Set out upon an empty stage at Renaissance Academy are a circle of plastic chairs. A teenage boy with homemade tattoos on his arms looks over the scene and grumbles, “Man, it looks like an AA meeting here.”
“Except we’re on a stage,” a girl in an oversized sweatshirt interjects, the very sound of her voice surprising us.
She has been sitting in the front row of the theater with a weary expression, earbuds trailing out of her wild hair, her arms crossed and her eyes down, keeping within a cocoon of her iPod’s music, and these are the first intelligible words we’ve heard from her. Now as the other handful of teens gather for the first session of our program, they approach the circle guardedly, cautiously, as though something weird or embarrassing could happen at any moment.
“I’m not good with public speaking and acting and stuff,” says a boy.
Another skeptical voice questions, “What are we supposed to be doing? A play or something?” giving the word “play” the sort of distaste that one might use to speak of, say, the bubonic plague.
These are a few memories I have of our first night — my first night as a project leader, their first night as project participants — with the Urban Theater Project. Working together with Friends of the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Virginia Stage Company created the Urban Theater Project as an arts program to benefit youth serving in the juvenile court system. The Project’s evening meetings take place once a week for eight weeks in the theater of Renaissance High School. Now in its second year, Urban Theater Project was envisioned by our Director of Education & Community Engagement Ron Newman and former Theatre Artist Tommy Coleman, in cooperation with parole officers and administrators of the VB Juvenile Courts. At root of the program is the idea that theatre can bring encouragement, purpose, and an artistic outlet to teenagers in trouble.
Months ago, when Ron Newman asked if I would join in teaching the second year of the project, I was at first surprised at his suggestion. True, I have experience in teaching theatre and a particular love of creating theatre lessons that offer students a means to examine life skills, such as interpersonal communication, body language, emotional intelligence, teamwork, and self-reflection — all good tools to offer a troubled teen. Yet, putting professional experience aside, I had to ask if I had common experiences with the at-risk kids in the Urban Theater Project?
My teen years were spent in the most UN-urban of places: a tiny Wyoming town. Although there were a few opportunities for trouble, I managed to miss them. In fact, I was generally perceived to be a ‘good kid.’ I did well in school, I had some friends, and though we didn’t have much money, my Mom let me know I was loved and important. I was very fortunate. And I was primarily UN-troubled.
“Am I worlds apart from these students?” I worried. How could I be a person these teens might choose to listen to, relate to, perhaps even TRUST? Apart from my teacher’s collection of theatre lessons, what did I have to make connection?
“Empathy,” answered Director Ron Newman. “You’ve got a lot of EMPATHY to share. That’s what we’ve got to make a difference.”
Ron’s word “empathy” is the heart of our Urban Theater Project. We model empathy for the students. We discuss empathy in lessons. We practice empathy in exercises and in simple conversation with students.
What do I mean by this? I mean we seek to listen as much as we speak. We insist our students do the same. We join in with the group, seeking to make our “scene” partners look and feel good. We insist our students do the same.
And we recognize and seek to share the recognition of a simple idea: the way we choose to look, speak, and interact with one another brings positive or negative results. When we consciously seek empathy in these interpersonal communications, we stand to improve not just our life, but also the lives of those around us.
To that end, our first action in every class is to simply welcome and make connection with each student. Our final action in every class is to simply thank and make connection (often a handshake) with each student. In between, we “play” theatre games and use the practice to discover and discuss ways in which we can be genuinely present, listening and responding to one another honestly, taking the focus off of “self” and placing it upon the “others.” We look for discoveries in participation of group activities, as we seek to support and work with our teammates, seeking to make them feel they are part of the group.
We’ve spent a few classes together now, and every night brings its own challenges. But slowly, I think, that first night’s reluctance and refusal is giving way to a real sense of TEAM. And, perhaps, a spirit of “permission.” Each student can give him or herself permission to let their guard down and JOIN that theatre team, supporting the group and themselves, in the process.