worked with Urban Crossroads Center and then-State Senator Fred Fife to introduce a state resolution asking lawmakers to consider the rule as they carried out their duties. Now, the project is a thriving nonprofit that combines art, mindfulness, and communication. It encourages people to incorporate the principle into their daily lives, in part by promoting the rule's many artistic representations found across faiths, philosophies, and teachings.

When Ms. Porter died in 2008, she donated her spacious, art-filled house at 1229 East South Temple to the project. Her memory lives on through the home, nicknamed Jane's House, a place designated for diverse gatherings and discussions.

Jane's House has expanded the Golden Rule Project, but art remains at the heart of the message. Beautiful variations of the golden rule hang in schools and organizations nationwide, including the Utah State Capitol. Each formulation is a unique two-page, framed diptych, measuring 21 inches by 13 inches (golden mean proportions), and letterpressed on paper hand-marbled by local artists.

Bonnie said she believes deeply in the principle. Each night, she assesses her day by asking herself, "Have I done unto others as I would have them do unto me?" The Rowland Hall community certainly thinks so. In 2009, the school inducted Bonnie into the Alumni Hall of Fame for her countless hours of service to the community.

Dooly-Phillips Family Rowland Hall Alumni

  • Peggy Dooly Olwell '33 (Jane's sister and Bonnie's aunt)
  • Jane Dooly Porter '36 (Bonnie's mother)
  • Bonnie Phillips '60
  • Ellie Olwell Roser '60 (Peggy's older daughter and Bonnie's cousin)
  • Carol Olwell '62 (Peggy's youngest daughter and Bonnie's cousin)
  • Ben Phillips '87 (Bonnie's son)

Alumni

Explore More Arts Stories

A Rowland Hall lower schooler playing ukulele in music class.

Susan Swidnicki, McCarthey Campus music teacher, is passionate about the power of music—especially during a global pandemic.

There’s perspective in music. People use music both for celebration and for mourning—and for understanding life a little better: love and friendship and what is important.—Susan Swidnicki, McCarthey Campus music teacher

“There’s perspective in music,” she said. “People use music both for celebration and for mourning—and for understanding life a little better: love and friendship and what is important.”

For many, music has been a powerful tool for coping with the emotions that the pandemic has stirred up—and that’s true for all ages, Susan explained. During the early childhood and elementary years, music can help children process and express big emotions, as well as build their confidence. As a longtime music educator, Susan has seen this again and again: how a song can help a child work through a difficult experience, how the discovery of hidden musical talent can awaken a previously unengaged student, or how performing in front of classmates can empower a shy student. It was, therefore, more imperative than ever to safely provide music education this year.

“I needed to figure out a way that kids could have skilled, active music making together in community,” Susan said.

Susan spent the spring and summer immersed in professional development with music educators around the world, trading ideas and best practices for lessons that fit within safety recommendations and school guidelines. She acknowledged that this was tricky: Rowland Hall has a long tradition of active music making, and the Lower School curriculum uses the Orff Schulwerk music-education approach, which emphasizes play, and in which music and movement go hand in hand. But under the school’s health and safety guidelines, activities like singing, playing the recorder, working in small groups, and folk dancing were off the table. Susan didn’t let this discourage her, though. Like many other COVID-related challenges, she said, it just required a new kind of thinking and some creativity.

“We’re all learning that we can adapt and be flexible,” she said, “and that we are more resilient than we thought.”

For Susan, this meant examining the skills that music class has always built, and then finding new ways to teach them. For example, she’s developing students’ notation, rhythm, and patterning skills with sets of non-wind instruments—like ukuleles, bucket drums, glockenspiels, boomwhackers, xylophones, and hand drums—that are rotated among classes monthly. Additionally, she’s helping kids, who tend to think of movement as something that requires their legs, find different ways to express themselves with their bodies. “They’re learning there are other parts to movement to explore,” said Susan, like arms and torsos, and even facial expressions around their masks (she challenges them to do things like share feelings using only their eyes).

Rowland Hall Lower School students play instruments at their desks in adherence with safety guidelines.

And to continue helping students process 2020, Susan is also focusing on ways to further tie music education with school-wide social-emotional learning goals. She plans to expose students to music and expressive movements that don’t always reflect happiness, as well as to continue to introduce them to music from around the globe to illustrate how many cultures use music to make sense of the world. It’s clear that every choice she makes is thoughtful and designed to support students’ overall well-being, whether they are learning in the classroom or from home.

Despite the year’s limitations, Susan says students are still shining in music class, discovering not only their ability to create, but an understanding that they have something to contribute.

“My main goal, of course, is to keep kids healthy, but also to give them some sense of peace and calmness in their day,” Susan said.

And, of course, to empower them. Despite the year’s limitations, Susan says students are still shining in music class, discovering not only their ability to create, but an understanding that they have something to contribute, “which I think is one of the biggest messages we want to give to children right now,” she said.

Susan Swidnicki, formerly our Beginning School music teacher, took over for longtime McCarthey Campus music teacher Cindy Hall after Cindy retired this summer. Susan—also a professional oboist who has played with the Ballet West Orchestra and the Utah Symphony—was a natural choice and Rowland Hall is so grateful to have her. Read more about Susan in this 2018 profile.


The Many Benefits of Music

Rowland Hall has long embraced active music making, and each division offers opportunities for students to build musical artistry. On the McCarthey Campus, explained Susan, music is an integral part of the beginning and lower schools’ curricula for many reasons:

  • It builds self-discipline. In music class, students learn to control themselves within a group by listening to and respecting their peers when they perform.

  • It encourages bravery. Everyone is expected to contribute, which builds students’ confidence and performance skills—and sometimes even taps into undiscovered talent.

  • It helps students get comfortable making mistakes. Though all students are expected to contribute in music class, perfection is never expected. “You can still enjoy the process with mistakes,” said Susan.

  • It supports math skills. The skills built in music class, like patterning, can help contribute to students’ success in math.

  • It supports language skills. Music class helps build language skills in many ways, from exposing students to vocabulary and rhyming words, to helping build fluid reading skills with meter.

  • It exposes students to diverse cultures. A culturally inclusive music approach, like Orff Schulwerk, helps students understand and appreciate the diversity of cultures.

Academics

Collage of Tesserae and Gazette websites on laptops.

As the pandemic plunged Rowland Hall into remote learning in spring, and as it continues to keep some students learning from home, upper schoolers in our newspaper and literary magazine classes have nimbly reimagined their printed products. Both publications have now found homes online, at least temporarily.

Read the 2020 Tesserae student literary magazine Read the Gazette student newspaper

Ben Fowler ’20 and senior Garrett Glasgow shared editor-in-chief duties to get Tesserae online—an effort that started in April and concluded this month. While the Tesserae team hopes to keep the website updated with future issues, Garrett said they’re definitely planning to bring back print for 2021:

“Due to COVID-19’s impact on the ability to create a print copy of this year's edition of Tesserae, the staff decided to shift to a digital copy of the magazine. With help from Rowland Hall's marketing team, the staff created a website with the usual collection of poems, prose, artwork, and photos created by students. In addition to the typical artforms seen in prior magazines, the digital nature of this year's edition also enabled us to include short videos. While we hope to create a print copy of the 2021 issue, the 2020 issue is widely accessible and filled with content by talented Rowland Hall students. We hope everyone takes an opportunity to look through this year's edition.”

Over at the Rowland Hall Gazette, senior and editor in chief Sophie Dau and her team look forward to posting new pieces every week or two:

“We decided to go digital this year because of the limited amount of students on campus, and we hope to incorporate outside content with more flexible publishing. We will update the website much more frequently, so keep an eye out for opinion pieces, teacher and student profiles, school news, current events, and more!”

Thanks to Ben, Garrett, Sophie, and their classmates—along with teachers Joel Long and Dr. Laura Johnson—for getting these digital publications up and running for community members near and far to enjoy. Our students’ creativity persists, even if the presses are paused.


Top: Tesserae and Gazette website collage featuring background artwork by Tesserae contributing artist Alex Armknecht ’20.

Student Publications

Senior Ashlee Jackson performing at alum dance show INTERsect.

As the sun set on September 5, its golden light illuminated a masked dancer, casting long shadows that fell on audience members watching her from blankets and benches spaced six feet apart. The dancer’s arms and legs crossed and uncrossed, mimicking the freeway overpasses rising above the group that had gathered in this industrial area of downtown Salt Lake City. The sound of cars whirring overhead mixed with live music, all of it echoing off the area’s concrete columns and warehouses.

This alum-organized dance event, called INTERsect, was designed as a special collaboration between Rowland Hall performing arts students and alumnae dance artists. INTERsect came together after Sofia Gorder, Lincoln Street Campus director of arts and co-director of dance, had heard from several alums who were looking for a creative outlet during COVID-19 restrictions.

“There was a desperate outpour from students I hadn’t talked to in a long time, saying, ‘I want to create, I want to respond, I want to connect,’” Sofia said. Remembering an underground show she had attended in the industrial area located at 600 South 600 West, Sofia proposed that these alums, along with interested current students, use that same space for a physically distanced dance performance. She knew that this opportunity would not only help them feel connected during an uncertain time, but also help them process the emotions they were feeling due to the heavy news of 2020, from the ongoing fallout of the coronavirus pandemic to racial injustice around the country.

“It was a platform for artists to respond to the world around them,” Sofia explained.

Each artist was asked to choreograph a dance or build a performance art piece at home, to use minimal lighting to take advantage of shadows cast by sunset (and by construction lights, after the sun went down), and to wear a mask (a requirement for attendees as well; the event poster specified WYOM—wear your own mask). For alum and student dancers who had felt disconnected from their passion for months, the opportunity was therapeutic.

“Dance is a very important part of my life and I have missed collaborating with others and performing,” said Rowland Hall senior Katie Kern. “This project safely allowed me to connect with other artists and feel the joy of performing again after six months of missing out.”

In dance class, we always talk about how, compositionally, we take bits and pieces from each other. Each of us is a combination of our peers melded by our own style. In other words, all of the dancers from Rowland Hall are connected by an artistic link, even if we never physically danced in the same space.—Ashlee Jackson, class of 2021

INTERsect featured dances by current seniors Katie Kern and Ashlee Jackson, sophomore Mikel Lawlor, and seven alumnae: Laja Field ’08, Elissa Collins ’15, Sophia Diehl ’15, Eliza Kitchens ’16, MiaBella Brickey ’17, Adie Christiansen ’17, and Sydney Rabbitt ’18. The show also included the talents of Matt Jackson ’13—who provided live music with his father, Rowland Hall Jazz and Pop Band Director Bret Jackson—and Oliver Jin ’18, who designed the promotional poster and ran day-of tech. (Sofia also called out four alumnae—Sophia Cutrubus ’18, Grace Riter ’18, Cassidy Clark ’19, and Tori Kusukawa ’19—who were unable to perform due to scheduling or geography conflicts, but who were instrumental in building inspiration for the event.) The evening’s success was due to the enthusiastic collaboration between these students and alums, many of whom had never met before the event. Participants were quick to credit Sofia's ability to make connections among current and former dancers—a testament to the Rowland Hall faculty’s focus on building, and maintaining, meaningful relationships.

“We all have a connection through the education and guidance we gleaned from the one and only Sofia Gorder,” said alumna Laja Field. “The strength of this community is shown through generations of connections coming together.”

The dancers also discovered that, despite varying graduation years and styles, they were connected through a similar approach to dance, thanks to the years they spent in the Lincoln Street Campus studio studying under their esteemed instructor.

“Watching these dancers communicate through the medium of dance—while keeping traces of the same fundamental teachings of Sofia Gorder—has been beautiful to watch and amazing to be a part of,” said sophomore Mikel Lawlor. Senior Ashlee Jackson added, “In dance class, we always talk about how, compositionally, we take bits and pieces from each other. Each of us is a combination of our peers melded by our own style. In other words, all of the dancers from Rowland Hall are connected by an artistic link, even if we never physically danced in the same space.”

For Sofia, these connections, and the show they inspired, are reminders of how Rowland Hall is a place to find calm within chaos.

Sofia isn’t surprised to see dance act as a healing balm during chaotic times. Dance has the power to remind us of our collective humanity, she explained, and it is one way we make sense of life. Because of this, the dances coming out of the pandemic are some of the most creative, intelligent work she’s seen.

“I am so happy to see people coming back to the space of Rowland Hall to find connection and purpose,” she said. And Sofia isn’t surprised to see dance act as a healing balm during chaotic times. Dance has the power to remind us of our collective humanity, she explained, and it is one way we make sense of life. Because of this, the dances coming out of the pandemic are some of the most creative, intelligent work she’s seen. “It’s taken COVID, and being separate, to see why movement has such connecting power,” she said.

Laja, a professional dancer who has devoted her life to sharing the art form with others, echoed her former teacher: “It’s clear that most—I would argue all—people live through some kind of art. We seek out conduits of expression and portals that transcend us elsewhere,” she said. “The arts are the vessels that make us feel whole, allow us to laugh, to mourn, to speak our multilayered emotions that are sometimes difficult to articulate.”

And even, perhaps, to inspire change.

“In a time where COVID-19 has exposed the very pitfalls of our country, and technology has made history and the present of systemic racism an undeniable fact, it is only through art that I find my will to continue working, dreaming, and fighting for a better future to come,” Laja said.


Banner photo: Rowland Hall senior Ashlee Jackson performing in INTERsect. Photo courtesy Joel Long.

Alumni

Death of the American Teenager cast performing

Death of the American Teenager, an original musical about gun violence in schools, opens with some sobering statistics—like that there have been 408 school shootings in the last 10 years, or that in 2017 more school-aged children died from gunshots than did active duty police and military personnel.

For today’s students, gun-violence statistics have become too familiar. In addition to a barrage of news stories about shootings, students are reminded of gun violence during regular lockdown drills (Death of the American Teenager cites an average of 16 per school each year) and are aware of the role guns play in climbing suicide rates—in Utah, for instance, the most recent age-adjusted suicide rate is 22.7 per 100,000 people (compared to a national rate of 14.0 per 100,000). Suicide was also the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10–17 in 2018.

It’s no surprise that the stress is taking a toll on young Americans.

Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember.—Noah Schiffman, Class of 2022

“Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember,” said Rowland Hall sophomore and Death of the American Teenager cast member Noah Schiffman. Junior James Welt, another cast member, added, “It's become a huge part of a lot of my day-to-day experiences. Every time I hear running in the hallways or loud noises, I can't help but fear the worst.” Along with Noah and James, Rowland Hall senior Connor Macintosh and alumna Ella Baker-Smith ’19 were in the musical's original cast. Sophomore Amanda Green joined the cast for the 2019–2020 school year.

In recent years, concerned students have channeled their fears through action—the most famous example is probably the organization of March for Our Lives protests and chapters around the country after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. For the Utah high school actors who make up the Youth Conservatory—a group housed under University of Utah Youth Theatre—that action was researching, writing, and choreographing Death of the American Teenager

Originally created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an annual open access arts festival, Death of the American Teenager was written as a reflection of America. Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood explained that the Youth Conservatory, which is made up of 20 actors from 10 Utah high schools, chose to write a musical because it’s an American art form—and that they focused the musical on gun violence because of its prevalence in America today.

“It's a topic we've all been exposed to at a super young age, and it's something that is on a lot of our minds at every second,” said James.

Research and writing began in January 2019, only seven months before the show’s summer debut in Scotland. “The writing process was an incredible experience,” said Connor. The actors spent time researching topics like the history of school shootings and lockdowns, as well as suicide statistics in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where they would be performing the musical. The subjects were heavy, and the experience was emotional. But the process was also cathartic, giving the actors the chance to examine, confront, and discuss their fears—and helping them realize they weren’t alone in those fears.

“The most important thing that came out of it was the sense that we were all there for each other and the sense that we’re all fighting this fight together,” Connor said. “We all share the same collective fear, and as scary as that fear is, it’s comforting to know that I have people around me that know exactly what we’re going through.”

Death of the American Teenager cast in Edinburgh

The musical was cathartic for Fringe audiences too: attendees were so moved by the production that they sought out cast members to thank them and to share their own stories. Other American high school students inquired about performing it in their communities. By creatively addressing their fears through theatre—what Noah called an empathetic art form—the Youth Conservatory found themselves inspiring necessary conversation and action.

“The goal is to tell a story, yes, but also to make those watching believe it to be reality,” Noah said. “Gun violence is some people's reality, and that is not acceptable—but that won't change until everyone understands the extent of the fear those actually affected face.”

Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell, who teaches the school’s Youth Conservatory members, agreed.

“Theatre can crack open conversation in a way that no other art form can,” he explained. “There’s something about watching live actors—it somehow becomes easier to put yourself in their place, to empathize, and it affects a person on a very visceral, kinesthetic level.”

Knowing this, Matt wanted to do something in the Youth Conservatory’s home state that would inspire more of the conversations that they started overseas—especially because he knew there was something special about this musical that the local community should experience. “It’s not a piece that’s written by adults trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student—this is written by students who have been born into this culture,” he said. “I really believed the show needed to have a life beyond the Fringe because of its message.”

Matt also felt that offering Rowland Hall’s Larimer Center for the Performing Arts to a community group—particularly one that creatively connected our students with their peers across the Wasatch Front—would be an important step in building other connections across Salt Lake’s vibrant theatre community. In many ways, bringing Death of the American Teenager to the school was a natural fit, as Rowland Hall values deep thinking and seeks to create spaces in which students can examine hard questions and safely express themselves.

Death of the American Teenager cast on stage

“At Rowland Hall, we believe by challenging students to think deeply, they will grapple with complex issues and recognize different points of view,” explained Associate Head of School Jennifer Blake, who was part of the team that welcomed Penny and her students to campus.

On January 29, Death of the American Teenager came to Rowland Hall for two performances in the Larimer Center. Like Fringe audiences, Salt Lake attendees were deeply touched by the musical. “I was blown away by the performance, which was masterfully written with great insight and sensitivity,” said Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson.

The performers were grateful for the chance to revisit the piece and to present it not only to an audience of peers, but to the adults who care about them. Often, they explained, it can be difficult to make adults understand their very real fear around the topic of gun violence and how deeply it affects them.

“I was so glad that my school asked us to share this piece with the public and gave us an opportunity to advocate for ourselves in the most politically unbiased way—just speaking from our emotions and how we feel,” said Amanda. That message was undoubtedly received, with most audience members staying after the performances to participate in talk-backs with the actors, further emphasizing the need for conversation around this difficult subject—something that Matt greatly encourages parents and caregivers to remember when supporting their teenagers through gun-violence anxiety.

Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue.—James Welt, Class of 2021

“Talk at dinner with them, ask them questions, continue the conversation,” he encouraged. “We need to have these direct conversations.”

Above all, the actors want Death of the American Teenager to help spread among their peers the feeling of empowerment the cast experienced when confronting their fears together—and for teenagers to understand that they can help spur change by exercising their voting power.

“Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue,” said James. “I want teenagers who watch the show to know that they have the power to be heard.”

“We can conquer gun violence if we all work together,” added Noah.


Update: Since performing at Rowland Hall, the Youth Conservatory presented a 12-minute version of Death of the American Teenager at the Musical Theatre Competitions of America in California in February 2020. It won first place in its division.

Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood has been overwhelmed with positive comments about the show and questions about packaging it for performance at other high schools and venues around the country. She is talking with local theatre organizations about how to make this happen. We will update the Rowland Hall community on any news we receive about the future of Death of the American Teenager.


Top photo: The Death of the American Teenager cast performing on stage. Photos courtesy Connor Macintosh

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