CHANGERS PROFILE: Thomas Kellogg—MENTOR ARTISTS PLAYWRIGHTS PROJECT

I’ve known Tom Kellogg for several years—was lucky enough to work with him creatively when I was living in Los Angeles, and recently, the crazy small world of facebook made our worlds once again intersect. I had been dimly aware, over the years, of his playwright/arts work with at-risk kids, but didn’t know many details. I knew the kids, and his colleagues, were lucky to work with him—not many are as giving and committed as he, and even fewer get such joy from wrestling with big issues and figuring out how to see the world with fresh eyes. It cracks your world open to be around Tom as he has this energy of, “Well, sure, that’s the way you understand your life…but how about if you look at it like this?” That’s a real gift to the rest of us.
THOMAS DEAN KELLOGG, Founder/ Director, MAPP: MENTOR ARTISTS PLAYWRIGHTS PROJECT

Thomas Dean Kellogg (Cherokee, Choctaw, Celtic, Slavic) is the Artistic Director and Founder of MAPP and theatre fofo. He has designed, developed, and implemented many successful playwriting/ mentoring programs throughout North America over the better part of the past two decades while pursuing his other passion of producing, writing, and directing theatre. He continues to travel nationally and internationally, to conduct his mentored writing workshops, train artists and educators, and to produce theatre.

The Mentor Artists Playwrights Project (MAPP), www.mentorartists.org is an arts consultancy company that partners with schools and not-for-profit youth development organizations to share Thomas Dean Kellogg’s unique playwriting workshops with young writers and to provide community presentations of the work.

A group of young people, each paired with a mentor actor or writer, participate in a progressive series of intensive playwriting workshops led by Master Artist Thomas Dean Kellogg. With a core emphasis on the importance of the young person’s dreams and aspirations, Kellogg’s method introduces fundamental playwriting tools that explore the use of metaphor, the creation of characters through sensory and emotional work, monologue, dramatic storytelling, and theme. The young people are taught to examine the dynamics of conflict, and write plays where crisis, urgency, and possible consequences are explored.

The process culminates in public staged presentations of the young writers’ original plays by professional actors.

What possessed you? There must have been easier things to start—why this?

MAPP Artistic Director Thomas Kellogg and 2006 Young Writer Anthony Smith in rehearsal for November readings (MD)

The Mentor Artists Playwrights Project (MAPP) was about a decade in the making and is now 7 years along, so now that you mention it, being possessed must have been part of the equation. I suppose the simplest way to break it down is this: In 1993, the year after the LA riots, I was a theatre artist who wanted to get more directly involved in my community (Los Angeles/Santa Monica). One day a friend introduced me to a newly gathered group of people called the Virginia Ave. Project, led by Leigh Curran and Kendis Marcotte. It was about mentoring young people from an underserved community, through the theatre arts. I joined immediately. I had no idea that my initial involvement with the group would lead me to questions and answers regarding, what has become, a large part of my life’s work.

It’s pretty brilliant to be able to combine your love of theatre/performance with reaching out and helping. How did you come up with blending the two together?

It is brilliant isn’t it? My mentors, like Leigh Curran and Daniel Sklar (who wrote a book on playmaking for young people), gave me some wonderful opportunities to try my hand at it. I spent about 5 intense years with the Virginia Ave Project writing, directing, teaching, mentoring, and acting, alongside so many wonderful professional artists and these magnificent young people. I’m still involved with the group when I’m home.

2005 MAPP & NAYA Young Writers - Donovane Willeto, Laura Shiprack, Savannah Cree and Tila Salas at March 2006 Reading at Hollywood Library (SA)

You do quite a lot of work with young people in tribal communities in the US and Canada. Have you always had a connection to Native American issues? How did you decide to work with tribal groups?

My ancestry, which is quite varied, includes Cherokee and Choctaw, from my father’s side. Though I grew up in a working class suburb of Los Angeles, I was always aware of this ancestry, yet I had virtually no contact with anyone with a deeper native cultural perspective. In the early 70’s my family moved to Northern Idaho, where I became slightly more aware of the native communities in that area. My girlfriend in high school, who was Native American (Omak), spent part of her childhood on a reservation in Washington State, but we didn’t discuss that time in her life much. Then as a young adult, I did some genealogy research and there it was again, in the files, my native heritage. I felt compelled to learn more, yet it seemed fairly inaccessible. I kept digging though and gained new layers of understanding. Then about 9 years ago I was presented with an opportunity to bring my mentored playwriting work to an urban native center in Los Angeles. The pilot project went very well and I got really interested in the idea of doing more work in Native communities around the country.

What obstacles along the way almost stopped you?

Well funding is always a challenge, especially in underserved communities. I designed and led mentored playwriting programs for a number of non- profit organizations over the decade before forming MAPP, and though the programs were desired by the underserved communities in which we were working, financial resources were always tough to come by. Many times along the way I had to ask myself, “Can I afford to continue to do this work?” So far, I’ve said yes each time.

When pulling it all together, did family and friends support you or think you were nuts?

I’ve received tremendous support from family and friends… and they probably think I’m nuts too…

How did you get to this point? What work or pursuits were you up to that led you here?

I suppose I’ve always been an idealist. So as not to get lost in the clouds, it has been important to temper that idealism with the realities of society. In other words, I needed to plant my feet on the ground and take action. I was fortunate in my early 20’s to find a philosophy, a daily spiritual practice, and an organization (SGI Nichiren Buddhism) that supported my idealistic pursuits, even encouraged them. So I guess you could say it’s all their fault I turned out the way I did. Ha… Seriously though, having a spiritual mentor  (Daisaku Ikeda) who walks the walk, especially with regards to expanding networks of peace, culture, and education in the world at large, has been huge for me.

What is your earliest memory of volunteering or dedicating yourself to someone or something else? Did your family prioritize volunteering or service as you were growing up?

I was asked in high school to be a camp counselor for 5th graders at an outdoor education program. After the first one, I was asked back a number of times over the next couple of years and I still remember so much of those experiences. The combination of being outdoors most of the day, learning about the environment from professionals, and then the social time around meals in the mess hall was invigorating. Of course, the time around the campfire, with the skits and the stories, was really special. It was theatre with a captive audience. Though I hope I didn’t traumatize anyone with some of the ghost stories I made up.

Any advice for others wanting to create a service organization or charitable effort?

Advice? Hmmm… There are so many things to say, but let me just say this: Keep building relationships. This may sound easy, and it is, except when it is not. What I mean is, people are constantly changing roles and communities are constantly evolving. When the landscape, or I guess I’ll make up a word here, the “peoplescape” shifts, and it will, if you’re in it for the long haul, prepare yourself for the work of continuously inspiring others.

Does the work of this organization ever end? Is there a measurable result that makes the need go away?

I don’t believe the need for creative programming in community should ever go away, but unfortunately it happens all the time. Underserved communities throughout the United States (and some parts of Canada where I’ve worked) are especially lacking in arts and cultural programming. We do achieve measurable results, but I think that actually increases the need rather than diminishes it.

How can the rest of us get involved? What about from home?

If you are talking about getting involved with MAPP, contact me at mentorartists@mac.com. If you’re talking about getting involved in other communities, I’m going to plug your book, 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference. I’ve been inspired reading about all the organizations out there doing various kinds of community work. Sometimes it feels like we (service organizations) are invisible, so it is nice to see that someone (you and your colleagues), took the time to recognize the work being done and to give others an opportunity to participate in it. Can I be in your next edition? … As to the question of getting involved from home, I read this two different ways. If you meant, “How can one get involved in their own neighborhood?”, you have to start by walking around and checking out what exists. I may never have found the Virginia Avenue Project if I hadn’t been looking…  Now if you meant, “How can one get involved in an organization outside his or her community?”, that takes a different kind of effort. I’m going to mention your book again, because I think you go a long way toward removing the hurdle of finding a worthy organization and making that first contact.

If not this, what? (What might you be doing if not MAPP?)

Well, I do actually have another company called fofo. It’s a multidisciplinary theatre company and I, along with the other reality-challenged artists I run with, explore various themes and social mores through nontraditional theatre techniques. I say nontraditional, even though our performances often include mask and puppetry, music, and dance, which are some of the oldest forms of theatre in the world. Now, we’ve added aerial work, magic, and physical theatre expression in various permutations, created a festival context and atmosphere for our shows, and had a fun and interesting experience engaging ourselves and an audience in a dialogue that often deconstructs our notions of who and what we are as a society. Wow, that sounds either really smart or totally incomprehensible… yeah that’s fofo… Suffice it to say we don’t do what you might call traditional American “living room theatre”. (Then again if you’ve seen my living room, I may have just contradicted myself.)

What has been the best reward for the work you do?

Being engaged with people outside my normal field of experience. I keep learning from all the people I work with. I’ve heard so often from the adult mentors in the MAPP workshops, “I think I’m getting more out of this than the young person.” It’s really a two way street. I’m not a missionary. I bring something to the table, but I expect everyone in the circle to give something as well. Young people naturally have a lot of drama in their lives, so their stories/ plays have so much passion. Mentoring in this process is an amazing gift. We are sitting in on the birth of a creation. I guess you could say we are creative midwives. It’s kind of addictive one you’ve had that experience. It makes the challenge of putting it all together worth it for me.

What has been the greatest disappointment along the way?

My inability to expand MAPP at a rate that would allow more communities to participate in the creative process sooner. Anyone want to help me create a learning institute to train more lead artists? … I’m serious.

What’s next?

I’m always looking for those people with that (almost) crazy, passionate look in their eyes, who want to make a difference in the world . I could really use a producing partner and some helping hands. Especially people with real organizing skills. My former producing partner, Myra Donnelley (who still works with me as a development director and consultant) and I spent a few years working out a business model that was “lean and mean” (cutting back on excessive administrative costs), allowing us to provide MAPP programming to urban native and reservation communities throughout the United States and Canada. With new technologies, MAPP has a “virtual office”, which allows me to be in the community almost simultaneously. That being said, I’m a thinker and person who needs to dialogue with others who are passionate about the process, and there is still a need, if MAPP is to expand, for someone/others who can structure, organize, and accomplish tasks that come with the business of producing workshops and performances.

I am also expanding the creative template for MAPP. Just this past Fall, I brought a fellow fofo artist, Joe Seely, into a Native community in British Columbia, to do mask workshops along with the playwriting work. This went very well, and we are planning to go back this Spring to expand the work there. I have also been working with a group of professional filmmakers and animators here in Los Angeles, on a project to teach Native youth how to use animation. We are currently developing a teaching model that will go out into community. I’ve also been talking to various international organizations about taking the MAPP work abroad. I did some workshops in Europe (Spain, Russia, Great Britain, Hungary, and Turkey) in the early 2000’s. I’d like to get over there again soon. I’ve got my ears and eyes open to South America, Asia, and Africa as well. I would love to interface with some of the organizations listed in your book. In my time away from MAPP,  I’m developing a Day of the Dead Festival we started almost five years ago in Vancouver, B.C. and looking to put a fofo show up in New York soon.

Other than that, I got nothin’ going on. ha

Mentor Sharonlee McLean, Mentor Tracy Conklin, and Young Writer Janelle Hill at work (TK)

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Penny on January 18, 2010 at 10:28 PM

    Hi, I think this article is wonderful, and so is Tom.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Sandra Ewing on January 25, 2010 at 12:24 PM

    ++++++What a great find, and how interesting to learn more about Tom’s background.
    I have gotten to know Tom through SGI Buddhist practice and discussion. I truly admire and respect Tom for who he is and all the selfless work he has dedicated his life to. Thanks for the article.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Fay Greene on January 26, 2010 at 6:51 PM

    What a wonderful article and now I finally know what Tom does for a living. It’s always been a riddle to me as he seems so relaxed and always has time for you but I know he’s really busy doing this wonderful thing for ethnic and under represented communities as well as making killer tamales…….

    Tom you are a real hero of mine and it has been a total pleasure to know you and to grow with you all these years

    Reply

  4. Posted by Nayantara Kabir on July 20, 2010 at 1:36 AM

    I am SO excited to have found this article! I was very impressed by Tom when I met him at the SGI-USA Florida Nature and Culture Center, where around 200 artists of many media gathered to practice Nichiren Buddhism and celebrate life with the arts. Tom shared a profound and inspiring experience with everyone. I was suffering acutely with a health problem and he was particularly kind to me. I aspire to collaborate with him someday helping to open wide the future for young people and help them express their creative passions.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Ginger Rankin on November 10, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    For three years I had the opportunity to work with Tom as a mentor in the MAPP with the Coeur d’Alene tribal community in the Idaho panhandle. I can honestly say it was one of my most rewarding experiences ever. It’s like a little miracle to observe young writers become confident of their abilities and create their own plays that are deep and meaningful to them and to us all. Thanks, Tom and Myra.

    Reply

  6. […] This is for the Native American youth volunteer project I’ve been doing for years with the kids of the Nez Perce tribe in Lapwai, ID—this year…in less than 2 weeks (I fly to Idaho October 20!!!???) I am launching a parallel program to run side-by-side with the playwriting mentoring I have done in the past: Mentor Artists Playwrights Project–MAPP. […]

    Reply

  7. Posted by Channing Chase on December 19, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    O.K., I’m in and have read your background material. I want an outline of the process. But then you’d be giving me your secrets. I will go looking for your statement of purpose. I believe you are looking for people who are willing to just jump in. This is a challenge, but i’m intrigued. XXXX Channing

    Reply

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