The Urban Theater Project is a partnership between the Virginia Stage Company and the Friends of the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Through games, improvisation, and other exercises, our teaching artists try to help each student discover life lessons that will help them rediscover a sense of imagination and play and to become part of the larger community. At the root of the program is the idea that theatre can bring encouragement, purpose, and an artistic outlet to teenagers in trouble.
The chairs are put away now; the performers, their friends, family and parole officers have all exited the theater; and this high school stage is suddenly, strangely silent. Moments ago this place was alive with clapping, shouts of encouragement, and, best of all, the small but true voices of teenagers who had insisted, “I can’t stand up there in front of people. No. NO.”
But as this sixth and final evening of our Urban Theatre Project progressed, something seemed to “open up” for a few of these students. Perhaps, bolstered by the support of their peers on the stage behind them and their families out front in the audience, they could recognize that stepping into the spotlight and offering their performance would actually be safe, be okay, even be rewarding.
The Urban Theatre Project originated in 2015 through connection between Virginia Stage Company and Friends of the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. It was VSC Education and Outreach Director Ron Newman who envisioned how a six week program, offered to court-involved teens ages 14 and above, could serve as a pro-social, pro-arts outlet to aid troubled youth. Now, with this successful program in its second year, I have been challenged to take the lead with the project.
My hopes and goals with UTP are stated in two sentences. First: to recognize, honor, and encourage the talents and ideas that students may bring. And, also, to offer in an experiential format various theatre exercises that can be used to discuss and explore “life skills,” providing opportunities to practice and discuss concepts about interpersonal communication, personal and professional relationships, collaboration, acceptance and affirmation of others, working in a team dynamic, etc.
So, for several weeks, this theatre had been a haven where six young people could try out all sorts of physical, vocal, imaginative, sometimes improvisational “games.” We’d find some moments to be lighthearted; others to be serious. Many would be very challenging. I would learn that, for some of my students, just participating in a simple, group task was an achievement. It was clear that for many students just the act of giving focus to another or even simply making eye-contact was intensely difficult. And so, as the classes drew towards an end, as I explained in greater detail how the final evening’s showcase presentation would play out, it was no surprise to hear reluctance, even dread in many voices.
“Don’t worry,” I told them, “We will keep it casual. First, it’ll be introductions and talk about the program. Then, we’ll invite the people in the audience on to the stage with us. WE will show THEM some of our games and exercises.”
“WE… will show… THEM?”
“Sure. And then we’ll have a time for performances.”
“Who will perform?”
“Anyone who wants to. You all have talents!” I looked to individual students and said, “ I’ve seen your artwork. I’ve read your poetry. I’ve heard you sing. And if you find that you want to perform but aren’t sure what to do, we’ll do something from class. We can do a ‘Yes, And’ improv routine or a ‘Contentless Scene?’ Know that we’ve all got your back. And I’m always glad to be there beside you.”
There was my pep talk, yielding a general response of “meh.”
But now, as the final night’s culminating event progressed, a new feeling took hold. Those who had half-heartedly offered to perform were now fully committed. Those who’d said “maybe” were now saying “yes,” and even “yes, I’ve never ever had the courage to before, but yes.”
And one young lady, the girl who had been the most uncomfortable with any sort of attention placed upon her, told us, “I’m going to try.” And through applause, encouragement, and silent nods, the audience and her peers told her, “Try! You can do it.” She wanted to sing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” but couldn’t find a place to feel comfortable as she gazed into the audience. She tried to close her eyes, but that didn’t work. The few people sitting in her line of vision at house right moved house left. Still no good. Then someone offered, “Turn out the lights?” She nodded, and we did. And, in the dark, after she said, “I can’t remember now how it starts,” a crowd of unseen supporters began, “Once I was afraid. I was petrified…”
In a little while, with a little more help, a little more support, she picked up the thread of the melody and there, in a darkened theatre, with a soft yet bold voice she told us, “Oh no, not I. I will survive.”
It was not the end of the evening that I or anyone had expected. It was more lovely, courageous, and real. Myself, the audience members, and the students too, were touched. We were touched and surprised. But then, that’s part of what Urban Theatre Program is about: allowing these kids to surprise us.