The B.S.:

Tony Plana wants to use the arts in our schools

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Tony Plana

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC Coverage

As a successful stage, film and television professional, Tony Plana knows the role the performing arts play in society. And as a Latino American, he knows they represent even more than culture and entertainment.

They can help young people learn to communicate in English.

Plana, a familiar face from more than 70 films, a regular role in the television series “Ugly Betty,” and numerous other TV assignments, was in Southern Nevada to talk about a situation he could relate to early on in life.

A handsome and well-spoken individual, Plana came to the United States with his Cuban parents in 1960. Though poor, they instilled in him a value of education at a young age, which he today credits for his success in a highly competitive industry.

It didn’t work out so happily for most other aspiring actors whose primary language was Spanish. Even today, only the smallest fraction ever make it into the Screen Actors Guild.

His mastery of English served him well early on in an acting career that allowed him to train in London, where he performed in Shakespeare. Then he returned to the U.S., where he quickly got typecast.

“I came back here and auditioned for Gang Member No. 1,” he said. “I was shocked by what was going on, the basic stereotyping.”

It was an era and reality he would experience for some years to come. The industry wasn’t accustomed to Latinos who could speak English well, and he found himself typically playing characters with much less of an education than he had completed. But with time, things changed.

“Because of education, I can play a Supreme Court judge or a Secretary of State,” which he actually did, on “The West Wing.”

Now he’s on a crusade to apply his own experience to other prospective actors of Latino descent.

“If you don’t want to play a gang member the rest of your life, you’ve got to get educated,” he said.

Clark County and its school district became a logical forum for such a passion. He likes what he’s heard from Superintendent Dwight Jones and our community’s current openness to new educational concepts. On the other hand, he doesn’t like what he’s seen in our sky-high dropout rate.

“The main issue we are dealing with is schools,” he said. “Education and workforce issues are affecting my community, and my black brothers and sisters as well.”

He knows well how many young people need more help with the English language. So he recently partnered with Benjamin Thomas of MultiLingual Solutions ( to make a case for educators. They want to zero in on “heritage” speakers — students who were born in the U.S., but converse in Spanish at home.

“Their English isn’t good enough, but neither is their Spanish,” Thomas said.

“They’re neither fish nor fowl,” Plana added.

Some 15 years ago, Plana devised a plan for doing something about the language issue, which he also connects to high Latino incarceration rates. He began by embracing the fact that children from tough conditions tend to be kinesthetic learners, meaning they are more likely to learn by being physically and emotionally engaged than by being planted at a desk. This is now the very foundation of his “Language for Play” program he and Thomas campaign for.

It is the basis for why he feels the performing arts are an ideal vehicle for language instruction. As well as for helping impressionable young people connect with each other, for building their self-esteem and for helping them see themselves as unique and special individuals.

“What we’re doing now is not working as well as it should,” Plana said.

The organization’s strategy is to embed professional actors into educational settings, and to guide their collaboration with teachers in getting students immersed in English. The structure also helps reduce the student-teacher ratio, making for more effective instruction, all in compliance with academic standards.

To briefly summarize the approach, students record personal experiences in journals, then join teammates to develop a play incorporating them. Life has both positive and negative experiences, so drama, intrigue and comedy can all show up in the final work.

It’s a fascinating, common-sense program that already has been successful in some tough schools in East Los Angeles. Plana and Thomas are trying to get it a foothold here. And it offers more than a lesson in language.

“If we can teach kids how to deal with these life scenarios, then we’re teaching them how to think,” Plana said.

And to land a starring role, whether it’s in acting or on the reality show of life.