Applause washed over the 23 middle-schoolers on stage beaming after the public staged reading of their original play: "The Difficulty of Love." As usual, I got teary-eyed watching the kids shine and thinking about the journey they'd just been through and their bravery. As we all know, it's the hardest endeavors in life that can have the most profound positive impact, and this was a perfect example.
Unusual Suspects never tells our kids what to write. A key to their creative journey is that we honor the voice of our participants in every way. And so, as always, these young playwrights wrote from their hearts and from their experience. In "The Difficulty of Love," an autistic girl tries to fit in at school while dealing with her alcoholic, abusive father, a physician and pillar of the community, who's in denial about his daughter's struggle and the fact that his son is gay. When their mother starts to stand up for herself and her family, we watch as the family dynamics unravel.
During the playwriting process, it turned out that the father character in the play wasn't the only person that wanted to keep these domestic issues under wraps. About mid-way through the 10-week workshop, Unusual Suspects staff got a call from the school's parent representative reporting that parents were upset about the play's content and that they thought the kids should not write about a gay character or an alcoholic father. They threatened to pull the plug.
Born out of the ashes of the 1992 L.A. Uprising, Unusual Suspects was founded on the belief that youth are our cultural barometer and that listening to their stories can help bridge divides and heal communities. In the 20 years since its founding, Unusual Suspects has helped bring people together by implementing theatre projects with both youth and adults all over L.A. County, including at youth prisons, treatment centers and L.A.'s most underserved schools and communities. And so, Unusual Suspects gathered together the school's principal, counselor, and parent representative to listen. We had every hope that this time too the youth would prevail.
"Like many immigrant communities, Pacoima is home to many families for whom the religious beliefs and social mores of their native culture clash with American ways," says program director Melissa Denton. "Theatre has the power to expose and then break down these barriers. In addition to giving L.A.'s most underserved youth a voice, Unusual Suspects is a unifying force for families and community."
Guided by half a dozen caring adults, our students work in groups of 25-30, in which every member is accountable to the rest, to complete the high-stakes project of writing and/or performing an original play in ensemble. Many students say that being in our program is the first time they have ever felt truly supported, that it is the only place they feel accepted for who they are, and that they feel that Unusual Suspects is a family.
Within this safe environment of the ensemble, our kids express their truth, and then learn to hone it into a story with a beginning, middle and end. They learn to create the inciting incident, how to create a dramatic arc, and that conflict and how the characters manage it is what makes things interesting. Within this process, they learn to think about life in new ways.
For example, with our camp kids (those incarcerated in L.A. County probation lock ups), they're so used to violence that the term dramatic arsenal is sometimes taken literally. Imagine you're improvising a scene in which you have to convince someone to give you $20. How many of us would take out a gun and threaten to shoot the person?
Let's ignore how completely wrong this is for a second. From experience, our teaching artists know that giving the kids a lecture on morality would be fruitless. Partly the kids are doing it because it's what they know, but they're also doing it for shock value and to impress their peers. So, by talking about what could more interesting dramatically, we get them to think about new ways of approaching problems. This is a perfect example of why DeAndre, who was in our program for incarcerated youth five years ago and has since stayed out of trouble, said, "When I was in the theater program, I got to be another character. I got to put on someone else's shoes, and I realized I could do that in my own life."
Once the play is written, we have our first table read. The kids are always nervous and excited at this point, and the nerves are particularly apparent at the camps, where the average age is 16 but the average reading level is 5th grade.
"A lot of the young people we're working with, especially those in the juvenile justice system, have missed out on the nurturing and education that most kids get growing up. Consequently, many of our teens are reading below grade level," says Denton. "They do a lot of the writing on their feet through improvisation, so all the kids can participate in creating a sophisticated story regardless of their literacy level. It's always a great day when the kids get the formatted copy of the script that they wrote. They want to be able to read it so desperately. It's extremely motivating!"
At the table read, each young person gets assigned a part (not necessarily the part they'll play on stage) and the reading begins. Here's where having so many mentors really helps. The teens that can't read well are embarrassed, of course, and the process can be painful. To alleviate the tension, our mentors quietly sit next to any child that's having trouble and help. And, it turns out the ensemble is surprisingly supportive -- there's none of the teasing that one might expect from adolescents. They're all pulling for each other at this point.
"That's what makes our program so effective. In a play, and in our process, every voice is critical, and the kids know it. We raise the bar for our young people, and it works. The kids know they are important and that makes all the difference," says Senior Program Manager Joyce Lee.
And, as it turns out, the part about being a kid and having a caring adult role model is key. When a person experiences trauma, as many of our young people growing up in high-crime areas do, the impact of it is lodged in the brain. Improvisation, through attunement -- a concentrated activity that is happening between two or more people who are being fully present -- assists in processing trauma. It's a means of deeply focusing on one's state of mind, one's needs, and providing valuable feedback to those needs in a way that the other person feels deeply heard, valued, respected and cared for. This nurturing is something that many Unusual Suspects participants didn't get growing up.
"Theater activities develop new connectivity in the brain and assist in achieving brain integration and better mental health," says Professor Michal Sela-Amit, USC School of Social Work and Unusual Suspects board member. "Dopamine, serotonin and endorphins released in the brain through improvisation help promote well-being, learning and neural integration, which is critical to building the brain and coping with adversities."
Unusual Suspects provides workshops that focus on rhythm, eye-to-eye contact, and on having fun when working hard. When the youth participants improvise with others in the ensemble they have to be present, focused and deeply connected to move the work forward. "Attunement requires committed adults capable of being emotionally present and developing trusting relationships and nurturing experiences," explains Sela-Amit. "That's what the exercises and the development of trust between the visiting artists and the participants do."
Asked about the specific benefits of the afterschool workshops, Denton says that the kids tell her that sometimes the only reason they come to school is so that they can attend Unusual Suspects. Miguel 1, a student at San Fernando High School, is a perfect example. A bright young man, he was nonetheless failing his classes and assigned to afterschool tutoring. After joining US, he started doing better in school. "If I don't do well in my classes, I'm going to miss Unusual Suspects," he says.
What's so special about theatre as an art form in reaching youth in under-resourced areas is two-fold. First, theater and the ensemble work is about reaching each youth on a very deep level and showing them they can be somebody; and second, it's about the fact that theater, by its nature, brings community together to witness our collective truth. 2
And this is exactly what we saw at Vaughn Middle School. "The Difficulty of Love" ends with the mother character becoming emboldened and standing up to her alcoholic, abusive husband and finally kicking him out of the house. As the curtain fell, the audience erupted with applause, and the parent leader, who had earlier complained, stood and presented flowers to the youth saying publicly how much she appreciated what The Unusual Suspects had brought to bear.
As the excitement settled in and the audience explored the themes of the play during the Q & A, a woman in the back raised her hand, "Was it hard to write a story that doesn't have a happy ending?"
"This story does have a happy ending," one of the 12-year-old playwrights explained. "The children now know that they're accepted for who they are." Such wisdom from our youth. And all we have to do is listen.
These 23 young people will perform their play themselves with all the requisite costumes, lights and fanfare on May 2, 2014. For most, it will be the first time they've spoken their words aloud in front of a public audience much less heard the laughter, tears and excitement their play inspires. If you can come out and see them, you'll surely be glad you did. You might just go away feeling really good.
Unusual Suspects will produce six youth and community performances this spring, including at L.A. County Probation Camp Gonzales. Please see our website for more information and the schedule.
1 The name has been changed to protect confidentiality.
2 The RAND Corporation and the National Governor's Association have documented the benefits of arts programs to increase commitment to school, and improve communication and social skills, especially among vulnerable youth. In addition, the theatre performances provide a neutral, safe venue for the community to come together. And so, in keeping with its original goal of bringing the community together to heal, The Unusual Suspects does extensive recruitment and audience development to reach and support L.A.'s most vulnerable youth. The performances highlight the fact that we are all connected as the players and audience discover commonalities and see each other as part of a larger whole.
Top Image: Middle-school students perform their original play, "The Wisdom of the Heart," at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center.
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