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.
“Naaaaw, no thanks,” the young lady says, looking incredulously from me to my pool noodle then back to me again, “I gotta pass on that, man.”
Am I discouraged? A little. But optimistic as well. I knew that a game of “Transformation Pool Noodle,” when first offered to a circle of teenagers - specifically this circle of “tough” teenagers – was likely to be looked upon with disdain. But I ALSO know that there is something enticing, delightful, and, in fact, truly transformative when it comes to the notion of “play.”
In our 21st century, industrialized, sophisticated culture the idea of “play” is often paired with the idea of “immaturity.” Yet, as a theatre artist, I find myself asking people to play all the time. Often I’m asking both grown adults and young adults from various walks of life if they’re willing to play. Experience has shown me that very often they are, even as they say that they’re not. Privately perhaps they’re willing – even eager- to engage in imaginative fun. But to be SEEN by peers doing such childish stuff… that can be uncomfortable and taboo.
And, it may be doubly uncomfortable to the Urban Theatre Program students on stage with me this night. Yet, I know that once we get past that discomfort, there are wonderful discoveries, discussions, and connections that can be made. In fact, that’s idea that lies at the heart of the UTP, the Urban Theatre Project, a program of Virginia Stage Company’s Education and Outreach Program. This six week program (presented four times throughout the school year) seeks to assist young people who are involved in the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations juvenile court system. Students often enroll in this program at the urging of their parole officers. UTP, with its focus of using the theatrical arts as a means to encourage and instruct at-risk youth, has been of benefit to young people since its beginnings in 2015.
But, of course, the history and aspirations of this project mean little to the group of students staring at me now as I try to get this “game” going, stuttering and smiling as I proffer my pool noodle. And, really, who can blame these kids for not accepting this noodle? Imagine you were one of those Urban Theatre Project young people: a little tired, a little hungry, already worn out from the rigors of math exams, English assignments, and all the other “tests” of High School life. Now here it is 7 o’clock at night, you’re back at school, standing on a stage with a group of the so-called “bad kids,” and this smiling dork of a theatre guy is asking you to be creative with a pool noodle! Couldn’t you just die?
But, instead of dying, you keep your eyes down and say something like the girl who first refused the pool noodle, “Naaaaaw, I’ll pass too.”
And that’s okay. We’re allowed to pass in this “game.” Participation is encouraged and, indeed, expected in our classes… but not all the time. These students get enough rules throughout the day, and in the hopes of fostering creative energy and participation in an open and relaxed environment, the other UTP leaders and I are careful not to get too hung up on “rules.”
What we ARE hung up on, however, is making connections via concepts espoused through creative “games” and “play.” And so we keep at it with this pool noodle. After a number of non-participatory passes, it travels through our small circle and comes back to me. I take the pool noodle and have fun “transforming” the prop into a telescope. I snarl and go “Arrrr,” as I hold it up to my eye.
“Pirate,” someone says.
“YES!” I cheer myself and the group, passing the noodle again to the player on my right, the girl who’d passed it initially.
But this time, she tries something. She clutches the pool noodle at one end, takes a stance, and swings.
“Baseball!” someone cries.
“That’s right,” she says, handing the noodle to the next person.
“Are you a baseball fan?” I ask.
“Yeah, naah. But my Dad, he used to be all about it.”
She makes eye contact. There’s the beginning of interpersonal connection.
Now, seeing that this idea of “play” isn’t so bad, another young person takes the pool noodle, and puts both ends of it up to her ears. She hums and bobs her head.
“Music! Headphones! Ipod!” we all call out.
“You got it,” she says, a brief but genuine grin of pride on her face.
She passes the pool noodle, along with the grin, to a young man who transforms it into a canoe paddle. He passes the noodle, along with an encouraging nod, to the next person, where it becomes a fishing pole. Three, four, five times the pool noodle, in the company of these quiet but poignant affirmations, makes its way around the circle. The word “pass” seems to have fallen out of use, replaced with the support of group members assuring one another, “You got it! If I could think of something, you can do it!” Before long, everyone in the group has given one another – and themselves – permission to play, permission to live in a moment of creative fun, permission to enjoy the communal give-and-take of the game, permission to step out of the familiar safety of passive isolation and support the ideas and the people of this strange group. Even at the risk of being seen to engage in silly, “uncool” behavior, these so-called “bad kids” soon get behind the silly idea of allowing a pool noodle to transform into a hundred different objects. Perhaps as the course goes along, they’ll get behind some of the ideas of how we, as people, can allow ourselves to grow and transform as well.