Submitted by Nitra Gutierrez, MS/HS Artistic Associate
and written by Kelsey Lawrence, University of Texas Journalism Student
The Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble’s 2011 tour of “Reach Out, Speak Up” is coming to a close. We’re recruiting for next year’s ensemble now, so if you know a teen who lives in the Austin area and would be a good candidate for this work, please have them contact Nitra@theatreactionproject.org to schedule an audition. Want to know what it’s like to tour an original show with amazing teens? See the feature article from University of Texas Journalism student, Kelsey Lawrence, who attended one of our recent performances.
This afternoon at Burnet Middle School, “The Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble” — one of the ensembles that Theatre Action Project employs – -is about to begin their 4:30 performance of Reach Out/Speak Up for the Boys and Girls club students.
This afternoon’s piece, written by group members last fall, features a classic new student in school situation as Claire, the main character, starts her first day at a new school. After innocently talking to another girl’s boyfriend, her friendliness is misconstrued as flirtatiousness and she becomes the target of a cyber bullying campaign. The play talks about feelings of isolation and loneliness as a result of bullying and not knowing how to reach out for support.
“Theatre can be very transformative for ensemble members,” Gutierrez said. “Creating something with a group can be an empowering experience. Think back to being in high school. Can you remember being asked what you thought about something, and had 400 people in front of you waiting to listen? The theatre work gives them the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. Acting can be a great way to study human behavior and help us gain empathy for people in situations beyond our own experience.”
An ensemble of nine teens walks out onstage, taking seats at stools arranged to face the audience.
“Isolation!” they shout in unison.
“Do you know what being alone feels like?” asks the main character Claire, who is played by Nicole Barrera, a 16-year-old Austin High School sophomore.
The play commences as Claire, the new girl in school, accidentally knocks the books out of the hands of a boy she passes in the hall. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says picking up his stuff.
Known only as “Dude” in the play, he starts a friendly conversation with Claire. This exchange does not bode well with “Dude’s” girlfriend, and she starts a Facebook attack on Claire. Things get rough for Claire as insults like “slut” and “easy” are hurled at her in the hallways and she is ignored in her classes.
While the play being performed today is a fictionalized account, instances such as this are all too common for teens in school. The evolution of social media has created a vicious new breed of bullying, and its effects can be seen played out in the media. A 14-year-old Washington girl who sent a male crush and fellow schoolmate a nude photo became the target of a brutal smear campaign as her photo was forwarded to hundreds of teenagers throughout the region. Cyber bullying has also lead to suicides by teens who, tragically, were not able to get the support they needed to stop the bullying and see beyond the situation they were in now.
Changing Lives takes these real world situations and turns them into plays where fictional characters can be used to explore issues of how to be a “courageous bystander” and how kids can fight back against bullying. This afternoon, Burnet Middle School’s previously chattering, squirmy kids are completely silent and engrossed in the trials of Claire and her schoolmates.
“If we were in the same grade, they might just blow us off completely and be like ‘Whatever, we’re in the same grade,’” said Barrera. “Being a few years older we’re more vulnerable to them because we’ve been through this. We’re telling you straight, flat out, we’ve been bullied or might have even bullied a little bit. We want you guys [the audience] to know that if we got through it, anybody can get through it. The play is to tell people they’re not alone; there are people you can reach out to.”
Her fellow ensemble members share this sentiment as they sit around a cafeteria table after the performance. They are teens of all different ethnicities and backgrounds. As they talk excitedly in a post-performance rush, they are just kids having a good time together, unaware of differences for the moment, with the realization that they’re giving something back to the community.
“If feels really good for me because I’m a busy person and I feel like I don’t do a lot to give back to my community which has given me so much of my life,” Lina Green, 15, a McCallum Fine Arts academy student says.
“I’ve been through bullying and it’s a hard thing to go through. Sometimes you feel really alone, so I think it’s nice to have high school kids older than you come and show you that it’s alright, there are other people in the same situation as you.”
“It’s nice to put young people in front of other young people and let them demonstrate how to make positive choices,” Gutierrez said. “It’s about being cool and powerful within yourself, not for other people. Changing Lives members are hungry for this kind of work. There are so many things they are told they must do to get through the day, such as schoolwork and other tasks. This is something they really have a say in, something they can get their hands on. It’s dynamic and different, and they get really excited about it.”
This passion and youthful enthusiasm is evident as the group walks out of the cafeteria. A couple of male ensemble members high-five some boys who tell them how awesome they thought the play was. Greg Orsak-Ramirez, 19, and a theatre freshman at ACC leads the group down the hall. He has a calm, mature presence and is one of the last ensemble members to talk.
“I love the entire process, starting with meeting a big group of kids who have no idea who they’re looking at,” Orsak-Ramirez said. “We actually get to meet these people and learn who they are and befriend them. We show them it’s actually easy to start a friendship in a healthy environment and how to embrace somebody with warm arms. It’s like ‘Hey, what’s up, everything’s gonna be cool. We just need to hang out for a few days and get used to it.’ That’s what drew me in. If it got me, it’s gotta get somebody else.”