Suffragists Teach Students Why Voting Is Important
by Eileen Coblens
On June 3, the League of Women Voters premiered a video at Osher called “They Were Here Before Us,” which I had been working on as a scripted stage play for the past year. The play, offered as an Osher Theatre World class, tells the story of two high school students who, through an encounter with seven suffragists, learn something about the history of the women suffrage movement which resulted in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. At the same time they discover for themselves that retaining this precious right is an ongoing struggle in the light of continued efforts to disenfranchise many groups of citizens. I was motivated to write the play as co-chair of the Youth Empowerment Committee of the League because I saw it as our committee’s contribution to Centennial Celebration of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment the League was planning. With a major election looming, what better way to motivate students to become lifelong voters than to engage them in the struggles of the brave suffragists who came before us?
Originally this work was intended as a stage play that would be offered to drama coaches who might want to have their students produce it for their schools. As an alternate way of bringing the play to students we put together a cast of League members and were intending to produce it ourselves. My committee even prepared a toolkit of materials to offer teachers to use as introduction and follow-up to students’ seeing the stage production. So we rehearsed, and we connected with several venues, including Osher Theatre World and local libraries, that invited us to perform the play. And then… Along came Covid-19. Our plans, along with those of so many others among us, were scrapped. Libraries and UCSD closed their doors. Students went home to learn online. Theatres went dark. Our play lay in a folder on my desk.
Until….One day I watched online a performance of a short play produced by the local MOXIE Theatre. The theatre’s Executive Artistic Director, Jen Thorn, had conceived the idea of calling for 20 -minute scripts, each of which had to take place during a Zoom conference call. Suddenly a thought occurred to me: Why can’t we produce our play on Zoom? I cleared the date with Osher and then emailed my cast members, who were all on board, and called a Zoom rehearsal. That’s when it all came together. Katie Stanley, a cast member, is a young woman with a degree in communications from NYU. She had moved back to Del Mar and agreed to be Artistic Director of our play. She suggested a means of producing the video that would eliminate the awkward pauses (when Zoom freezes) and varying backdrops that are typical of Zoom productions. She also embedded the archival music and film clips that make the story of the suffragists’ struggles come alive.
The response to the play has been overwhelming. Many viewers have suggested the names of school personnel and others who might want to show the video. A number of Leagues around the country have requested access to the video to share with their members and to offer to schools in their areas. Several viewers even suggested that we submit the video to various short film festivals. So, happily, our video may ultimately reach a far greater audiences than our pre-Covid world might have offered.