Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
When it comes to the American education system, the tutor sees and knows all. Milo Cramer, a wonderfully quirky writer and actor, distills their experiences working in test preparation into School Pictures, now receiving its world premiere at the Wilma Theater.
Understanding the assignment
Cramer takes the audience on an endearing and quietly moving journey through the rigors and inequities experienced by New York City high school students. Part lecture and part song cycle, they disarm the audience with humor in order to ask pointed questions about the state of our schools.
Over the course of an hour, Cramer portrays nine students with admirable individuation. Although each student is filtered through the creator’s lens, we begin to pick up on personality traits and differences of experience and background, as Cramer sings about extracurricular activities and career goals. A surprising number of Cramer’s pupils want to be artists when they grow up, which fascinates the struggling playwright-slash-barista.
Cramer shows how the obstacles encountered by students don’t exist in a vacuum. Although it’s only mentioned explicitly near the end of the show, the vagaries of the pandemic are present throughout, as students and teachers were forced to deal with the ramifications of learning interruptions and Zoom instruction. Cramer—whose biographical note in the program mentions a childhood marked by speech therapy—is uncommonly sensitive to the struggles of students with deficits in learning acquisition.
Pass or fail
The intimate portraiture of School Pictures builds to a pointed treatise on the modern public education system, which throws the personal troubles faced by contemporary scholars into stark relief. I won’t reveal what Cramer has to say about the matter, but admirably and refreshingly, they keep this pivot from feeling didactic even as they hammer home the wonkiest of policy details. That’s due, at least in part, to goodwill—Cramer has become such an appealing figure over the preceding hour that you can’t help following them into the weeds. But it’s also a testament to the importance of the show’s central message.
Morgan Green, the Wilma’s lead artistic director this season, allows the material to unfold with enough variation that the staging never feels repetitious, even as Cramer occasionally repeats gestures and blocking. Jean Kim’s expansive, whimsical set design resembles a classroom as refracted through a funhouse mirror. It’s particularly delightful to watch how the various instruments that Cramer plays throughout the course of the performance—ukulele, toy piano, keyboard—materialize onto the stage.
Currently a graduate student in playwriting at the University of California, San Diego, Cramer has already found a thoughtful way to balance narrative theater and performance art here. I look forward to the work they will devise as their career matures. In the meantime, School Pictures offers a highly valuable snapshot of life on the front lines of modern education.
What, When, Where
School Pictures. By Milo Cramer, directed by Morgan Green. Through November 20, 2022, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. $29-$59. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
A streaming version of School Pictures will be available to rent from November 21-December 4.
Masks are required at all performances.
The Wilma Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.