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Retreat Brings Changing Lives Group Closer Together

by Nitra Gutierrez, Middle School and High School Program Associate

Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble (CLTYE) had an AMAZING retreat this weekend.

Being part of this ensemble takes hard work, focus and determination. Our work together can look many ways. Sometimes it means having big conversations about power, gender and relationships. Sometimes it means playing theatre games that help us let down our guard and be our authentic selves together. But sometimes, being part of this ensemble means letting go of the everyday and doing something extraordinary. That’s what we did this weekend.

Saturday morning we packed up our sleeping bags and headed out on a mini-road trip to the Candlelight Ranch.

We jumped right in and started our adventure with some fun on the zip-lines. This group was FEARLESS!

We traversed a canyon on a wire (think a tightrope) and even though we were locked into safety harnesses, we had to conquer some serious nerves to do it. We made dinner together, painted each others’ faces, played games, made a fire, told scary stories, serenaded each other with improvised love songs and woke up the next morning to work on our teamwork on a low ropes course before we packed it all up and came home. It was an experience full of energy, friendship and fun.

Something magical seems to happen on these retreats (and I don’t just mean that now my 35 year old mind is playing “Call me Maybe” on a loop) I don’t know if it’s because we had some concentrated time to live together as a family or because facing our fears of heights drew us closer together. What I do know is that we learned a little bit about who we are as individuals and a lot about who we are as a team – and we are more of an ensemble than ever.

A big THANK YOU to our fantastic community of Changing Lives ensemble members, their supportive families and guardians and our volunteers for making this retreat an unforgettable event.

Changing Lives Peer Leaders

by Nitra Gutierrez, Middle School and High School Program Associate

In the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble, we strive to make our work together better every year. Sometimes that means adding a new theatrical frame, working with guest artists who challenge us to find better practices or adjusting our program model to improve it. This year, we have rolled out a new peer leadership model we learned about from our friends at the Theatre Offensive in Boston.

Four of our returning ensemble members (students who have been with the program for at least a year) have gone through our application process and have been selected to be Peer Leaders for our group. They will function as group leaders for our new ensemble members, help with administrative duties, help plan and facilitate rehearsals and be our go-to students for last minute opportunities that come up through the year.

Congratulations to Lina, Madi, Vivienne & Gary for being our first cohort of Peer Leaders. Keep an eye on these folks. They’re going to accomplish great things this year!

Azulina (aka Lina) is a sixteen year old senior at Garza High School in Austin, Texas. She enjoys sewing, theatre, film making, and most other silly things. For the past two years she has found the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble to not only be a great way to advocate for change, but to also be an excellent creative outlet. She hopes to major in international relations and work to supply humanitarian aid to third world countries. In addition to Changing Lives, Lina is a member of a Destination Imagination team and takes classes at Austin Community College.

Madi is a 17 year old senior at Lanier High School. Outside of theatre she enjoys writing and playing tennis. This is her third year in The Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble and she is ecstatic about what this year has to bring.

Vivienne attends Gonzalo Garza Independence High School as a junior. She has spent one and a half years in the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Project. In her spare time, she writes, roller skates, and works at Bush’s Chicken on Brodie Lane. Theatre had always been a secret passion for her, but when she heard about Changing Lives, she knew it was just the program for her and her will to help the teens who need it.

Gary Livingston-Weaver is coming back for his second year with the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble and is also a member of A Chick & A Dude Productions. Gary has been interested in theatre for as long as he can remember. His credits include- with The Royal Court Players: Scenic Crew for Evita, Junglebook, Omnium Gatherum, The Who’s Tommy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Parade. With Hyde Park Theatre: Assistant Stage Manager for Body Awareness. With A Chick & A Dude Productions: Voice-Over Actor for HIT., Scenic Crew for Winterland: A Journey Through ChristmaHanuKwanzaakkah, Paradise Key, and Glengarry Glen Ross. With ADV Flims: Voice-Over Actor for The Getbackers. Gary is currently attending Austin Community College with hopes to transfer to a four-year university to further study both performance and design aspects of theatre. Gary is happy to be working with Changing Lives again and very excited for the upcoming season.

If you are age 14-20 and are interested in taking on a paid position in Changing Lives, please contact to find out how you can use your talents to be a positive force in the community while making friends and having fun.

Changing Lives Auditions Are Right Around the Corner!

by Nitra Gutierrez, Middle School and High School Program Associate

When I was a young actor, I approached auditions with a mix of anxiety, challenge and excitement.  I would get nervous and feel the heat rise to my cheeks as my heart beat fast with anticipation.  Once or twice, I decided that avoiding the audition process altogether was a safer choice than facing someone who would tell me whether I was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for the part.

It’s a high-stakes experience.  When we want to perform, we want to share ourselves with the world.  What could be more deflating than sharing yourself with a group of strangers only to be rejected?  Performing is an act of tremendous courage. It takes a lot of courage to take risks.  It takes guts to put yourself in front of people.

I empathize with young actors who enter any audition process. I know it can be scary, so I work to make our auditions as positive an experience as I can.  It’s not competitive.  It’s not stressful.  Trying out for Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble feels more like attending a rehearsal than an episode of America’s Got Talent.

I think it’s most important for youth trying out for the program to decide whether they are a good fit for the ensemble.  I ask them, “Do you enjoy this?  Is this the kind of work you can commit to with your whole self?  Do you see yourself giving the ensemble the time and dedication you’d give to an extra-curricular sport or a part-time job?”

People ask what ‘we’re looking for’ in Changing Lives auditions. My response is always the same. “I want team players, not divas or stars.  I want strong voices but not necessarily the loudest voices in the room.  I want kids who have something to say and are also ready to listen to others and collaborate artistically. Most importantly – I want youth who are willing to be themselves and commit fully to the play-making process.”

Changing Lives is a group of teen artist/activists who write and perform original theatre pieces about issues that affect teens. In the fall semester, we work together to build our performance skills and have meaningful discussions about the issues as we zone in on a topic. By spring, we turn all those skills into a full theatre piece that we tour to local middle and high schools. Key info about participation:

  1. Ensemble members must commit to the ensemble for the full school year and are paid a stipend for their work at the end of each semester.
  2. Rehearsals take place on Tuesdays & Thursdays from 7-9 p.m. at a location in central Austin.
  3. Students are responsible for their own transportation to rehearsals and performances.

Auditions for the 2012-2013 ensemble will be held on August 30th from 7-9 p.m., location TBA. To reserve a spot at auditions, please text your full name and the word “audition” to 361-537-6163.

If you have questions, please email for more information.

P.S. My first day of school was AMAZING! I conquered my fear of nuns and discovered that Sister Rogelia and Sister Rosario were fantastic story tellers.

Changing Lives Summer Program Interviewing New Ensemble Members

by Nitra Gutierrez, Middle School and High School Program Associate

Photo by: Carol Acurso Photography

This summer, we’ll be working with Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble students in a two-week conservatory style acting program to continue nurturing our artistic practice for the upcoming school year. We’ll be holding classes to hone our skills in voice production, movement and scene study. Students will:

  • Develop their presence on stage
  • Learn tricks to stay in the moment during scene work, and
  • Continue cultivating their memorization and projection skills.

Students will meet in the afternoons from July 16-27 at the Scottish Rite Theatre to unlock the skills that professional actors use in their creative practice.

Photo by: Carol Acurso Photography

Changing Lives is a group of teen artist/activists who create original pieces of theatre to spark dialogue about issues that affect teens. During the school year we work as a group to create an original theatre piece about an issue important to teens. In spring we tour our show to middle schools all over the Austin area. Ensemble member positions are paid during the school year program. This year’s summer program is designed to serve students who would like to continue with the ensemble in the fall semester.

If you know a teen between the ages of 14-20 who would like to use their voice to create positive change in their community, is interested in performance and would be a good fit for the ensemble, please contact our Artistic Director, Nitra Gutierrez ( to schedule an interview.

P.S. I never went to summer camp.  Summer camp was my Grandparents’ backyard — we lived in our bathing suits.  My favorite summer was probably the one when we watched Dirty Dancing every day (twice sometimes!)

The End of the Beginning

by Nitra Gutierrez, Middle School and High School Program Associate

After a full year of working with Theatre Action Project’s Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble, I often find myself faced with mixed feelings come May. Part of me (I think it must be my brain) tallies up the successes we have experienced together:

  • Writing an original play, learning performance skills, touring shows for audiences of 600+
  • Having peer leaders make appearances in the news and on panels advocating against bullying and unhealthy relationships and
  • Taking CLYTE students on our first performance at a national conference

I consider the challenges we have faced as a team:

  • Wrangling 20 energetic teens, maintaining our focus, getting them to be loud when we needed them to be (and getting them to be quiet when we needed them to be)
  • Dealing with the unexpected actor illnesses on performance days
  • Working through the frustrating moments when we wished the play could write itself

Another part of me (you might say it’s my heart) is simply awestruck at the growth and beauty I have witnessed while working alongside these students.

It’s remarkable how much growth a person can experience in a year. In September, I had a motley group of shy kids and self-professed weirdos who “didn’t fit in anywhere else.” Some were silly. Some were silent. Now I see a unit of authentic individuals who have grown by listening, laughing and working together. They recognize the ensemble as a family whose relationships will continue to grow far beyond this school year. Where I saw fear in September, in May I see young adults rising to any occasion with confidence. I am proud of them, not just because they have become better actors or because they have learned to work as a team, or even because they have achieved so much but because they have allowed this experience to change their own lives- and mine.

Outside the Box: Changing Lives in San Francisco

by Nitra Gutierrez, Middle School and High School Program Associate

After the stage was clear, we had a few moments to rehearse our play. Here, Romeo (Lina) asks if Juliet (Leslie) if she will go on a date with him.

There’s a first time for everything. This weekend’s adventures marked a lot of “firsts” for us: first time to present our youth ensemble on a national scale, first flight on an airplane, first ride on a cable car, first chance to meet a famous solo performer and last but not least, first experience with jellyfish as a side dish and not just something to avoid on the beach.

This weekend, five ensemble members from the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble presented at the National Conference on Health & Domestic Violence sponsored by Futures Without Violence. We shared an excerpt of our original play, Outside the Box during a plenary session entitled: Transformers: Risk, Resilience and the Promise of our Teens on the conference’s closing day. After the performance, one of our youth represented the ensemble on a panel to discuss teen relationship health.

As the Artistic Director for the Ensemble (and first time chaperone on a trip of this scale), finding the words to express the experience of this adventure is trickier than rounding up five teenagers in the biggest H&M clothing store they have ever seen. I hope sharing some of our photos with you can give you a taste of our experience. This trip is one I will hold onto for years to come. I know these kids will too. I am honored to work alongside such a fantastic group of youth who are creative, talented and committed to creating change among their peers. Thank you to Theatre Action Project & SafePlace for sending us on such a remarkable journey.

Before we knew it, our performance was over and we were faced with a standing ovation from healthcare professionals, social workers, community organizers, and activists.

Here Lina represents teen voices on a panel with Dr. Liz Miller and author Belva Davis

For several of us, the biggest thrill of the trip was getting the opportunity to meet Anna Deveare Smith, whose documentary theatre approach to solo performance involves “walking in the experience” of real people. We were able to see her perform excerpts from her new play just moments before we performed on the very same stage.

Leslie was just as excited as I was to see this legend in action.

We are smiling and sporting our presenter badges at a conference reception.
Leslie had never been on an airplane before. Aside from some minor squealing upon takeoff, she dealt with it like a champ!

Arrival at the San Francisco Airport.
Rumpled but ready for an adventure.

After the reception, we headed down to Chinatown for some adventurous cuisine.

Leslie and Nicole jam to the beats of a local Brazilian performance group.

What better way to celebrate a performance in San Francisco than by hopping onto a cable car and heading to Fisherman’s Wharf for some seafood?

Above: Gary bravely points out the jellyfish dish.
And tries it without fear! The verdict?
Yummy, with sesame flavor and very, very chewy.

The Goodwill Retreat

by Patrick Torres, Middle and High School Program Director

Today, Theatre Action Project (TAP) had the pleasure of joining Goodwill’s Workforce Investment Act (WIA) youth investment team for their staff retreat. They invited us to perform some of the material generated in our program at Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center, New Stages: Arts Empowerment for Juvenile Offenders. Ms. Florinda, Ms. Nitra and I performed a collection of monologues and poetry and fielded questions about strategies we use to engage the students. It was a wonderful time, and we were grateful to be invited to share our work with them. It is good to know that our programs are well-known in the community and it is truly exciting that they devoted a portion of their day to learning about us and our techniques. However, the best part of the day was the reminder that there are so many passionate, intelligent and creative people working all around this city on youth development.

I was very impressed with their programs and excited about identifying ways we can work together to better serve youth in our city, especially those involved in the Juvenile Justice System. I am always inspired by people who devote their time to helping youth achieve success, and today I am thankful I had the opportunity to meet this team!

And I would love to meet more of you who are out there working with youth. So, if you are reading this and we haven’t had the chance to meet each other, leave a comment or contact me here at TAP. I want to know what you are up to!

P.S. My favorite big hair is Conway Twitty’s. See you at TAP’s Big Hair Country Fair on March 24th at the Salt Lick Pavilion! To buy tickets visit: TAP Big Hair. Proceeds benefit Theatre Action Project.