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.
Zachary was the youngest among the group of boys, and looked it. A freshman in high school, he did his best to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. Seated with the other teenage boys on the stage of Renaissance High School, Zachary seemed to wish he could melt into his plastic chair. The boys were all here as participants of the “Urban Theatre Project,” a program where young people meet with performer/teachers from Virginia Stage Company. Through a series of theatre exercises and discussions, the students explore concepts of communication, collaboration, and the importance of strong interpersonal relationships.
This was the second of the program’s six weeks. Zachary had missed the important first “getting to know you” day and was unsure of what to make of these “warm-up games” and “imagination exercises.” He kept a “closed off” body language and a downward gaze that would only occasionally stray up to make an assessment of the other boys. Questions posed to Zachary were answered only by short, quiet, and perfunctory responses. “Yes.” “No.” “Not really.” “I don’t know.” “I don’t care.”
But as the evening drew to a close, as Zachary became more comfortable with the casual and even playful atmosphere of the class, and as he recognized the willingness of his peers to try out this spirit of play, his energy slowly began to change. He became more present. More open. Not much, but a little. Small progress, perhaps, but any amount of progress is appreciated. As the students are dismissed, the instructors shake each hand and offer thanks for participation.
Now it’s Week 3 - halfway through the program - and Zachary’s physicality is still at a place we’ll call “three-quarters closed off.” While it can sometimes be difficult to make a conversational connection with a person so reluctant to openly offer themselves, it is a terrific place to begin an acting exercise called “Mirroring.”
The class is divided into partners and each duo is assigned to be either Partner A or Partner B. At the instructor’s go, the partners begin to mirror one another, following the simple rules of the “game.” A has the task of leading his mirror image, Partner B. A’s job is to connect with his partner and keep his actions simple and small. By doing so, he takes care of Partner B, whose job is to return that connection by following A’s movements exactly and near-simultaneously.
“It’s fine to smile; it’s fine to laugh,” an instructor calls out, “Just look out for your partner and keep that connection!”
Soon the room is full of pairs of young men looking less “at risk” and more “at play.”
“Switch!” comes a new instruction, “Now B is leading and A is following. Keep it slow. Keep. That. Connection.”
The connected partners discover all sorts of creative, fluid, mirrored motions: gently flapping arms, balletic tip-toe poses, slow-motion dance moves. After a short while, the instructors have given the “Switch!” command several times, allowing the students to playfully practice the give-and-take of control.
Soon the students receive instruction that they are to seamlessly “switch” with their partner as they move, freely giving and taking control. Soon the boys are laughing anew, discovering that the exchange of creative control, the back-and-forth of interpersonal communication, is as enjoyable and interesting as the game itself.
Once the exercise is concluded, the boys are prompted towards a discussion about “Mirroring,” observations, thoughts, and lessons that can be gained.
“Well,” an instructor says, “We’re almost at the end of our class for tonight.”
“Wait! Can we just…”
All eyes turn to Zachary, full of enthusiasm with an idea he’s not sure how to explain.
“What if we ALL do the mirroring together? Not like with partners but, like, half of us on a line on one side and the other half standing across on the other side, and see if we can all do it together?”
The instructors are pleasantly surprised at seeing such energy in Zachary, and affirm him by taking the suggestion. The older boys affirm Zachary also, lining up at his direction.
And in the last moments of the session, a playful, artful experiment takes place. The entire class, instructors too, attempt to find a synchronicity, carefully watching and listening to one another, moving and responding. Everyone, regardless of age or status, is working together, joined into the same connection and the same experience.
Names have been changed to preserve the UTP students anonymity.