Inhabiting the lives of students in “School Pictures”

"School Pictures" starring Milo Cramer is currently running at the Wilma Theater.

“School Pictures” is not your typical musical, but more of a song cycle. Writer/performer Milo Cramer (they/them) was inspired by their real-life experiences as a private tutor to create what they describe as “loving musical portraits of struggling students.”

The play is a world premier directed by Wilma Lead Artistic Director Morgan Green, who previously directed the Wilma’s world premiere digital production of James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “FAT HAM.” Green specifically chose to work with Cramer, a longtime collaborator, for her first onstage production for the company. “I remember the first time I played the first songs awkwardly for her alone in her apartment,” Cramer said. “Morgan has directed basically every single one of my plays and I’m very grateful to her. I would not be a playwright without her.”

The play is performed solo with Milo inhabiting and sharing the thoughts and struggles of several students thorough music and humor. Cramer talks/sings with a childlike delivery reminiscent of actor and comic Emo Philips. They use music and instruments, a tiny piano that Schroeder from the Peanuts gang would approve of, and a ukulele to bring a sense of wit and whimsy to sometimes serious topics. Through the kids, Cramer dolls out a number of life lessons along with the trials and tribulations that most of us faced growing up, along with a healthy side of all the fun and absurdities of grade school. The set is minimal with the names of each of the kids on poster boards at the back of the stage in the order that they will come to life with a mysterious “Big Reveal” sign after the 9th name.

Throughout the show, Cramer takes the mundane and makes it a window into our true thoughts as we navigate life both as children and as adults that are supposed to have the answers. But the biggest lessons come when they break character and give us a real run down on why our school system is in such dire need of help and how that especially effects people of color and folks in underserved communities. Even for us who are fairly learned in the ways that inequality works in our world, it’s pretty eye-opening.

But all is not serious with “School Pictures.” At the end of the show, Milo stayed onstage for a chat with the audience (I was at a preview show, so I’m not sure if it is a nightly exercise but it was fun). And there’re a lot of fun components off stage as well. To add a little fun, the audience is invited to post your own grade school pictures using #WilmaSchoolPictures and tag the @thewilmatheater.

In addition, the AllStars – the young adult theater ensemble of the Wilma Theater – gathered together to share some stories of their experiences as students here in Philadelphia. Those stories are shared on the Wilma Theatre website and are fun and moving as well.

So if you’re in the mood for a little book learning along with a few life lessons, get to the Wilma before the 20th for “School Pictures.”

The Wilma was established in 1973 as The Wilma Project, with a mission to present bold, original, well-crafted productions that represent a range of voices, viewpoints, and styles. In 1979, Blanka and Jiri Zizka, natives of Czechoslovakia, forged a creative relationship with the Wilma as artists-in-residence, and gained acclaim for their bold, innovative productions. In February 2020, the Wilma radically changed its leadership structure. Founding Artistic Director Blanka Zizka invited three additional artists from a variety of histories and experiences to share leadership in a cohort structure, which will last until spring of 2023. Each year, one cohort member acts as lead Artistic Director, with input and support from other the cohort members. It is an experiment in shared leadership.

Be sure to check The Wilma’s website for more innovative shows coming soon.

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