Urban Theater Project: Affirmations

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.


“Good job.”

“You’re gettin’ it!”


If you got a regular supply of the above from parents, teachers, coaches and peers when you were a kid, you likely gathered a sense of confidence that you carry along today.  A series of strong, true affirmations are the bricks that build the foundation of a person’s self-worth.  Often in our Urban Theatre Project classes, I meet troubled young people whose bricks seem few, cheap, crumbly.

Perhaps you’re wondering, “What is the Urban Theatre Project?”  Working together with Friends of the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Virginia Stage Company created this Project as a way serve troubled youth in our community.  The focus of the UTP is two-fold.  First: to recognize, honor, and explore the talents and ideas of students. Second:  to offer, through an experiential format, creative ways to discuss and explore various life skills with students.  Exercises and theatre games enable insight and discussion on topics such as interpersonal relationships, positivity, authenticity, teamwork, and (something I love to talk about) affirmation.

At the beginning of the program, many of the teens seem to be anticipating anything BUT affirmation.  They look at the floor when asked a question.  They plug into an IPod to avoid conversation.  They cross their arms, bow their heads, avert their gaze, and otherwise physically and socially close themselves off.

My Dad once told me, “It only takes one ‘You idiot,’ to wipe out a hundred ‘Atta Boy’s.”  (In other words, even the briefest insult can demolish the esteem built by a history of praise.)  I think of those words when I meet the students in our Project, and I can imagine that many of them have received plenty of ‘You idiot’s and very few ‘Atta boy’s.

Maybe these “closed off” kids aren’t simply being anti-social.  Maybe they are just protecting their small supply of affirmation bricks?

That’s one reason why we are all about affirmation in the Urban Theatre Project.  We’re all about giving simple but clear affirmation to both our students and ourselves, encouraging affirmation among our group of teammates, and recognizing this simple maxim: “Affirmation is a direction to success.”

To say YES is the first step in joining a team, in developing a relationship, in entering a productive collaboration, and… in just having fun.  NO may seem protective, and its isolation gives the false feeling of self-preservation.  But YES – in its many forms of affirmation and encouragement – is the means by which we discover our better selves in our ability to connect and give to our family, our peers, and the world around us.

Last night was the final evening of our first Urban Theatre Project of 2017. (We’ll have two more sessions this Spring.)  On each session’s final evening a “Showcase” is presented.  At this culminating event, students’ family, friends, Parole Officers, and other guests come join us in our theatre “safe space.” For the first half of the Showcase, all are invited onstage and participate with our team in a sampling of the theatre games and exercises we have engaged in throughout the course.  In the second half, the guests return to the audience and enjoy special performances that the students devise.

At the beginning of this program, after I’d described the notion of that final evening Showcase, I was met with an uncomfortable pause followed by remarks like, “Do we HAVE to perform?” and “I’ll probably be sick that day,” and “Awww, HELL NO.  I ain’t doing THAT."

But then, as the weeks went by and the course unwound, many attitudes began to shift.  Each week our team gathered to “play” in a new collection of theatrical exercises, games specifically designed to offer positive interpersonal connection.  Each week, we begin to hear YES and say YES more often.  Each week, more students made choices that moved them away from that comfort of cold, negative isolation and more students came to discover the support and freedom in the team’s growing spirit of encouragement.  Each week, new affirmations were added to each individual’s collection; more and better bricks were put together.

So, what began our session as a common theme of “Awww, HELL NO,” slowly turned into, “Awww, HELL MAYBE?”  And, then, as the Showcase-time came around, it slowly became, “Awww, HELL OKAY!”   

Just those few weeks ago, it would have been difficult to imagine some of these kids agreeing to take a spot in the spotlight.  But, at last night’s Showcase, a young lady presented a makeup tutorial.  Another taught the audience a dance to help us update our moves.  One young man entertained the crowd, working with our team to demonstrate a game called “Spontaneous Sound Story.”  Yet another young man dared to try out his stand-up comedy for his P.O.!   Three students even wore large, paper-mache masks and performed a scene on a public bus.

One of my favorite performances came when a young lady chose to do “YES, AND.”  “YES, AND” is a game that epitomizes the concept of affirmation.  This was especially wonderful to me, for, from the beginning of the course, this young lady was all about NOT saying yes.  In fact, it was her voice that had originated the, “Aww, HELL NO” sentiment about Showcase participation.  But there she was, playing “YES, AND,” engaging with her scene partner, making eye-contact, actively listening and responding, creating a story while affirming her partner’s ideas and hearing her own ideas affirmed as well.  

I may have imagined it, but I think she may have even smiled a bit?  Well, why not?  She hadn’t done it before, but when those affirmation bricks begin to pile up, sometimes they tend to push up the corners of one’s mouth.  :-)