Programs That Let Austin Youth Speak Out A Stage of Their Own

They all say it. In one way or another, with serious eyes and earnest faces, or laughing, or mad, they all tell me, "Don't underestimate kids." They are the more than 30 preteens and teenagers interviewed for this story who are involved in various Austin youth theatre programs. They know that what they are doing is art. They know they have something to say that will impact somebody somewhere. Many of them know that theatre will always be their passion, their community, their home.

These Austin youth have come to this knowledge through local programs that put them in touch with their creative talents and nurture those talents, programs such as The Girl Project, the Texas Young Playwrights Festival, and Talk Theatre, the Capitol City Playhouse Summer Apprenticeship Company, and the VORTEX Repertory Company Summer Youth Theatre. Most of these programs differ from the traditional theatre classes available throughout the city in that they aim to bring theatre to young people who either don't know it or who don't have access to it. Most of these programs are free to participants, and some even pay stipends to the kids who take part. The most important benefits, however, are the ways in which these programs help young people develop their sense of self by giving them a chance to speak out, to move, to act. They are connecting kids with theatre and changing the direction of their lives.

Priscilla Fabian saw a Talk Theatre performance by Johnston High School students and immediately thought it was "real." Her dark eyes light up as she remembers it. A group of teenagers stood on a stage, proudly, and spoke creatively about their lives and concerns. One young man feared for our disappearing wilderness and groundwater. Another offered her opinions on racism, courageously describing her experience at a school where white people were in the minority. Fabian, who will be entering high school this fall, was so impressed by the program that she began investigating the possibility of going to Johnston so she could be a part of Talk Theatre. As it turned out, she didn't have to. A summer version of the program invited participants from all Austin school districts.Fabian picked up an application and two weeks later went to her first rehearsal.

"At first I was scared," she recalls." I didn't know any of these people." Her experience is not unique, according to Talk Theatre's founder and director Rick Garcia. Most of the students feel the same way coming in. That's why Garcia begins the production process slowly, having the kids bond first so that telling their stories and taking risks like writing poetry will not feel like an unmanageable challenge. A common exercise in the early rehearsals pairs two students and sends them on a half-hour walk during which they must find out about each other. "This process is very simple," says Garcia. It emphasizes trust and the real-life stories and interests of the kids themselves. In shaping these powerful stories into a theatrical event, he notes, "we help the kids communicate to themselves first, their peers second, and finally, their community."

Fabian is not your typical extrovert waiting for a spotlight; she is reserved as we talk. But when other participants from Talk Theatre join the discussion, she becomes lively and opinionated. This transformation echoes the call to "speak out" Fabian felt upon seeing that first Talk Theatre performance. Fabian credits the project with keeping her off the streets and opening the door to communication between herself and a troubled younger cousin whom she brought to the show. "It gave me confidence," she says, "made me actually say I can do something for myself, not to please anybody." She smiles broadly. "But people were pleased, anyway."

Landon Smith, another Talk Theatre participant, jumps in with agreement: "It helped me realize that we're on the same level, really. With all kinds of kids, but even my parents. I feel like I can tell them what's happening to me without being ashamed or scared." He had never considered being involved in theatre until last spring, when he started school at Johnston and was recruited by Garcia. Now, most of Landon's best friends are his colleagues in Talk Theatre. Developing this sense of personal identity and connection to others is a goal of the project, says Garcia, "because the first thing any artist must do is to define some kind of identity. Then they can move on."

The final product is not overlooked, however. The people watching are almost as moved as the kids onstage, many of whom have created their first work of art. "The audiences like it because they can actually relate to what we're saying. We're talking about real life. That's better than a movie," says Smith. The hard work of learning to trust each other is evident in the intimacy among the participants. Stage manager and recent graduate from Johnston Kitt McKillop claims audiences "get a sense of how close we are on stage. The diversity and closeness at the same time is awe-inspiring."

In many ways, the nine young women of The Girl Project aren't just talking to their community, they are arguing back. Joy Cunningham began The Girl Project in 1992 to try to combat low self-esteem in girls at an early age. "The Girl Project allows the girls to tell their own story, and the act of telling that story contradicts the oppression they're/we're under." Using such techniques as journal writing, storytelling, and movement improvisation, the girls create an original theatrical production featuring their own stories, dances, and songs. Cunningham strives to develop unity among the girls during the rehearsal process and therefore create strength and ego for all.

Jean Fogel Zee and Amparo Garcia are the co-directors of the project this year. They steer the process by which the girls create material for the production and lead exercises like the one Zee conducts on her first day with this year's troupe. As the girls sit in a circle, each has to say to the others, "Sometimes everything just makes me so mad." The others judge when they believe the speaker is telling the truth. Slowly, Zee has them incoporate a movement into their speech. In addition to being an acting exercise, the improv allows the girls a space to admit their anger, a prime target of suppression by our culture. Though no one in the group seems extremely self-doubting, Cunningham's conviction rings in my ears as I watch them. Almost all of the girls stop themselves as they're speaking, saying "Oh, I don't know what I'm saying." During a scene rehearsal, one of the youngest girls keeps forgetting her lines, and despite the enthusiastic support of others who recite them to her, frustration sets in. The director interrupts the attempts to help. "Just remem-ber it," she says. "You made it up. It doesn't have to be exactly the same every time. Just very close. It's your story, you tell it."

This encouragement elicits a cacophony of voices at times and very different ideas about what will look best on stage. Melissa Teaters, who directed a play before her recent move to Austin, credits The Girl Project with teaching her patience. "When I was the director, I kind of had to take charge," she recalls. "It was all on me. But here I have to be patient with what other people have to say." Though her voice is soft with a heavier accent than Texas twang, interruptions are stifled by other girls. Kansy Watson, a veteran of the '92 production, can see her own improvement. "If any other play comes along, I'm going to be able to work better with people because I've been working with all sorts of people in this play. It's bringing me experience."

The collaborative process deepens the messages of the performance. "It's not just about singing and dancing," says Julia Ruth. "It's also about girls and problems and stuff like that. There's this one part of it, `Good and Bad,' and it's about how there are things between good and bad, even in everyday life. We're not just saying girls are the only ones that have problems. We're working on everything." Watson agrees, "Yeah, I think that [adults] will see a little bit of their children and the children will see a little bit of themselves because they're really everybody's problems." It is evident that everyone understands the important level of their work. Cunningham, Garcia, and and Zee all emphasize the artistic quality achieved by the girls. As Cunningham says, "This is not therapy. To create something beautiful and moving and true is the point, and that is what is empowering. The girls I work with are artists."

Emily Topper-Cook is another artist, a playwright who, at eighteen years old, has had two of her scripts produced at Capitol City Playhouse (CCP) through the Texas Young Playwrights Festival. The program, sponsored by Cap City and the UT Department of Theatre and Dance, consists of workshops taught by CCP Literary Manager Emily Cicchini and others and of a statewide competition that helps develop young people's creativity through the dramatic form. Each year, scripts are solicited from teens around the state, and some are selected for workshop productions at UT. Three to five are eventually given full productions at Cap City.

Before writing Hand in Hand last year, Topper-Cook had no experience with plays. "I'd written poetry and song lyrics before. Then, I just had a workshop in high school, and I got the idea for the play." She credits last year's involvement in TYPF for some major changes in her life. "My senior year was very different than my first two years. Being in the festival got me into theatre at school." Moreover, the experience strengthened her. The plays she wrote explored feelings and experiences from her own life, and she was faced with having all that on public display. Both Hand in Hand, which tells of a girl coming to terms with her mother's homosexuality, and Two by Two, the story of twins who are okay about being gay but have friends who aren't so sure, are sometimes whimsical treatments of serious relationships. "It's weird because all these people have a window into your life, but most people knew already. I'm still a lot more comfortable this year than last. I guess I got over it pretty quick."

Cicchini sees Topper-Cook's experience as indicative of the way that exploration of traditional dramatic structure can help kids address problems from a different angle. "The workshops we run are very on-their-feet," she says. "Very issue-oriented. `What is a subject you care about?' From there, we figure out who are the protagonist and the antagonist in the situation. Then [the students] have to develop the objectives for both sides. It's basic problem-solving in many ways."

The program's impact on Topper-Cook has been so strong that she is rethinking her future. "The festival opened up tons of doors for me. Before, I was going to be a band director." There is a slight pause and she laughs. "Yeah. A band director. I don't know. I was gonna do band for the rest of my life." She is now preparing for her first year at Antioch College in Ohio, hoping to major in theatre. Or maybe musical theatre. "Definitely something like that."

Maggie Bell has been headed for the stage all her life. "I was born a theatre person," she says. "I couldn't escape it even if I wanted to." But she never did want to. Bell got actively involved in theatre at an early age and stayed with it all the way through high school. She was initially drawn to performing, but after 11 years, she grew bored with that and began to focus her energy on lighting design. "I used to draw light plots for fun." Now, Bell is in her first year in college pursuing a degree in design, and she's also taking part in the Summer Apprenticeship Company begun this year by Capitol City Playhouse. The program is aimed at older high school and early college students seeking advanced training by theatre professionals and intensive hands-on experience in a resident theatre.

It isn't always easy. Bell sums up the message the first round of apprentices have been getting. "We have to bust our butts. The reality is that the theatre world is not gonna come to us." But despite the rigors, Bell is getting to do the kind of work she has wanted for years. She ran lights for the CCP production of Kuka and is continuing as a board operator for the Young Playwrights Festival. The program has also allowed her to work with the lighting designer for Kuka, an experience she knows will help her immensely as she is able to design at school. "Learning the subtleties of difference between a 12 setting and a 15 setting on a certain color light is really an art," says Bell. "I feel like I'm finally getting to where I can look beyond the instruments and paint the reality of the play."

When Diane Zalaya, a high school senior, came to Summer Youth Theatre (SYT), she was looking for hope. SYT is a free program run by the VORTEX Repertory Company in which young people not only perform in a fully staged production, they work with with an entire crew of professional directors, designers, and actors. For Zalaya, the program was a chance for her to test her talent that was not going to cost her any money. The prohibitive expense of acting classes at other theatres had kept her away from developing her talents. First, she had to practice something else.

During auditions for the program, she approached producer Bonnie Cullum and director T'Cie Mancuso with a story of discrimination she had experienced in drama classes at her school. "This teacher had favorites and was narrow-minded," she told them. "Only certain people could play certain parts." She said that she knew it had to do with the color of her skin and she wanted to make sure that it wasn't going to be like that at SYT. "I found out that it was completely different here." The aspiring actress was given full opportunity to develop her talents in SYT's production of The Insect Comedy and consequently was a standout in her roles as a butch butterfly and a steely ant commander. Cullum and Mancuso were impressed with her maturity, but she shrugs it off as simple reality. "I'm gonna have to deal with this all my life." Zalaya hasn't let it deter her. Her experience at SYT has boosted her dream of making a career in the theatre. "My mom thinks it's a phase," she says. "I've wanted to do this since I was 12. I would have given up by now if it was a phase."

The kids are serious. Sometimes it's just because they have something on their minds and these theatre programs offer them a place to talk about it - with themselves, with each other, with their community. Often, this seriousness grows into a dedication to the art form itself. However, the impact of these programs will not be felt only in the theatre. The young people who have taken part in them have all glimpsed their potential to do, as Emily Topper-Cook says, "whatever the hell we want to do." Theatre is connected to real life. To make a play, you basically build a house, fill it with people, with everything you think is beautiful, with everything that hurts you, with everything that makes up your world. You learn how to create and talk about all those things. Then you have a barbecue and invite the neighborhood. If you can do that in the theatre, you can do it in life. As Cullum puts it, "Most of the young people in these programs won't become professionals, but their experience with theatre now will enrich the whole community." n

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