An actor who came to Washington to study at the Shakespeare Theatre, Michael Skinner is also the owner of Pendragwn Productions, a film and video production company. Becky Skinner, as an analyst of educational policy at the Congressional Research Service, initiated a study for Mothers on the Hill that led to the creation of Two Rivers, and was for ten years chairman of the board. Residents of Capitol Hill since 1998, they were Capitol Hill Achievement Award honorees in 2014. In this interview, the couple discusses these achievements and the pleasure they take in raising their family in a neighborhood where so many people work together so cooperatively to find ways of improving the life of the community. They, they say, “are just part of that group.”
Interview with Michael and Becky Skinner
Interview Date: March 5, 2014
Interviewer: Stephanie Deutsch
Transcribers: Jennifer Newton & Betsy Barnett
Editor: Elizabeth Lewis
photo by Elizabeth Dranitzke
TAPE 1/SIDE 1
DEUTSCH: It is March 5, 2014, and I am with Becky and Michael Skinner. Michael, will you just say something [for the microphone check]?
M. SKINNER: Sure. This is Michael Skinner, and you have a beautiful living room.
DEUTSCH: Why, thank you. Becky?
B. SKINNER: Hi, this is Becky Skinner, and I love the real fire.
DEUTSCH: So, Michael, tell me where you grew up.
M. SKINNER: I was born at Holy Cross Hospital [Silver Spring, MD], not far from here. I actually just interviewed the president of Holy Cross Hospital for a project we were doing, and said, “Oh, you know, I feel like I already know you. I was born in your hospital.” She was like, “What is it with you people? Everyone that I meet was born at Holy Cross Hospital—no one moves that far away!” [Laughter]
So I grew up in Gaithersburg and in Olney, Maryland. My dad was a civilian who worked for the military, and we moved overseas in the mid-80s. I was on Mount Etna in Sicily while it was erupting in the mid-80s. And then we moved to Nuremburg, Germany, and lived outside of Nuremburg, Germany. So we kind of had a chance, during the Cold War, to see what other parts of the world were like, and to be in places where what we thought of as the “one true way,” living in America, was not necessarily held as being the only way of doing things.
My folks did it so that we could travel, and so we spent pretty much every weekend and all the holidays just travelling all around Europe looking at things, and really got a sense for being in places that were just vastly older than the country that we were from. And I think that doing that as a kid gives you a different sense of perspective about your place in the world and your country’s place in the world.
I remember we were in Italy and we were in Rome. It was near one of the holidays. I think it was perhaps Thanksgiving—or Easter, I guess it was. And I remember coming back from dinner and we were going into this inn that we were staying in, and we saw a woman in an alley crawl into a box. I was in fifth grade, and I remember asking my parents, “Why is that woman crawling into a box?” And they explained that she didn’t have a home and that that was where she was going to be living. And it was ridiculously cold that night. It was one of those experiences that just sort of stays with you, and you think, “Well, that’s just not the way that things are supposed to be!” And so, I think that a large part of how we live our lives now is predicated on that idea of thinking about, well, how are things supposed to be? How would we like them to be? And the fact that they’re not the way that we would like them to be doesn’t mean that they have to be that way.
So, I went to Good Counsel High School [Olney, MD]. Actually, I spent a year at Gonzaga [High School, 19 I ST NW], freshman year, and loved it, but to my house in Olney, with Metro and buses—
DEUTSCH: Long commute!
M. SKINNER: It was about two and a half hours to get home. I usually had my homework done, but it was rough. So I moved to Good Counsel, which had just gone coed. Many of my friends growing up had always been girls so it felt weird to be at an all-boys school.
DEUTSCH: Do you have siblings?
M. SKINNER: I do. I have a younger brother named Gabriel and a younger sister named Anne Marie, three years younger and six years younger.
DEUTSCH: Are they going to come to the dinner [31st Annual Capitol Hill Community Achievement Awards Dinner]?
M. SKINNER: Sure hope so. They’re both in the area.
DEUTSCH: So, living in Europe gave you a different perspective.
M. SKINNER: Yes, and it was interesting because coming back from there, many of the people that we went to school with hadn’t been to other places or seen other people. And so there was this sense that whatever the United States did was right, because that’s who “we” were. And I think there was also a sense in the world that things must be just very much like they were here. And I think one of the things [about] visiting these other places as a kid is it sort of shakes that sense that what you grow up with is the way that everyone sees things or the way that everyone grows up. So seeing, particularly in Sicily, a lot of people who really had very, very little—it changes the way that you see the world, I think.
DEUTSCH: And I think at that time, growing up in Olney, you wouldn’t have seen that—even though it exists in this country, you wouldn’t have seen it as much.
M. SKINNER: Right, right. We used to take the Metro into D.C. on the weekends to go to the Smithsonian, but, you know, the Metro is super clean and fun to ride, and the Smithsonian …
B. SKINNER: And was brand new!
M. SKINNER: Because it was a new place. We were actually talking with Mimi—what’s her last name?
B. SKINNER: Oh, last night.
M. SKINNER: Yes.
B. SKINNER: Mimi.
M. SKINNER: Her husband …
B. SKINNER: You know Mimi.
M. SKINNER: Her husband won this award in the mid-80s. She’s a pediatric cardiologist.
DEUTSCH: Oh, oh, yes, Wolf.
M. SKINNER: Yes, Mimi Wolf. Her daughter, I think, when she was in high school, had put together an exhibit at the Natural History Museum involving all these cockroaches on a 1930s kitchen—
DEUTSCH: I think I saw that.
M. SKINNER: Yeah, totally. We came into town to see it. So, yes, but it is very, very different than doing that in a different country.
DEUTSCH: So, where did you go to college?
M. SKINNER: I went to Good Counsel High School, graduated from there, and went to the University of Delaware. I was lucky to receive a scholarship to go there, and that was actually where I met Becky. I had grown up doing theater and did theater all through high school. Had interest in math and science and studied those as well. And so I went to University of Delaware, ostensibly to become a chemical engineer. It was one of the best places in the country to study chemical engineering that didn’t have the word “tech” in the name. And I was really determined to go to a school that wasn’t comprised solely of engineers, and I think I’m fortunate that that was—
DEUTSCH: Did you do a lot of theater?
M. SKINNER: I did a lot of theater.
DEUTSCH: What were your favorite roles?
M. SKINNER: Coming out of college, I think my favorite role was Puck in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
DEUTSCH: My daughter played Puck at the Folger—in her eighth-grade Capitol Hill Day School production! [Laughter] I can see you as Puck!
B. SKINNER: He had a lot more hair, a lot more hair.
M. SKINNER: [Laughing] I had hair that came down below my shoulders and it was teased straight up in the air. That was really fun. Big Celtic knot tattoo on my back. I was really lucky to play—I had a role in The Importance of Being Earnest at Arena Stage.
DEUTSCH: Oh, really.
M. SKINNER: But that was when Dakota was little. And really enjoyed doing that. It’s just a beautiful space to work in. So I think those are probably two favorites.
DEUTSCH: OK, so let’s switch over to Becky and get her in the picture. Becky, where did you grow up?
B. SKINNER: II was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and when I was four, we moved to Manila in the Philippines because my father was working for Westinghouse, and they had a big project going on there. He came over to do some accounting on the project. So I spent about three years there.
We got to travel around some. I was little—I was five, six, seven there—and didn’t realize how stressed out my parents were about us living there. It was a Third World country, the south was Communist, there were only certain places you could go. I guess there was a danger of kidnapping. So, in some ways, we were pretty sheltered in where we could go. But we did become very close with one of the housekeepers. Her family owned the house we were renting and so she had stayed as the housekeeper. And we went back to her village, which was fascinating—to be able to go out into the provinces was so neat—and, you know, had some of the same experiences that Michael talked about, but probably magnified by a hundred, maybe a million. There were places where if you were trying to take a shortcut to get, you know, from our house into school which was in downtown Manila, it was just cardboard neighborhoods. Not just one person in a box, but everyone, ten. It was so confusing and so strange to see because I was really young. But that vision of that has never left, seeing that. And then seeing, you know, you’d see children out naked, playing, and sometimes that was funny because they were boys! [Laughter] But, you know, you’d come to realize that that was because they didn’t have any clothes. And so those things were really—it was, you know, it was a Third World country and those were very interesting times, interesting images that were left. Because I was a lot younger than Michael when we went overseas, they’re just pictures in my mind of what happened.
When we left there, we came back to Pittsburgh. We stayed in Pittsburgh for only about nine months, and then we moved to Rockville, so I grew up in Rockville. Went to Wootton …
DEUTSCH: What did you say your dad did?
B. SKINNER: He was working for Westinghouse, and doing accounting for them. So then we came home, went back to Pittsburgh because we’re all from Pittsburgh. And all my grandparents were there, aunts and uncles are there. And then we moved down to Rockville, and so I grew up in Rockville. Went to Wootton High School.
DEUTSCH: What was the name of the high school?
B. SKINNER: Wootton.
M. SKINNER: You can do the chant.
B. SKINNER: Double U, double O, double T, O-N!
DEUTSCH: OK! Were you a cheerleader?
B. SKINNER: No, no. [Laughter] I was a softball player.
DEUTSCH: OK, I guess that’s a bad question.
B. SKINNER: I actually lettered in softball and football.
DEUTSCH: Softball and football?
B. SKINNER: Yeah. Those were my letters.
M. SKINNER: I didn’t know you lettered in football.
B. SKINNER: Yep. I lettered in football. I was the statistician for the team. [Laughter]
DEUTSCH: Statistician for the team. But they gave you a letter anyway?
B. SKINNER: Yeah. I was at all the games!
M. SKINNER: We actually probably spent a big chunk of our childhoods living about 20 minutes away.
B. SKINNER: Yeah, we grew up 20 minutes apart.
M. SKINNER: And we didn’t meet until we were in college.
DEUTSCH: Did you play sports in high school?
M. SKINNER: You know, I grew up playing soccer and baseball, and I stopped playing baseball my sophomore year. And it was really when I started doing theater. And once I discovered theater, that was it for organized sports for me.
B. SKINNER: Pshaw! So I did both. I did theater, too, and sports.
DEUTSCH: So you went to the University of Delaware.
B. SKINNER: I did.
DEUTSCH: And what were you studying?
B. SKINNER: I went in undecided and ended up getting a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Science in Economics. So I went all social sciences, totally not chemical engineering!
DEUTSCH: So what happened then? Did you get married right out of college?
B. SKINNER: Oh, no!
DEUTSCH: Oh, no? There are years to come.
M. SKINNER: So I was an actor in a show, and Becky was the technical director on the show. It was maybe the worst show ever done in the history of ever.
B. SKINNER: It might have been the worst show ever done.
DEUTSCH: What was it?
B. SKINNER: Dial M for Murder. It’s a terrible script. It was awful, awful.
M. SKINNER: And I came in on a tech day to help out with building the set, and walked in, and there was this cute girl up on this ladder. And I said, “Hey, I’m here to help.” And she said, “Well, can you use power tools?” And I said, “Sure.” She’s like, “Without cutting off any fingers?” And I was like, “Sure.” And she said, “Well, go build that railing.” So I spent the better part of the rest of the day trying to build a railing.
B. SKINNER: Without cutting off your fingers.
M. SKINNER: Yes. And I did not cut off my fingers.
DEUTSCH: How’d that work out?
M. SKINNER: It was a great railing. It was way better than the show.
B. SKINNER: [Laughter] That’s true.
DEUTSCH: OK, so you graduate.
B. SKINNER: I graduated. I’m older, so I graduated first and I went off to a get a master’s degree.
M. SKINNER: We kept in touch. I was still working on school, and we would get together once a year for lunch.
B. SKINNER: Something like that, yeah.
M. SKINNER: And one summer I had called Beck up to see if she was around, and we’d made our sort of annual lunch plan. And —you should tell the …
B. SKINNER: Tell how random the story is?
M. SKINNER: Yeah. [Laughter]
B. SKINNER: So he called and said, “Can you go to lunch?” And I said, “I can’t do it today, can we do it tomorrow?” He said, “Sure.” And so that night I was at home, and I was doing laundry. I put the laundry basket on my bed, and my address book was kind of open, an address book where you wrote things down and instead of just had them on your phone. And a piece of paper falls out on the floor, and it’s Michael’s number, and I was like, “Oh, it’s Thursday night, my favorite band plays at City Blues down by the zoo.” So I called him and I said, “Hey, do you want to go to this bar with me?”
M. SKINNER: She said, “Are you 21?”
B. SKINNER: “Are you 21?” I did ask that question. I couldn’t remember.
M. SKINNER: Yes.
B. SKINNER: Because he was 21. And so we went out that night, and we’ve been together ever since.
DEUTSCH: Well, that’s really nice!
M. SKINNER: Yeah. We broke into the National Zoo.
B. SKINNER: Oh, my God! [Laughs] Oh, my God!
DEUTSCH: Do you think we should keep this out of the public record?
M. SKINNER: I don’t know. We never got caught.
DEUTSCH: You guys actually broke into the National Zoo that night?
M. SKINNER: We did. Well, so here’s the thing. You do nice things for people, and then interesting things happen. So we were at a four-top—
DEUTSCH: What’s a four-top?
M. SKINNER: Four people for a table. And a group came in, and there was a table for two available. And so we said, “Hey, you know, we’ll shift to the table for two, you guys can have this table.” And they bought us drinks for the rest of the night.
M. SKINNER: Well, by the end of the …
B. SKINNER: It took us a little while to catch on, though, that that was what was happening, because we were still ordering our own drinks.
M. SKINNER: Yes. So by the time City Blues closed, neither of us could drive.
DEUTSCH: So you had to break into the zoo.
M. SKINNER: There was really nothing else to do.
B. SKINNER: Oh, that’s kind of what happens when you start walking up Connecticut Avenue. [Interviewer laughs]
M. SKINNER: So the gate was open. So we walked in. And then the security people came along, so we were hiding in the bushes from the security people [laughter] and we hear this purring sound. And we look over and we realize that where we had hidden is right next to the fence next to the cheetah enclosure.
DEUTSCH: Oh, gosh.
M. SKINNER: Cheetahs, right?
B. SKINNER: Yeah, it was cheetahs. So we walked over to them.
M. SKINNER: And they come over to the edge of the enclosure and they roll over on their backs like they’re waiting for someone to pet their stomachs.
M. SKINNER: And we were sober enough to think…
B. SKINNER: That was a bad idea.
M. SKINNER: … that would be a bad idea.
DEUTSCH: Well, that’s good.
M. SKINNER: So we left with both of our hands, all of our hands, intact.
B. SKINNER: All our fingers.
M. SKINNER: And we found a bunch of balloons. Were they WAMU [public radio station serving Washington, DC] balloons?
B. SKINNER: They were tied to the fence of the zoo.
M. SKINNER: Yep. And they’d been left there. So we walked up Newark Street. We went to school in Newark, Delaware, and we identified all of our favorite houses on the street by tying a balloon to their fence. [Laughter] And then spent the rest of the night, I think, hanging out …
B. SKINNER: In the Bishop’s Garden.
M. SKINNER: … at the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral.
DEUTSCH: Yes, that’s a lovely place.
M. SKINNER: And I had to drop Becky off, around dawn?
B. SKINNER: Five.
M. SKINNER: Oh, five in the morning.
B. SKINNER: Five, five-thirty. And I had to go to work at seven-thirty.
M. SKINNER: I went and slept.
B. SKINNER: Yeah. And then three years later we got engaged in the Bishop’s Garden.
DEUTSCH: So what were you doing professionally then?
B. SKINNER: When we got engaged? Or when we were …
DEUTSCH: Well, what was your work?
B. SKINNER: I went to graduate school and got a master’s in economics. And I came back and I started working for a firm called Westat in Rockville, which is a social science research firm. I started doing education research. So I did education research. I was at Westat when we started dating. So that’s what I was doing.
DEUTSCH: Research on education.
B. SKINNER: Research on education. And Michael was still in school.
M. SKINNER: So I didn’t stay with chemical engineering. I switched to biochemistry and then I entered kind of a cool program with Thomas Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia. It was a program where you would take all of your first year medical school classes while you were still an undergrad and basically be able to enter medical school as a second year medical student.
DEUTSCH: Were you thinking about being a doctor?
M. SKINNER: Yep, yep. That was my plan. So I was going to be a pediatrician. And I remember having a conversation with a friend saying you know, “Wow, I’m looking forward to getting medical school done and kind of getting, you know, through my residency and internship because then I would really like to be able to set up practice so I can get back to doing theater.” And something clicked that it was probably not very likely that that was going to happen.
DEUTSCH: That you’d be a pediatrician who also did theater?
M. SKINNER: Right. And so that sort of was part of this sort of great unwinding of the path that was planned to one that then is chosen. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies. I think I had concentrations in biochemistry, literature, and philosophy. And left school, went and studied for a summer with the Shakespeare Theater, and began working as a professional actor here in D.C.
DEUTSCH: That was brave. Or foolish.
M. SKINNER: Foolish? I don’t know. It worked. So it was really lucky. This is a great town. It’s got really probably the highest concentration of professional theaters outside of New York.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. It’s a great theater town.
M. SKINNER: And there’s also a very healthy non-Equity [Actors’ Equity Association is a labor union representing the world of live theatrical performance] theater scene. So it’s a great place for young people to get started in theater. And then the Equity houses are not closed to local …
DEUTSCH: Non-Equity actors?
M. SKINNER: Right. And so I was able to join Equity, was doing, you know, a whole bunch of shows a year.
M. SKINNER: And just really having a great time. So, we moved to the Hill.
DEUTSCH: So is that what you were doing when you got married?
M. SKINNER: Yes.
DEUTSCH: So, again. Favorite shows, favorite memories?
M. SKINNER: We did a show called The Adding Machine.
B. SKINNER: In your Jewish theater tour.
M. SKINNER: That’s right. Washington Jewish Theater. And played Mr. Zero, which is the sort of lead role in that. And it was a really, really creative production. Scott Burgess, who does a ton of sound design in town still, did an original score that was played live during the show. A lot of really talented actors that are still all over the place were in that production. And it was just a really great experience. Something I really loved. I loved that role. The Importance of Being Earnest was really, that was a high point. It was really fun to be able to do a show like that in the round.
DEUTSCH: I think I saw that.
M. SKINNER: I didn’t have a beard. My hair was a little longer.
DEUTSCH: One might not remember every performance.
B. SKINNER: Or Shakespeare in Hollywood. That was a good one at Arena.
M. SKINNER: Yeah, yeah.
DEUTSCH: What was it?
B. SKINNER: Shakespeare in Hollywood. Because Bob was in that, right?
M. SKINNER: Yep. Got to work with Bob [Robert] Prosky. Got to work with him a couple of times. Doing a show, Inherit the Wind at Ford’s Theatre, he’d be getting ready to go on and he would do these Donald Duck impersonations backstage. Right before he’d go on, you know. Got to work with Bob Prosky a few times and that was really cool. We would carpool from the Hill to Arena Stage. His wife would pick us up and you know it was just this really sort of everyday thing and it was like, “Here is this amazing actor and we’re carpooling to work!” [Laughter]
DEUTSCH: That’s incredible. So, you were living on the Hill.
M. SKINNER: Yes. We initially moved into D.C. and we were living in a basement apartment near the Cathedral and we knew we wanted to live in a neighborhood where people actually walked around. So we knew we wanted to live, we thought, either on Capitol Hill or in Takoma Park. And we were looking at houses in both places. I was doing a show and had a matinee and we saw this ad for a house on Walter Street [SE]. And it said that it was, you know, a two bedroom house on “a street that could be from a movie set.”
DEUTSCH: Do you live on Walter Street?
BECKY and M. SKINNER: We do.
DEUTSCH: We lived for 15 years at 1243 C Street [SE].
M. SKINNER: Oh, wow.
B. SKINNER: Oh, OK.
DEUTSCH: Just around the corner from you.
M. SKINNER: Absolutely.
DEUTSCH: Yeah, yeah. But that is a cute street.
M. SKINNER: It’s really fun. So it was an open house, it was a Sunday. I had a show and Becky came into town to see the place. And I called her afterward and she said “You should come down.” By the time I got there, it was closed. And so we were standing on the front porch and she drew me a picture of what the inside of the house looks like. You know, “It’s got these stairs, and then you look back here, and the bedroom’s lofted and it looks kind of like this.” And, “Do you really like it?” and she said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, OK, let’s get it.” And so we put an offer on this house that I hadn’t seen.
B. SKINNER: Which didn’t really look like the pictures so much, did it?
M. SKINNER: Didn’t look at all.
B. SKINNER: It did have that number of rooms though.
M. SKINNER: It did have the …
B. SKINNER: And it had stairs.
M. SKINNER: It did. They were even oriented roughly in the direction you put them in.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: But we kept the picture. We have it somewhere. It’s a riot.
DEUTSCH: So you’re still in that house.
M. SKINNER: We are.
DEUTSCH: So what year would that have been that you moved into that house?
B. SKINNER: ’98. Summer ’98. Just in time for Christmas.
M. SKINNER: Yep. And we got our dog Mackeson.
B. SKINNER: That spring.
DEUTSCH: Mackeson? How do you spell that?
M. SKINNER: M-A-C-K-E-S-O-N.
B. SKINNER: And he was a German shepherd.
M. SKINNER: Yeah. He grew to be like a 110-pound, all black German shepherd.
DEUTSCH: Is he with us anymore?
B. SKINNER: No.
M. SKINNER: No. He passed away.
B. SKINNER: He made it to 12.
DEUTSCH: That’s about what a German shepherd …
M. SKINNER: Can do.
DEUTSCH: That’s about what a German shepherd does. OK. And then along came two little boys at some point?
B. SKINNER: Yes.
DEUTSCH: And your sons are?
B. SKINNER: Dakota, born in 2001, part of that first wave of the new babies on the Hill. And Logan was born in 2004.
M. SKINNER: We were visiting friends on the Eastern Shore and Becky was nursing Dakota on September 11th .
B. SKINNER: Dakota was one month and one day old.
M. SKINNER: That was a bit of a gut check, you know, because our families panicked because we knew we were safe …
DEUTSCH: You weren’t in D.C.
M. SKINNER: … but they didn’t.
B. SKINNER: We couldn’t get a phone line.
M. SKINNER: We couldn’t get any way to reach anybody.
DEUTSCH: You said Dakota was one month old then.
B. SKINNER: One month and one day, yep.
M. SKINNER: So we were visiting friends on the Eastern Shore. We were perfectly safe.
DEUTSCH: But your families didn’t know that.
M. SKINNER: But our families were all completely freaked out. And there were a lot of people at that time I remember were saying “I don’t know …”
B. SKINNER: Thinking about leaving. Yeah.
M. SKINNER: “I don’t know if we should live in D.C. It seems like it’s a target.” That just seemed silly.
M. SKINNER: And then we’ve renovated twice. We did an accidental …
B. SKINNER: The two-week painting project?
M. SKINNER: Yep. Some actor buddies … we were going to paint everything and started tacking down some loose lumber and some things in the cabinets that weren’t quite right. So we tore out the cabinets, discovered that there was some termite damage, tore out the floor. Next thing we knew, we didn’t have a kitchen anymore. [Laughs] “Jeez, Beck, I think we should pick out some new cabinets.”
DEUTSCH: [Laughs] Easy jobs have a way of kind of proliferating like that.
M. SKINNER: Indeed. You know, you were asking—so this is connected to that. So doing this work on the kitchen, doing shows … I was doing The Scottish Play at the Folger here. And our son Dakota is really little.
B. SKINNER: He wasn’t one yet.
M. SKINNER: And we’re doing this construction project, and I can’t remember why it was but Becky needed to go somewhere. And so Dakota came to the theater with me. [Laughs] I can’t believe this happened. So he’s backstage, not in the dressing rooms.
DEUTSCH: How old is he?
B. SKINNER: Nine months.
M. SKINNER: Nine months.
B. SKINNER: Eight months. He was a baby.
DEUTSCH: He was little.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: I’ve got to run up and go be onstage, so I leave him with the witches. [Laughter] Finish my thing onstage, come downstairs, and there he is surrounded by three beautiful witches. I was like, “Well, this kid’s set.” But people from the show would come at night and help me, you know, work on [house] stuff until two in the morning. When it was time to move back in, the entire cast …
B. SKINNER: The cast came and moved us back into our house. It was really nice. It was really nice.
M. SKINNER: And it was like in between shows. And it was an eight-show week. So it was like between the matinee and the evening show everyone came over and helped us move.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: We did another renovation to expand out the back of the house when Logan was born.
B. SKINNER: We moved out three weeks after he was born.
M. SKINNER: We had some problems with the permits. And what was supposed to be a four-month project took many more than that. So we ended up living in every quadrant of the city.
DEUTSCH: Staying with friends or …
M. SKINNER: Eventually. We had rented the place right across from us on Walter Street because we had neighbors that were going to be away. They were going to be caretakers on Misery Island, off the coast of Massachusetts?
B. SKINNER: Uh huh.
M. SKINNER: And so they were going to be gone for four months. So we thought this is perfect. So we’ll rent their house. It’s right across the street. And our place was not done and they needed their house back, so we—where did we move?
B. SKINNER: Well, you were doing The Importance of Being … No, you were doing Shakespeare in Hollywood. You were at Arena and I said, “Can we get actor housing?” So we got a one-bedroom apartment right by Arena Stage.
DEUTSCH: Oh, nice.
B. SKINNER: Because you were doing something there.
M. SKINNER: I think it might have been The Importance of Being Earnest.
B. SKINNER: Was it? I thought Dakota was older for that. Oh, yeah, Dakota wasn’t three. Yeah, it was The Importance of Being Earnest, yeah.
M. SKINNER: So I talked to the folks at Arena. And they were really lovely. They arranged for us to get actor housing in Southwest there. So we were living in a one-bedroom apartment with a three year old and a …
B. SKINNER: A baby.
M. SKINNER: And a baby. And I remember distinctly picking Dakota up from school, because he was at Two Rivers [Public Charter School] by this point. And I picked him up and he’s really cheerful. And he said, “Hi, Daddy. Where are we sleeping tonight?” [Laughter] There went Dad of the Year! [Laughter]
The show closed and we needed to move someplace else and so friends got us a place in Northeast, a basement apartment. And we were staying there until right before Christmas. The plumbing backed up and flooded.
B. SKINNER: And the heat broke.
M. SKINNER: And the heat broke.
B. SKINNER: All in the same day.
M. SKINNER: So we had to move out from there. And so …
B. SKINNER: Phoebe [Hunt Smith] took us in.
M. SKINNER: Yeah.
B. SKINNER: We lived at Phoebe’s house for three or four months.
DEUTSCH: Oh, gosh.
B. SKINNER: We’d leave on Friday morning when we would go to work and drop the kids off. Then we’d go to our parents’ houses either down in Woodbridge [VA], at the time, or up in Rockville to my folks. We wouldn’t come back till Monday night. So we were just always transient. So Dakota asked more than once …
DEUTSCH: How long did that last, the transient phase?
B. SKINNER: That one? That was from December until March, it was like Christmas to March, I guess. It was hard.
DEUTSCH: But you survived?
B. SKINNER: Of course.
DEUTSCH: So now your house is all renovated. You need another project.
B. SKINNER: Another renovation. Right.
DEUTSCH: So when does the school come along? Your kids are getting old enough to go to something.
M. SKINNER: Sure. So Dakota was what? Like a year?
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 1
TAPE 1/SIDE 2
B. SKINNER: Policy.
DEUTSCH: Good one.
B. SKINNER: I would just say I was an education policy analyst when asked.
M. SKINNER: When did you start working there?
B. SKINNER: I started working there in 2002.
M. SKINNER: Okay. So right after Dakota was born.
B. SKINNER: Yes. I left a year after he was born. I owed a year at McKenzie.
M. SKINNER: That’s right.
B. SKINNER: So then I left when my year was up.
M. SKINNER: So when Dakota was probably about a year or a year and a half we started looking at schools and we were right down the street from Watkins, which had this great reputation. And we found out that the boundary …
B. SKINNER: Is the other side of 12th Street. We miss it by the other side of the street and six houses.
DEUTSCH: Oh, my gosh.
M. SKINNER: And so we thought, anyway, that was a really cool school and we found out that we weren’t in-bounds for it. And people were like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. You just sort of talk to the principal and you do whatever. Everything’s going to be fine.” Except there were a lot of strollers wandering around the Hill in 2001, 2002. And we had zero faith that there were going to be enough slots in schools that you’d feel comfortable going to, that really had things going for them.
B. SKINNER: So, you know, Moms on the Hill [MOTH] had been started, and Moms on the Hill had an education committee.
M. SKINNER: Interestingly enough, Moms on the Hill [was] started by Jen DeMayo. She and I did theater together before we had kids, before …
B. SKINNER: Jen DeMayo was at our wedding. And so I went to a couple of the meetings for MOTH overall, but mostly the education meetings. And we were talking about, you know, “What can we do?” We were trying to make connections with the local schools. We were trying to help people figure out where they could go to school. What is your in-bounds school? How do you do that? How do you find that information out? And one of the things that I had done when I was in school was I had done a semester long study of charter schools in D.C. So I knew that in D.C. parents could start a charter school. And I said, “Well, you know, we are parents. We do have this option. We live in Washington, D.C. We could start our own school.” And so the group overall, the whole group, was approving of this idea.
DEUTSCH: The whole group, the education committee.
B. SKINNER: The whole education committee was into this. And so they said, “Well, why don’t you go explore it?” And so I knew some to start with and so I researched a little bit more, found a little bit more, and they were still interested. So I asked Robert Cane from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, FOCUS, to come and talk to the group because it got to a point where I was like “I don’t know the answers now!” And so he came and talked to the group.
After he talked to us, Sarah Richardson, who also lives on the Hill, walked up to me and said, “I will do this with you.” And I said, “All right. That’s two of us.” And so it was agreed at that time that part of the committee would really work on the existing public schools and building those relationships and trying to figure things out and then another part of us would work on exploring this charter school option. So we really started working on that in the spring of—that would have been two thousand—
DEUTSCH: So it was you and Sarah basically.
B. SKINNER: Well, other people got involved. Then Michael got involved and …
DEUTSCH: This was spring of … ?
B. SKINNER: 2003. And so we really committed. In March, we formed our official nonprofit, and in June our application was due. So we had moved very, very quickly. We were incredibly fortunate in that Michael and Sarah went to go see Cap[ital] City Public Charter School. And it just so happened that some other folks who worked at Kingsbury [Day School, 5000 14th Street NW], which is a private school for special education, had also gone to look at Cap City. They just happened to be talking to them, but they happened to live on the Hill and that’s how we got hooked up with Jessica Wodatch [first principal of Two Rivers Charter School] and some of the other folks.
And so I can remember walking into Sarah’s house one day—because that’s where we had all our meetings—and there Jessica was sitting on the couch with some other folks who all became staff at Two Rivers. And so we just kept going. We wrote that application. I can remember laying on our dining room floor talking to Jessica at two in the morning about curricular frameworks. And D.C. didn’t have good standards yet. So we had to write our own education standards. So we took Massachusetts and a few others and …
DEUTSCH: This initial school was a[n] elementary school.
B. SKINNER: We opened preschool to grade three.
DEUTSCH: Preschool to three.
M. SKINNER: Yeah. Preschool being for three-year-olds.
B. SKINNER: Right. And then pre-k for four-year-olds. Yeah.
M. SKINNER: Pre-k being for four-year-olds and up.
DEUTSCH: It seems like now—maybe it was different then—now a lot of people are very opposed to charter schools just in principle. Do you feel that that sort of hardened? I mean initially when you started this were there a lot of people saying …
[Blank space on tape]
M. SKINNER: I felt that.
B. SKINNER: Oh, there.
DEUTSCH: OK, Becky, tell us a little bit about the founding of Two Rivers [Public Charter School].
B. SKINNER: All right. So we decided in the winter of 2003 to start and so we formed a board. We incorporated in March of that year, and we submitted our application in June. And then in D.C. you go through a really rigorous process where you are interviewed privately by and grilled by a whole bunch of educational professionals and you get through that stage. Then you have a public hearing. So we went through our public hearing to be able to open the school.
In the late summer, fall of 2003 we received our conditional approval, conditional because we did not yet have a facility. I would say that we hunted [for] a facility [for what] felt like forever. We had so many fall through. Fortunately, Sarah Richardson knew a lot about the commercial real estate market so we kept working on that. We were able to get a federal grant to help us open our doors. So what that money let us do was actually hire Jessica. She left Kingsbury without us having our full charter yet. She left Kingsbury, quit her job, and started to plan to open Two Rivers—do the planning, like getting furniture, figuring out really what curriculum we were going to use, getting teachers, all those things. And then we were finally able to get space at Eliot [Middle School, 1830 Constitution Avenue NE], where we shared space. We had the west wing which is called the West Wing. We actually got our lease ten days before we were supposed to open our doors. So Ziad Demian, who was also on the board and was fantastic, actually designed what it was going to look like.
DEUTSCH: Can you spell that name for me?
B. SKINNER: Z-I-A-D is his first name. And Demian is D-E-M-I-A-N. And so he designed it and then helped us find contractors.
M. SKINNER: He’s an architect.
B. SKINNER: He’s an architect, yes. He’s an architect and so he helped us find contractors that he had worked with. I think he probably had to pull in about a thousand favors. And we renovated the west wing of Eliot in ten days so we could open.
M. SKINNER: We were there. There were quite a few of us that were there …
B. SKINNER: On Labor Day, ironically.
M. SKINNER: … on Labor Day, cleaning the walls, washing the floors.
B. SKINNER: I did the floors, all day.
M. SKINNER: Mopping them, buffing them. I mean getting literally everything ready to go. Putting together furniture. I mean tons and tons of people.
DEUTSCH: And did you know at that point how many students you had?
B. SKINNER: We did know. We did know. Charter schools have lotteries. We were one of the first charter schools in the city to not simply do our enrollment process to coincide with the DCPS [District of Columbia Public Schools] open enrollment process. So instead of just having a month-long enrollment process, we started in November and we had a several month [time to] submit your application. And then we did our lottery at the Southeast Public Library and Nicky Cymrot drew the numbers for us.
M. SKINNER: We wanted it to be very transparent. But the problem up till then—and it’s continued to be a problem, it’s a problem in every city—is that until people start looking carefully at how things are done, things get done any which way they can. And so there was a lot of questions up to that point in schools all over the place around, well, how do people get in. And it was a huge issue and became actually a very public issue for both public schools and for charter schools. Well, who’s in charge of that? So doing a public lottery was something that was really important.
B. SKINNER: One of the interesting things for us is in D.C. we have sibling preference, you know, so once your one kid is in a school you have preference for getting the second kid in the school. Well, this was a brand new school. And some charter schools, depending on the state laws because all charter schools are governed by state law, allow for founder preference. We didn’t have that. And so in about November of 2003 when we started our application process, I realized that we had spent thousands and thousands of hours and our child may never go to the school! Dakota got in through the lottery. It was a happy moment. But there were no guarantees, we had no guarantees.
M. SKINNER: Many of the kids, many of the people that started the school …
B. SKINNER: Yeah. Anybody on the board, nobody had a guarantee.
M. SKINNER: And there were people who had been super involved …
B. SKINNER: Super active. Yeah.
DEUTSCH: Who did not get in?
B. SKINNER: They didn’t get in.
M. SKINNER: They didn’t get in.
B. SKINNER: So they had to go somewhere else. It was a heartbreaking moment.
M. SKINNER: It’s interesting, too, is that they continued to be involved, providing financial assistance, showing up at galas, providing to the extent that there is political support, the just neighborhood good will toward things.
B. SKINNER: Yeah. If you called and asked, they would still jump in. It was really nice.
M. SKINNER: Really neat.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: I think, though, you know, around the starting of Two Rivers is this idea that things don’t have to be just the way that they are. And one of the things that’s interesting living on the Hill is that there are a lot of people for decades who have looked around and said “Hmm, this is a neat place. I like a lot of things about it. There’s this thing that I wish were a little bit different.” And they’re willing to spend a lot of time and energy to do that.
And the neat thing about Two Rivers is that you could look at it and say, “The school situation isn’t quite the way that we want it. There’s a really great school, we’re not in-bounds for it. We really don’t have any hope that we will be because there’s going to be a gajillion kids that want to go there. So we needed another option.” And this is the kind of place where, if you said that, there would be a lot of people that were willing to say “Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s do that.”
B. SKINNER: So there were a lot of parents who helped. There was a core group, but then there were a bunch of other people who would, you know, come and help for very specific things. It was amazing.
M. SKINNER: There were I don’t know how many people in on that visioning session thing.
B. SKINNER: We decided to have a visioning meeting to talk about what we thought the school might look like and so we did that at Jen DeMayo’s house and we had over 60 people show up. I mean they were overflowing. They were on the stairs, they were in the kitchen. You couldn’t see everybody in the room. It was amazing. Except then we went on a trip to Rocky Acre Farm in Pennsylvania and it was a moment where everybody at that farm happened to be from Capitol Hill. I was like, “Oh this is very strange!” And they all knew who I was because they had been at the visioning meeting but I didn’t know who they were [laughter] because there were so many people at the visioning meeting that I couldn’t track on everybody. It was very interesting. So lots of people came out.
DEUTSCH: So the start of the school was a thrilling moment.
B. SKINNER: Oh, sure, it was a very exciting day, and Michael made the coolest video of that day.
M. SKINNER: I set up the camera in the hallway before school opened and shot the entire first day of school in the hallway. So we have a time lapse of the doors opening and the first kids coming in. Every time kids came out of their classrooms to go to the water fountain or go to the bathroom or change classes or get picked up or go home, people sweeping at the end of the day. I mean, it’s really …
DEUTSCH: The whole …
B. SKINNER: The whole day, it was really cool.
M. SKINNER: A whole day, hours and hours, hours of footage.
DEUTSCH: I’m sure he’ll use it some day.
B. SKINNER: Oh, we’ve already used it. We’ve shown it at the [Two Rivers fundraising] gala.
B. SKINNER: Yeah, it’s really cool.
DEUTSCH: So tell me about the lawsuit against Two Rivers.
M. SKINNER: I think in many places—around the world, around the country, certainly here in D.C.—anytime someone has something that they love they want to protect it. And one of the things that was a huge success on Capitol Hill was the Cluster Schools. They were a big success.
M. SKINNER: And they were hard-fought-for. I mean the city makes things hard sometimes and historically the bureaucratic processes in the city have been very difficult. And not transparent. And so I think people had spent a lot of time building a set of schools that could feed into one another that really did a good job of educating kids. Because there were so many people that would move to the Hill, love living here, love the way things feel.
B. SKINNER: Have a kid.
M. SKINNER: Have a kid.
DEUTSCH: And move away.
M. SKINNER: And four years later they would move away. And people would talk about it casually. But we were shocked that people that we would be good friends with we’d be walking our strollers and they’re like “Oh!” We’d be like, “What’s wrong?” “Well I just love it here. It’s too bad we’re going to move to Alexandria.” “Like why are you going to do that?”
M. SKINNER: “Well, because of schools.” Well, why not make one? So the Cluster Schools were, are, this really amazing resource and people were really concerned—I think that people really didn’t fully understand how many children were being born on the Hill. We knew because you couldn’t get into daycare when they were four months old. People couldn’t get them into volunteer preschools. I mean, like all of these things were overflowing and this tidal wave of kids was going to hit the school system. And no one knew that that was coming except for the people who had little kids.
So I think that people looked at Two Rivers and thought, “Well, here is this entity that’s going to draw elementary-school-age kids and this is going to hurt the Cluster School.” And so people, when they get scared, I think they want to lash out. They want to try to just stop something from happening any which way they can. And so I think people that otherwise are really well meaning people and have done really great things in the community made choices that I think they actually in retrospect would take back. And the lawsuit is one of those things. I think that it was one of those things that was like, “We’re [unintelligible], we’re going to do something, we’re going to save this thing that we love, this thing that we fought to build, the Cluster Schools. And so we’re going to make things hard on this new entity getting started.” And then I think it just got away from them.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. So the charge was that the school was racist.
M. SKINNER: Right.
B. SKINNER: That was what the suit was about.
DEUTSCH: And how long did it take to …
B. SKINNER: Years.
M. SKINNER: Years. It took years. Every single person who was involved in that on their own personal time had to go back and go through all of emails. I spent an entire Christmas holiday sitting on the floor with laptops trying to figure out how to pull and catalog all of the emails, hundreds and hundreds, [unintelligible] thousands of emails related to this, because they were being subpoenaed. So it was an enormous waste of time. The thing of it is the lawsuit was actually dismissed with prejudice. And it’s not hard for someone to dismiss a lawsuit, but the judge in this case looked at it and found that it was so without merit that he didn’t want to see it anywhere near his courtroom ever again.
DEUTSCH: Well, that was gratifying.
M. SKINNER: It was gratifying. And I think it also is something that’s important to note. Anytime there is a lawsuit, someone assumes … like in journalism, you know, we’re taught that there are two sides to every story. And that the truth must be somewhere in between. And this is one of those cases … There are some stories where there actually isn’t another side.
DEUTSCH: [Laughs] Right.
M. SKINNER: And this is one of those. I think if you would ask the people that brought the lawsuit that the vast majority of them would probably say that that was something that they regret doing.
M. SKINNER: Now the thing that they were afraid of was what’s going to happen to the Cluster School. Well the Cluster School is thriving. I think one of the things that people realize is that if there is choice and people can choose where they go and they don’t just default into whatever school happens to be nearest them that there is an opportunity for principals to become pretty entrepreneurial about how they go about running their schools. And so now we have this amazing school in Brent [Elementary School, 301 North Carolina Avenue SE]. We have this amazing school in Maury [Elementary School, 1250 Constitution Avenue NE]. We have—what are we missing?
B. SKINNER: Ludlow [-Taylor Elementary School, 659 G Street NE] is turning around.
M. SKINNER: Ludlow is doing great. So there are these schools that are offering violin, they’re offering Chinese programs, they’re offering immersion.
DEUTSCH: Immersion Spanish.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: So there are all these things that are happening that didn’t exist. And by no means are we saying that these are things that happened because a group of parents started Two Rivers.
M. SKINNER: But what I’m pointing out is that …
DEUTSCH: The negative impact did not occur.
B. SKINNER: It didn’t.
M. SKINNER: Not even close. And in fact this is a much richer community because it’s there. And now Two Rivers regularly has well more than a thousand people on their waiting list.
B. SKINNER: We made national news this year because we’ve essentially become more selective than Harvard. [Laughter] It’s harder to get into Two Rivers than it is to get into Harvard, and so that just speaks to the need for, you know, maybe more Two Rivers and maybe more others.
DEUTSCH: Before we finish with Two Rivers, Michael, who were the people who were most involved? I know you and Becky were very involved, but who were the other people?
M. SKINNER: Sure. I think that is a big point that things like this don’t happen because of one person or two people.
M. SKINNER: And, in this case, this was an outgrowth of a committee that we were only tangentially involved with initially.
B. SKINNER: Right.
M. SKINNER: You know, we started showing up at meetings and finally someone said, “Well, we’ve got to split this off into a couple of things because we can’t cover these things in all these meetings. So can someone do this charter school thing.” And that’s when Becky said, “Sure, I’ll help to do that. I know about these things.” And that would have fizzled out if it hadn’t been for people like Sarah Richardson who just approached Becky and said, “I’ll do this with you.” And she truly meant it. I mean she was up all hours of the night doing these things. When it was time to try and find a building I think she pretty much …
B. SKINNER: She did all of the heavy lifting. Oh, my gosh.
M. SKINNER: I mean I would go look at sites with her but she went and looked at a gajillion sites. She became really well versed in the rules and sort of the minutiae of real estate deals. Jessica certainly came on very early on and I don’t think that it could have happened without her because she brought this gravity of an educator who was going to be an educator at the school. Like there was never any secret that Becky knows a ton about education. She eventually got her doctorate in education policy but she was not going to be the one running the school. That was not ever the plan.
B. SKINNER: And we did do a national search for a principal because, you know, that was part of what we needed to do. And it’s so funny to try and search for a principal when you don’t have a charter yet, a full charter, and you don’t have …
DEUTSCH: Or a space.
B. SKINNER: … a building. And, you know, so there was …
M. SKINNER: Oh, we had people coming in from all over the country.
B. SKINNER: We were interviewing people from all over the country. There were so many people interested, but then when they heard where we were and how it needed to proceed from that point, not many people were willing to gamble on that. And Jessica gambled her career on this.
DEUTSCH: But didn’t she grow up on the Hill?
B. SKINNER: She did.
DEUTSCH: So it’s sort of a nice thing.
B. SKINNER: For her, yes. Fantastic. And then, you know, there were lots of other people. Because Ziad Demian who joined the board and, you know, was an architect and really was the one who made it possible for us to get into Eliot. And Kevin Kraham joined the board and he was a lawyer. So he was able to help us with all the legal documents.
DEUTSCH: Kevin Kraham. K-R-
B. SKINNER: A-H-A-M.
M. SKINNER: Pete Close was one of the …
B. SKINNER: Wanda Kelly was on the initial board.
M. SKINNER: Yeah, that’s right.
B. SKINNER: And she was, you know, a parent from the neighborhood who was just super interested in committing the time that it was going to take. And so she was great in different ways that she was helping us. I’m trying to think who else was on the board. No, Al came later. We’ve had, you know, after nine years of boards it’s hard to remember exactly who was on which board.
DEUTSCH: So are you still on the board?
B. SKINNER: No, I left the board after nine years. You really, yeah, need somebody else, fresh thoughts, fresh ideas.
M. SKINNER: It was also one of those things where Two Rivers was in startup mode for quite a while and got both of its buildings [it is now located in new facilities at 4th Street and Florida Avenue NE], was really well established. And then it needed to shift from someone who was wanting to start a school to someone who was wanting to build a fundraising base for a school. And that’s a different thing.
B. SKINNER: Yeah, we’re worker bees.
M. SKINNER: Yeah.
B. SKINNER: And so, you know, Two Rivers is in great shape now. Two Rivers is a tier one school by the measures that D.C. uses. It’s one of the top charter schools in the city. So it’s doing really, really well.
M. SKINNER: This spring they were hosting expeditionary learning educators from all over the country who were coming to look at Two Rivers as an example of how this excels. So Logan’s in fourth grade and he was real proud because he was asked to be one of the …
B. SKINNER: Student ambassadors. So he gave a tour. He was so excited.
M. SKINNER: So, there were kids independently giving tours, not being the student representative to a bunch of adults giving a tour. But they themselves were giving the tours to people who were visiting to learn about the school.
DEUTSCH: Well, that’s very gratifying.
B. SKINNER: That’s right.
M. SKINNER: That’s neat.
DEUTSCH: Tell me about your sports activities, Michael.
M. SKINNER: So this is another thing. So when you live in a place and you see something that you wish were different, you can either whine about it or ignore it or move, or you can do something about it. And, you know, there was a huge influx of kids moving up through the age ranks within all of the sports things on the Hill. And so we initially got started coaching soccer because there were tons of soccer coaches needed.
B. SKINNER: But that’s [unintelligible]. The first day of Dakota’s soccer we were at X Park [Providence Park, Second and Third Streets SE], Patrick Coyne’s leading it, and he comes out, he’s like, “Raise your hand if you’ve played soccer, and I don’t mean just played soccer, I mean played on a team.” Well, we grew up in Montgomery County, right? It was like a rite of passage. You had to play soccer in Montgomery County! So we raise our hands, and then we look around. And we’re like, “Oh!”. There were only about six hands up. It’s like, “I think that means we’re coaching.”[Laughter] It started that day.
M. SKINNER: So as the kids got older, you know, we were coaching one team and then …
DEUTSCH: When you say “we”?
B. SKINNER: We coach together.
DEUTSCH: You coach together.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: So I guess this is one of the things …
DEUTSCH: That’s nice. I love that.
M. SKINNER: One of the things is that Becky and I don’t really have activities that one or the other of us does. So it’s kind of like parenting where it’s what you do. And so someone might handle more of one aspect of things than the other, but I think the only reason that we are able to do the things that we do is because we actually are there supporting each other as we do these things. So I was on the board of Two Rivers for quite a while and we eventually realized that someone needed to actually parent on Monday nights. [Laughs]
DEUTSCH: Not the babysitter.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: I think to this day the meetings are on Monday nights though, because that was the only night that I knew I wouldn’t have a show.
B. SKINNER: It’s true. [Laughs] That’s how we decided.
DEUTSCH: You’re a star.
M. SKINNER: That’s how we did it. So when we coached, we coached teams together. At one point SOTH [Soccer on the Hill] wanted to split our team because we had a number of kids that were returning and we didn’t know which kids to give up. So we said, “Well, that’s OK. We’ll just coach two teams.” [Laughter] So we had two teams. And then Dakota got a little bit too old and so we said, “Well, OK, now we’ll do a U-10 [under age ten] team.” So at one point we had simultaneous practices.
B. SKINNER: We had three soccer teams. We were coaching three soccer teams and one was …
DEUTSCH: You’re crazy.
B. SKINNER: Yeah, that’s what people say.
M. SKINNER: But it worked. And, you know, again it was not—it was also because it wasn’t just us doing it, you know.
B. SKINNER: That was the spring we had the three soccer teams. That was the year that Capitol Little League started. And so we were also coaching two baseball teams.
B. SKINNER: It was awesome. Five teams. It was a lot of practicing, a lot of games. That was crazy.
DEUTSCH: Now, did you have a background in baseball?
B. SKINNER: Well, I played softball.
DEUTSCH: Oh, you played softball.
M. SKINNER: Yeah and I played baseball growing up as well.
B. SKINNER: But when Dakota was four, I got roped into being the summer T-ball commissioner for four years. And so you would coach, you know. We did that. And we coached our T-ball team for a long, long time.
M. SKINNER: And then it was, “Well, who’s going to run T-ball?” And so you see something and you’re like, “OK, well, this could be done. This could be cool and we could make this better.” And so …
B. SKINNER: Our big innovation was to split off the four year olds. We created a second T-ball league. So there were two T-ball leagues to run. Ah, that’s OK. But one of my friends stepped up and helped with the managing of the younger group. That was when Alex jumped in.
DEUTSCH: So what are you coaching now? What are you doing now?
B. SKINNER: So I am coaching, we coach, co-manage a little league team at the AAA level. We’re the Dodgers. I think we’ll be the Dodgers again this year.
DEUTSCH: Do either of your kids play on that team?
B. SKINNER: Logan will play on that team. Last year we were lucky. We had both kids on the same team. It’s probably the last time we will ever be able to do that in baseball. And Dakota plays travel soccer so I’m his team manager. I have stepped away from soccer coaching because I think they’re all better than I am now. [Laughter] I only have so much to offer.
M. SKINNER: And then I coach the BASIS [public charter school, 410 8th Street NW] coed middle school team.
B. SKINNER: For soccer.
M. SKINNER: For soccer. And then I help to coach Logan’s travel soccer team. He’s with CFC. What’s it called?
B. SKINNER: Capital FC. Capital Futbol Club.
M. SKINNER: Capital Futbol Club. And then we coach the baseball team together. You know at Sports on the Hill we stepped up to help to …
B. SKINNER: We ran the U-10, I was commissioner of the U-10 boys’ league for three years, two and a half years.
M. SKINNER: Which grew a lot during that time so there was a lot of trying to sort out how to help build a coaching core and how to organize more games onto the same fields. You know at the same time.
DEUTSCH: The shortage of fields.
B. SKINNER: The shortage of fields. It’s a big problem [laughter] in all sports. But our big contribution there was we created tournaments. We started tournaments at the end of every season, our mini-tournaments. My goodness, I had no idea it would be such a big deal to the kids. But, you know, the team that would lose in the championship game, those kids would be in tears. And you were just like wow.
M. SKINNER: But then they’d turn around. You’d give them a popsicle.
B. SKINNER: Yeah, everything’s better.
DEUTSCH: They’d get better.
M. SKINNER: Everybody gets an award.
B. SKINNER: A popsicle would make it better.
M. SKINNER: It’s all good.
B. SKINNER: But it was intense—fun.
M. SKINNER: There were a lot of kids that wanted to play tennis and there needed to be a tennis program on the Hill. So Becky helped to found …
B. SKINNER: Yes, with Eric Legg who is a professional tennis instructor.
DEUTSCH: Does he live here?
B. SKINNER: He did live here. He went back to get his doctorate in sports administration type stuff. So he’s out in Utah right now. I think he hopes to come back. He was with living on the Hill, doing some work with Arlington …
DEUTSCH: So what was his name? Eric?
B. SKINNER: Eric Legg, with two g’s. And so we started Tennis on the Hill and so now we have youth programs and adult programs and playing over at Anacostia Park on Sundays.
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 2
TAPE 2/ SIDE 1
DEUTSCH: Tape 2.
M. SKINNER: Yes.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. OK. School libraries.
M. SKINNER: So, let’s see. I was working in professional theater and then was also working as an actor on camera and then started to work on …
DEUTSCH: When you say “on camera”, you mean … ?
M. SKINNER: As an actor on camera.
B. SKINNER: Commercials.
M. SKINNER: Shooting commercials.
B. SKINNER: Public service announcements [PSAs].
M. SKINNER: PSAs, being in films, short films and feature films. And started to do more work behind the camera on other people’s productions. And in 1999 had enough work that I founded Pendragwn Productions. So Becky and I would—
B. SKINNER: I was the tech.
M. SKINNER: She was sort of my only help on some of these shoots, these early shoots. And so I was producing films for social science research firms, for government agencies, and Pendragwn sort of grew over that time. And now we have five employees.
DEUTSCH: Tell me about the name.
M. SKINNER: Pendragwn? So it’s spelled funny.
DEUTSCH: It is spelled funny.
M. SKINNER: It’s P-E-N-D-R-A-G-W-N. And that’s a Welsh spelling. My family is predominantly Irish and so I was looking for something from Irish mythology.
B. SKINNER: Is it Welsh or Celtic?
M. SKINNER: The spelling is Welsh.
B. SKINNER: Oh, OK.
M. SKINNER: And it means head of the dragon. And so it seemed appropriate in terms of this idea of creativity, of a sense of wonder, there’s an aspect of wisdom and intelligence to that. It has a nice alliteration with “Productions”.
DEUTSCH: Pendragwn Productions.
B. SKINNER: And you can have a cool logo.
M. SKINNER: Yes.
DEUTSCH: Do you have a cool logo?
M. SKINNER: We do. Phoebe [Hunt Smith] …
B. SKINNER: Phoebe designed it, yeah. Awesome.
M. SKINNER: She has also along the way designed logos for all of our soccer teams.
B. SKINNER: Oh, poor Phoebe. [Laughs]
DEUTSCH: She designed my website.
B. SKINNER: Yeah?
DEUTSCH: Yeah, I’ve worked with Phoebe.
M. SKINNER: She did the Two Rivers logo.
B. SKINNER: But every time we get involved with something, she’s kind of the first call. And we’re “Guess what we’re doing now.”
DEUTSCH: We need another logo.
M. SKINNER: TOTH [Tennis on the Hill].
B. SKINNER: She did the TOTH logo. The BASIS gala, she jumped in and helped a little bit with that. She’s just awesome. Every time we do a new project Phoebe has to come along for the ride.
DEUTSCH: OK, so you started Pendragwn Productions.
M. SKINNER: Yep. As the boys got older it became clear that for us me doing theater was having an increasing opportunity cost. If you’re doing eight shows a week, you’re gone all of the time that kids are available.
M. SKINNER: You know, it’s five show weekends means you’re really gone the whole weekend.
DEUTSCH: You’re not there on the weekend.
M. SKINNER: And kids can’t be parented just on Monday nights.
B. SKINNER: Plus there were board meetings, so …
M. SKINNER: Yes, and there were board meetings on Monday nights. So I shifted really. For a while I would do, you know, a theater project and then a film project and a theater project and then a film project and then would do some simultaneously. And then it really became clear that really I could do one show a year. And the first year that I decided to do that was the year that I got to do The Importance of Being Earnest at Arena. So I thought, “Well, this decision is working out great!”
DEUTSCH: Yeah, this is good.
M. SKINNER: And continued to do one show a year for a few more years and really lately have kind of confined my work to doing stage readings, helping with new play development, and very little theater. And so all of my work has shifted really to working in film. In probably 2005 or 2006, we started to realize that there were a lot of things I wanted to use film to help with and so Becky and I founded the Pendragwn Film Foundation. And the purpose of that was really to use film and storytelling as a way to create a sense of wonder and to improve the world around us.
DEUTSCH: Just that?
M. SKINNER: Just that. And so initially it was doing projects, like when the School Libraries Project was taking place. I followed the team from Catholic University as they were working on the library at Stuart-Hobson [Middle School, 410 E Street NE]. So watching it, being able to film it, all the parts being manufactured on campus, then meeting with people, talking with the kids about how to do that, and then actually putting the whole thing together … and then the first day it opened, then having the kids come in to see the library in the first place, you know. And being able to create that film that was then used to help to raise funds to do the rest of the libraries.
B. SKINNER: The Hine project was cool.
M. SKINNER: When Hine [Junior High School, 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, relocated to Eliot-Hine in 2010] was here, we did a documentary. I was approached by their football coach who was looking for a production company in the neighborhood. And he really felt like what the team did for the kids was something that people needed to know about. And so I spent time following their season, interviewed all of the team and some of the coaches and really was looking at what does it mean to these kids to be a part of this team. And it really is a surrogate family for them.
DEUTSCH: And did they pay you for that?
M. SKINNER: No.
M. SKINNER: No.
B. SKINNER: Everything the Film Foundation does is pro bono.
DEUTSCH: Pro bono. So how is it funded?
B. SKINNER: Well the Capitol Hill Community Foundation has been very generous.
DEUTSCH: I know, but our grants are small.
B. SKINNER: Yes.
M. SKINNER: We underwrite the rest of it.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: Yeah. As Pendragwn grew, I got to hire people that are really good storytellers and kind of shared this idea that the world can be different than the way you find it. And one of the guys that I work with said, “You know, it would be really cool if we were able to do a youth film festival. And so we’re going into our fourth year of doing the film festival. It’s free to enter, free to attend. It’s for filmmakers ages 11 to 18. And it’s a chance for them to see their films on the big screen. And a chance for other kids to see films made by kids.
DEUTSCH: And how many entries?
M. SKINNER: So we get probably about 75 entries a year. We’ve probably gotten them from about a dozen different countries. We’ve gotten them from all over the United States. And what’s amazing is that so many of the kids that are finalists come. The first year we had a kid show up with his dad from California.
B. SKINNER: I remember.
M. SKINNER: They walked from Union Station. Showed up crazy sweaty and hot but were able to see his film.
DEUTSCH: You show them at the Atlas [Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE].
B. SKINNER: Yes.
M. SKINNER: It’s been at the Atlas all the time. That’s an amazing space.
DEUTSCH: Yes, a wonderful space.
M. SKINNER: A group of Native American kids from South Dakota came. They had pieces in the festival and they found people to fund them to come here and they came to speak to Congress and to come to the festival. We had kids from France, we’ve had people from England. And it’s neat for them to be able to come to Washington, D.C., and see D.C., and then to see their film on the big screen, and then to have an entire audience of kids and [unintelligible].
DEUTSCH: How long are the films?
M. SKINNER: Between 30 seconds and five minutes. And we do them in screening blocks, so each block is maybe for 20 or 30 minutes of film.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: And then we bring the filmmakers who are in attendance onstage and it’s an opportunity for kids in the audience to ask them questions about their films, about how they got the ideas, about how they made them. And that, surprisingly, has been the part that I think has been the most powerful. It’s because there are kids that are six, seven, eight, nine years old in the audience seeing bigger kids, but not that much bigger kids, who have made things that were movies that they just watched in a movie theater. There are loads and loads of kids. I run into people a lot who don’t know us but they know about the festival. And they’re like, “Oh, my kid won’t leave me alone now. They’re always making films on their phones or on the iPad or on the … ” And it’s taking this idea of being a storyteller and taking it out of the hands of mysterious professionals and saying well this is something that …
DEUTSCH: Anyone can do.
M. SKINNER: Yeah.
DEUTSCH: Do you think making films, like what you’re encouraging the kids to do, helps them think about things? I mean, is the act of making a film a way of thinking about something?
M. SKINNER: Absolutely.
DEUTSCH: As a writer, I always say “If you want to figure out what you think about something, try to write about it.”
M. SKINNER: So we encourage kids to make films in a number of different categories. So there are narrative films, documentary films. They can do public service announcements where they can pick something and do a 30-second film. We wanted to encourage enough ways of telling a story that lots of kids could potentially participate. There are kids that have made films two, three years in a row that have made it into the festival. You watch them grow as storytellers. There’s this young lady. Sophia Pink, who is in the D.C. area. She and her filmmaking partner [Luz Bauer].
Their first film they made in eighth grade and it was about internet censorship. And it was an amazing film about internet censorship. And they followed it up the next year with a stop motion animation. And then they did a film about this awesome guy who’s in town who does these sign-holding days where he and volunteer friends will go and they’ll hold signs up around the streets in D.C. that say things like “Honk if you love someone.” Like “Today’s going to be a great day.” I mean it’s a really great story. That film, it won the audience choice award—no, grand prize—at our festival last year and went on to win prizes at a bunch of other festivals. But it’s neat to see. Making a film changes the way that you look at the world around you.
DEUTSCH: How does it do that?
M. SKINNER: Well, I think being an artist in the most general sense is picking a part of the world to look at and seeing it in a way that is different from the way that other people see it. And better yet, helping other people to see it the way that you see it. And so in film you choose what part of the world to look at, you choose how much detail you look at it in, and then you can layer all of these different elements together to create a sense, a new understanding of the world around you. And it’s a really complicated act.
M. SKINNER: And kids have this intuitive sense of storytelling and an intuitive sense of using these tools. I think the younger and younger that they can be exposed to doing it and try to experiment in doing it, the better off they are. One of the best things about the film festival is that [for] every student, every one that applies, their film is seen by industry professionals and then those industry professionals provide a graded rubric with handwritten comments. So even if you’re not selected to be a finalist in the festival every film receives …
DEUTSCH: You get feedback.
M. SKINNER: … feedback. And it’s constructive feedback. It’s about the choices that you made in terms of your shot choices. What about the editing? Let’s talk about the sound. Let’s talk … If you look at the rubric, it’s a how-to of how to make a good film. And One through Five is basically the same kind of rubric that Two Rivers does. But in each thing it’s like, “Well, a Three does all these things just fine, a Two does these things fine but maybe this isn’t quite right. A One is missing all these things. A Four, you did all of the things that you were supposed to do, plus maybe you did something kind of cool like this. And a Five, well you did all of those things plus you did these other things and these other elements are in place that no one could expect a kid to ever do anyway.” So it’s really fun to see.
DEUTSCH: So how many finalists are there?
M. SKINNER: Usually there’s somewhere between a dozen and 15.
DEUTSCH: And when is it? Is it in May?
M. SKINNER: This year it’s March 15th. It’s coming up fast.
DEUTSCH: Oh, that’s early.
M. SKINNER: We were trying to get it in before sports season started.
B. SKINNER: And spring break.
M. SKINNER: And before spring break.
DEUTSCH: You mean you actually take time off occasionally?
B. SKINNER: Oh, our baseball workout day is that day and we’re just going to have to miss stuff to do it this year.
M. SKINNER: But it’s really an amazing thing to watch.
M. SKINNER: And then the Atlas is this awesome place.
M. SKINNER: So we deck out the lobby. There’s a red carpet, there’s a big step and repeat like you’d see at …
B. SKINNER: Just to have your picture taken.
M. SKINNER: … adult film festivals with, you know, logos and stuff behind it. You can get a picture taken in front of it. We’ve got a whole interview station set up so all the filmmakers that attend are interviewed about their film.
B. SKINNER: Wait. And we also have kids from the neighborhood who are, you know, escorting the filmmakers and volunteering in various capacities. And they have their Pendragwn official badge, you know, saying that they’re volunteer staff for the event. They hand out the ballots, they collect the ballots, they do all sorts of things. And they’re so excited about it. Just so excited about it. It’s so cool to watch the kids interact with the kids.
B. SKINNER: So much fun.
DEUTSCH: Now have your boys entered a film?
B. SKINNER: Nope.
M. SKINNER: No.
DEUTSCH: Not yet.
M. SKINNER: They keep talking about it.
B. SKINNER: It’ll happen one day.
M. SKINNER: They’re a little bummed out in that we’ve warned them that, you know, they probably would not be …
B. SKINNER: You can’t win. [Laughter]
M. SKINNER: … eligible for any awards.
B. SKINNER: Unless the audience picked them. That would be the only way they could win. [Laughter]
M. SKINNER: There is an audience choice award.
DEUTSCH: Well, they’ll have to enter some other film festival.
B. SKINNER: Yes.
M. SKINNER: That’s right. What else?
B. SKINNER: I don’t know. What else do you want to know?
DEUTSCH: Let’s talk a little bit about Capitol Hill Little League.
B. SKINNER: All right. So we are entering our fourth year of baseball and softball through Capitol Hill Little League. And so really Capitol Hill Little League came out of years and decades of other baseball and softball happening on the Hill. John Parker, Phyllis Jane Young have been super involved in having baseball programs. We did a little bit of Babe Ruth. SOTH [Sports on the Hill] has done so much. And so I guess about four years ago we thought that it would make sense to try and actually be a real Little League. There are other Little Leagues in the city, so there were going to be other teams to play. We could be part of a city tournament. We could go to Williamsport one day.
So a group of community members got together and did what we needed to do to start things off. And over the past four years we’ve seen explosive growth in the number of kids who want to play baseball. Softball’s coming along. We would love to get more girls involved in softball. So that’s one of our big pushes this year, last year. We continue to push on that. I think the only thing that will cap us is fields. We need more fields.
B. SKINNER: So, it’s going great. We’ve had lots of people be involved. Seth Shapiro was our founding president, and now Don Montouri is our president of the board. It’s an all-volunteer organization. And we are also trying to go all volunteer with umpires as well. I mean everyone is just giving their time. We have dozens of coaches, dozens of managers, parents bringing popsicles, helping keep score, you know, all sorts of stuff. It’s great to see.
M. SKINNER: And there’s an entire separate committee of people that are doing field maintenance.
B. SKINNER: Yeah.
M. SKINNER: You see some of the deals with some of the elementary schools and middle schools is, like, “Yes, you can have access to this baseball field …”
B. SKINNER: “But you’ve got to maintain it.”
DEUTSCH: “You’ve got to maintain it.”
M. SKINNER: And that’s not an insignificant thing.
B. SKINNER: It’s a huge amount of work, huge amount of work. And so we have a committee group. Opi Leckzas leads that group and other parents join him and help out. And they spend hours and hours trying to get our fields ready. So it’s been great. It’s been fantastic. I think last year we probably had 460 kids, 450 kids playing. It was amazing. We were stunned by how many kids were playing. So we just keep trying to grow. Usually Little League, you know, the 12 year olds, Majors, those are the ones who go to Williamsport. Well, you can play older in Little League. We haven’t really done much of that in the city, but now we’re doing 13-U [Senior Division for ages 13 to 19] and we’re doing it because we have kids on the Hill who want to play. So I’m hoping, and I think the board and everyone else is hoping, that as long as the kids want to play we will be able to keep moving up and meet that need. That’s why we’re here. So hopefully that will work out.
M. SKINNER: I think through all of these things. This process is weird in that all of these things to us are isolated decisions. There’s a something that could be done and so you do that. And this experience and sort of being asked about these things has been … You sort of start to step back and look at patterns. And so there’s a couple of them. One of them is this idea that nothing has to be the way that it is, you know. Things can always be better. And it really is sort of an act of will and this ability to have a sense of hope that things can be different than what they are. The other thing is that we live in this community where for decades people have been doing that, you know. Becky and I aren’t inventing anything new. All of these things have existed in some way or another and it’s like, well, what’s the next logical step?
You know, there were already people working very hard to make sure that there were really interesting educational options. Capitol Hill Day School [210 South Carolina Avenue SE] was something that if that hadn’t existed, then people would have left the Hill. And the Cluster School, if that hadn’t existed people would have left the Hill. Well, Two Rivers is sort of the next logical thing, do you know. “Well, we need more options. We can’t plant a new school, so …” Actually, you can, you know. With Sports on the Hill, it was already existing. It was just, you know, could there be improvements made in the way that that was organized or could there be more with baseball and softball?
B. SKINNER: It already existed.
M. SKINNER: It already existed. And it was just how can we look at that and how can we make it better and how can we make it do more.
DEUTSCH: Could we go to tennis?
B. SKINNER: Right.
M. SKINNER: Yes. And in each of those things it’s something where there are other people that share that desire for things to be different than they are, do you know. I think usually better. [Laughter] But that’s the kind of place that we live in and I think it’s one of the reasons that I think we’re just always going to live here. You know, people are astonished when they hear about some of the things that we, who are not from here, are doing, and some of the things that happen in our community, because they don’t happen in other communities. And I think there’s something about this place that encourages that. I have to also say it’s a little bit weird to be called out for doing things like this. I think there are some people that do things that are the thing that [they] are known for, you know. It truly was a thing that they did.
DEUTSCH: A thing, yeah.
M. SKINNER: That no one else did and so it’s like it’s clean, do you know?
M. SKINNER: It’s a thing that they did. And with Becky and I, all of the things that we did we could not possibly have done except that there were other people that were willing to help to do them.
B. SKINNER: I think we just see ourselves as one of those people who is willing to help to do it. Just part of that group.
END OF INTERVIEW