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.
“All of this rain you’ve been given,
Is Just a reminder of living…"
I couldn’t stop shaking my head at how things had turned out. Out of ALL the sessions I’d instructed so far, this one felt the least successful, and I was caught between disappointment and bewilderment at how things bordered upon “out of control.” My mounting frustrations and my lack of articulation definitely increased my urge for wine and my bed as I drove home, trying to soothe my spirit with the sonic harmonies of Alina Baraz.
2 hours prior…
As an instructor who prides himself on starting his sessions on time, I’d become a bit worried when I only had 2 students (one brand-new) at 7pm. At 7:10, my Parole Officer partner received a text saying that the students were on their way and that two students weren’t home when they were supposed to be picked up. (This proved to be an issue during the winter session as well.) Immediately, I began to wonder, Which of the students didn’t show up? Please don’t let it have been my girls from last week.
A little after 7:15 I saw two unfamiliar faces. New students. New students with looks on their faces that were more disgruntled than my Disgruntled student from last week. They were all young men who would join my one lone girl. Dang, I lost my girls, I thought. Contrary to popular belief, young women who participate in my course have tended to be the most receptive. My constant challenge is engaging the young men, who, though we share a gender, we do not share the experiences of delinquency. I often fear (yes, fear), that these young men (even the ones of color) do not see themselves reflected in me, though all I can see in them is potential and power.
My lesson begins in a very professional manner. I adhere very closely to the lesson plan I created last fall, which has, so far, been foolproof in its execution. I start by re-introducing myself and having the students introduce themselves again for those who weren’t here last week. They say their names, where they are from, their favorite artist and why. I get one sarcastic answer to the “why”…and then one student who refuses to answer at all. I stay with him a bit and let him know that “I cannot go on” until he chooses to participate and that it would be a big time-waster if I just waited for him to speak. He speaks, reluctantly, and is deliberately short with me. I can tell in this moment that this student with the Fitted Cap, respects me, but he’s putting on a front and he really doesn’t want to be here. I can also tell that he might be a problem for me.
We spend time reading the agreements that were created last week so that the new students can get a sense of the promises they will make for themselves and the program. And after I review what we discussed last week…something happens in me…I can feel myself giving up. I am disconcerted at the drastic change of dynamics in my students, and their predetermined dislike of me is palpable. None of them want to be here. There’s nothing I can do to change that. I am a punishment to them. They see me as an obstacle to endure and not an experience to learn from. My energy begins to reject their energy, and the downward spiral begins. There is not enough hope in the room to keep me effective. This bleeds into my next activity.
“Everyone on stage,” I say, with labored enthusiasm. In my heart, I’m gonna change these students lives. That has to be my goal. But once I’m on stage, no one has moved and everyone is looking at me as if I were kidding.
“Please.” It’s not a plea, but something more declarative.
The students saunter on stage and position themselves on the wall. Immediately, I know that I cannot do a pure physical warm up with them, as they will reject it. (This attitude is unusual for me, but I can’t help but be negatively affected by their collective energy. What can I do? How can I turn this around?) I ask the student to stop leaning on the wall and to stand in neutral position: feet shoulder length apart, hands at their sides, shoulders rolled back and chests forward. I decide to make them feel powerful and confident.
“How many of you stand this confidently in your everyday lives? How many of you wish you could feel the way you do now?”
The students, curling their bodies into question marks and slumping back into their traditional selves, dismiss me. I try not to sigh.
“Try walking around this way. Those people who you love to emulate or those people you want to be like, they move confidently and it shows in their postures. Try moving around the stage like this!” My energy level is surprisingly gung-ho.
Two of the students walk three steps forward and then back to their spots.
“There. I moved. You happy?” Fitted Cap looks at me as if he has a business to run, but his job made him come to sensitivity training, which he doesn’t feel he needs. Another student, a newbie with Braces, asks to go to the bathroom. I tell him to go ahead.
“Okaaaaay. Let’s move on to our next activity.” It’s time for tongue twisters. I focus on using the ones we used last week. I, again, have our students use their voices as targets. I tell them to try and hit the back wall with their sound. This proves to be taxing for my students, but for some reason (thank Goodness) they all try! Usually, I ask the students what row they think their voices have hit, and they give me an exasperated gauge.
“I guess I was in row seven.” This is an honest response from my young woman in the group.
“I hit the wall,” is the response from all of my men. “Shoot, I KNOW I hit the wall, yo!” I have to burst their bubbles and tell them that they didn’t. Then, I have them do the activity again, yet louder.
“OhmiGawwwwd, man. I diiiiiid do what you asked me to do! I hit the wall, son!” There’s the sound of sucking teeth.
“Not with your voice, you didn’t. Try again. Push yourself.”
Groans followed by a louder, more frustrated iteration of the tongue twister, which actually hits the back wall.
“Aight? I did it it. Now can we stop?”
I notice something.
“Why does it take you all to get angry or frustrated for you to raise your voices or to have people hear you?”
“Dude, you KNOW you can hear us. Ain’t nobody else in this room except us. You don’t gotta make us yell.”
“So you don’t like yelling? Hm. I can understand that…I hate it personally. I think it’s a waste of a voice. But…how can you explore you entire vocal range if you don’t actually explore it?”
“Look, this might be something you do, but it ain’t what I do. I ain’t a actor, yo.”
“And that’s okay!” I say. “But you say you rap…wouldn’t you like your audience to hear what you have to say? I’d hate to pay for a rapper/singer/performer who was mumbling. And I’m pretty sure you would too.”
“If I was at a party or something and it was turnt-up, then I’d kill it, but this ain’t that.”
I try to explain that this type of work we’re doing happens well before a performer executes the final product. I also let them know that I actually want to hear what they have to say.
Braces returns from the bathroom 15 minutes later…or better yet from roaming the hallways. This means that from now on the Parole Officer present must escort him and other students to the restrooms. Fitted Cap reprimands Braces because he was next in line to go…and possibly contemplated going AWOL too.
We have a brief discussion about power. I tell them that I recognize that they can actually hit the wall with their voices and that they’ve proven it to me. But they are the ones putting a cap on their own power. I tell them, “You are all powerful beyond measure…but you don’t want to be. You’d rather sit there and be lazy and hunched over. That will not move you forward in life.” I know these kids have heard encouraging words before, but I want them to feel that I’m really rooting for them! Even in my defeated state, I still want them to succeed. (I guess hope never truly left the building as I assumed.)
The students are getting restless in a way that becomes irritating. I realize that we’ve reached the official break time, and they were watching the clock. I let the ones who haven’t used the restroom go, and I prepare for the second part of my lesson. But during the break, it all shifts.
As I am about to prepare for our evening video, I end up in a conversion about why I’m teaching them.
“With all the stuff you do, why would you be here teaching us?”
“Because I want to give back to my community. And I like teaching you all.” Maybe I wasn’t enjoying teaching in that very moment, but overall the statement was true.
“Well, I gotta be here. I don’t have a choice. You are getting paid, so you gotta be here too.”
“Well, if you don’t want to be here, I suggest you talk to you parole officers about a different option.” This is not a foreign statement to me. I have said it a lot lately, because I do think the students have a choice and should not be forced to be anywhere they don’t want to be, even if court ordered. When people want to be somewhere, they see results. In the conversation, I learned how many of these new students were signed up for the program without being introduced to other options. I am frustrated, but I try to plow forward in my lesson a bit. But all I can feel is the truth that none of them really want to be in my presence. Which makes me wish I could get them where they actually want to be, which could potentially be more beneficial than what I’m doing.
I could go into more detail about the conversation the students and I had about money and eventually ownership (I had to tell one student who suggested selling drugs as a means for quick money that he’d never own a drug business, nor would he want that attached to his name), but I must move on to the one bit of the lesson we did discuss. Here is a snippet of the lesson plan:
Discussion Activity: IDENTITY AND CHARACTER
IDENTITY: WHO YOU ARE! What comes from you? How you choose to identify yourself. How you describe you? What makes you YOU?
IDENTIFY or IDENTIFIERS: Descriptors. adjectives, things that may help with your “mask.” Things that color you. What would you consider an identifier? Does this identifier mean this is who that person is? Why or why not?
The discussion started well, with my young lady answering many of the questions and giving some impressive answers. Fitted Cap even participated in a way I didn’t expect throwing in some insight about perception. However, another shift occurred when we were discussing identifiers.
“Well, for example,” started one of my new students, “I could call you a ‘snitch’ and that could be an identifier.” There was venom in his words as he looked at Fitted Cap.
“I ain’t no f***in’ snitch, and if you call me one again we can take this outside.” It was a promise and a very dangerous situation that could’ve escalated quickly, had I not intervened with:
“See…sometimes, our identifiers aren’t always accurate. It depends upon the context someone sees you in.” It was in that moment I concluded that these two boys knew each other outside of the program, and that their history was less than pleasant. Nevertheless, I tried to continue the lesson, which turned into a free-for-all with the students asking me questions about my life as an artist and more or less forfeiting their desire to be in the program. I felt bad for the young girl, who was actively participating, and for these young men, who would not commit themselves to this program all due to posturing and whatever other reasons society tells young men that being artistic is a bad thing. I was also disappointed in me. I’d asked my students last week to give me a try, and I didn’t even truly allow my students to give tonight’s lesson a go. I’d abandoned my lesson in hopes that “keeping it real” would keep them interested.
I told them that I would not show the video I’d intended (mainly because I knew they’d fall asleep or disengage) because I felt what we were discussing was more significant. Truthfully, I didn’t want to continue feeling as if I were wasting my time.
That was it.
That was what I’d started to feel…as if I were wasting my time with these students who needed someone to invest their whole heart, despite their unshakable resistance. They needed someone nobler than me. Alas, I am not Michelle Pfieffer in Dangerous Minds, and exhaustion was creeping up on me. I wanted to be sunshine for these students, but their perception of me seemed cloudy. Doubt in my ability to teach at-risk youth started to make a home in my thoughts. Not good.
The students, antsy and ever-watchful of the clock, got up to leave, and I wished them well. Told them I hoped to see them next week, and they were gone.
My recap with the parole officer wasn’t favorable, and I left feeling blamed for not being as successful as I’d been in past weeks.
To top things off, as I geared up to leave the school, I saw one of my newer students being ushered back into the building. He’d almost had an altercation with Fitted Cap in the van and the driver wasn’t going for it. I knew it was coming from the moment he uttered the word “snitch,” but I’m glad no blows were thrown. Before I left, I looked the student in his eye and asked him if I would see him next week. In his anger, more at his situation, than at me, he said “Yes, sir.” We fist bumped. He was placating me with the gesture…and I think I was trying to apologize for not being the best instructor I knew to be.
I hopped in my car and fought the urge to drive far, far away from Virginia.
I’d finished a large glass of wine and ate popcorn…and asked myself…How am I going to write about this session? The “Yikes” expression remained on my face until I drifted off to sleep, safe and secure in my dreams of a more productive tomorrow…and 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.