Urban Theater Project | Session 1

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.

It is becoming a tradition of mine on the first day of a new Urban Theater Project session to rush to a Fed Ex and print out my lesson plan for the evening. I then fight traffic (or flow with it) to make it to Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach by 6:30pm. Usually, my course runneth smooth even my when nerves runneth on crazy, but it’s day one of a new 8-week session. How could I not be aflutter with nervous energy? I park my Volkswagen in a familiar spot near the front entrance of the school.
Before I even get out of my car to meet my new batch of students, I allow a myriad of thoughts to marathon through my brain: Will these students be resistant? Well, duh! Don’t think like that Tommy, these kids are choosing to be a part of your program! Or are they being volun-told to come here by their Parole Officers? That is not your concern, Tommy. Just go in there, and be YOU. Don’t doubt yourself before you’ve gone in. Your previous sessions have been successful. Why would this be any different? (I have mental conversations with myself all the time. Do not judge me too harshly.) These thoughts must flow freely in my car so I don’t take them with me into the school theater, where I will be teaching.
After making sure I have everything I need, I finally exit my car feeling confident that I’m about to boldly go where every teacher has gone before: to the land of changing lives! But something about my entrance to the school is different. I notice a young woman sitting alone on a bench near the building. Disgruntled doesn’t begin to describe the look on her face. Before I approach the front door, the front desk attendant, whom by now is like an old friend to me, buzzes me in. Her energy is different than usual…
She forewarns me that the student I passed on the bench is definitely one of my newbies. She also informs me that this student has cursed her out, telling her not to f***ing talk to her, calling her a female dog (in a more explicit and concise way), and expressing that she “doesn’t want to be here.” Though my program is supposed to be filled with students who choose the program as an option, I am occasionally met with students who would never choose my artistic avenue as a way of rehabilitation. And that, to me, is fine. Frustrating, yet fine. I have a list of goals that I try to achieve regardless of any student’s thoughts/feelings about the program. They are located at the top of every lesson plan I’ve created. With these as my objectives, I remain focused and will not allow an angsty teenager’s attitude to influence how I will positively affect them. Hell, even I was an angsty teen once. I grew out of it.
My goals for the program are as follows:

  • To empower
  • To enrich
  • To inspire students to find their voice
  • To aid in establishing a sense of purpose
  • To promote the idea of “empathy”
  • To help students become better citizens and better human beings 

This is how I approach each and every session. To be honest, these goals are how I live my life.
The students arrive sporadically, but all manage to be there before 6:50pm. There are five of them with the vague assurance from someone in charge that there “might be one more.” Five. During my winter session there were eight (I almost had twelve). This time, however, I have the same amount of students as I did in my fall pilot session. And there is still no guarantee that I’ll retain them as they all have external circumstances for which I am not in control. I am hopeful, however, that by the end of this first session, they will consider giving me a try for another 7 weeks.
My disgruntled student has discovered she knows someone else in the program. She cracks a smile, and she and her friend express their doubts about the program and me, which is rooted in them not knowing what I’m about to teach them. I have another young woman, very shy, who quietly finds her way to a seat in the front row. One young gentleman with a cool hairdo sits in the fifth row, until I ask him and everyone else to join me in the first row. It’s time for introductions. I start first, explaining who I am, that I’m from the area, and then I list my credentials. I express to my students that I enjoy this course and that I will be teaching them as if we are in a college lecture. They introduce themselves, and tell me who their favorite performer is, and why. Many list singers or rappers, so I follow suit and list Donny Hathaway as one of my favorites.
Now it’s time for “The Agreements.” In an artistic environment, it’s difficult have rules, per se, but a group of people can hold themselves accountable for their actions and the way they treat others by agreeing to certain things. My students create the list themselves. I’m met with debate by an older student who believes there should be NO rules and begins to tell me that even agreements are rules…only to later create some of the best agreements I’ve heard in any session thus far.
The first hour is always rooted in physical warm ups, bust mostly warming up the mouth. We get the blood circulating in the body, but then come the tongue twisters. Students of mine hate this activity, yet it provides them with a challenge that they feel they can overcome: volume. I tell my students that I care about what they say, and that when they speak, I’d love to actually hear them. So we practice:
“Which wrist watch is a Swiss wrist watch? Which is it? Which is it is Swiss? Yellow Leather, Red Leather, Yellow Leather Red Leather…”
I usually get “What is this?” “Ugh? I can’t do this.” “Nope!” and my favorite “Nah, man, this ain’t for me.” Resistance is such an easy thing to do. Fear will stop a genius if he allows it. But my students press on, after much coaxing by me, and soon they are using their voices as arrows…finding targets on the back wall where they can direct their voices. They move from resistance to wanting to do the activity again. “Got ‘em,” I think to myself. Then it’s break time.
The second hour of the first four sessions always includes a video clip and then a discussion. Today’s video clip is 21 Chump Street, the shortest musical ever, by the creator of Broadway’s current record-breaking, Box-Office hit, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical is about an undercover cop who is sent to bust students for selling drugs in high schools. It also about the straight A student, who thought she was his peer and who falls in love with her and commits a crime, thereby helping her do her job. For a 15 minute musical, it is filled with relevance and complications…and it’s the PERFECT first video for my students.
The discussion that follows is centered on the topic of performance. Here’s an excerpt from my lesson plan:

  • Why this is art? What makes good art? Performance? What moves YOU? Why does this matter?
  • What is performance? What contributes to a good performance? What are things that can hinder a good performance? What is an actor/performer in control of? What elements of performance are they not in control of?
  • How does this relate to you in your actual life? What things are you responsible for? What are you NOT responsible for? What affects how you control your decisions?
  • Life is not simple. Things can be complicated. But can we simplify life? Can we make things easier with our decision-making? How? 

Our discussion strays from many of these questions as students recount their personal experiences with law enforcement, bad decision-making, and their poignant thoughts about the video they just saw. My older student and I mange to discuss a painting about Aphrodite and Cupid, and she dissects its meaning to her in context of the 21 Chump Street. She reveals that she is an artist, and that anything could be art, if you make it art. She and Disgruntled have managed to speak more than I expected. My gentlemen in the class manage to spend the class talking only to one another, constantly being distracted by their phones…but…they participate heavily in this discussion.
At 9pm, when sessions tend to end, my students have realized that they spent 2 hours in my course. “But it only felt like it was 40 minutes,” says my oldest student. Time flew by.
I tell them, “It’s because you all decided to participate. What is the only thing I’ve asked you to do all day?”
“Try,” says my older student, “Because if you don’t try, you’re not gonna get anywhere. And if you try, at least you’re doing something.”
She’s right. Let’s see if they try me out again next week…

Tommy Coleman is a Theater Artist in Virginia Stage Company's Education & Community Engagement Department and the Director of the Department's Urban Theater Project at Renaissance Academy.