It is Theatre Night for Teens at Everyman Theatre, and the second floor lobby area has been transformed into an educational wonderland. Students grades 9-12 gather just outside the elevator, speaking in different languages with one another and hesitant to move into the space even as Brianna McCoy, Director of Education at Everyman, ushers them in.
Tonight, Everyman is hosting students from Patterson High School and Digital Harbor High School, who are also participants in out-of-school programming provided by the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project.
Everyman Theatre education and community engagement representatives visited these schools twice this semester, introducing theatre to young adults, many of whom have never experienced it before.
They use a combination of icebreakers and theatre games to engage with the students and to get them to talk about themselves – basic subjects, like where they are from or what it is like to be a teen in Baltimore.
Asia McCullom, an Urban Arts Leadership Program fellow with Everyman, has been to both sets of workshops and has seen students really respond to what she calls the ‘Beach Ball Activity’.
“We bought a large beach ball and wrote questions on it, like ‘How many languages do you speak?’ or ‘What’s your favorite meal?’” she explains. “As they pass it around the circle, they answer the questions. The students really listen to each other … They open up more and more.”
The theatre work RYP students are exposed to occurs around a circle, resulting in a highly participatory environment. “The democratic experience [of the circle] might be different than what they know,” Brian Francoise, Director of Community Engagement at Everyman, says.
Francoise, who began the partnership with RYP, says he tries to create programming that ties the theatre season to a long-term community partner. He has been interested in working with young people outside of the context of school, and once he learned that RYP has not yet offered a theatre program to their students, he knew they were the right fit.
“I’ve been admiring [their work] for about ten years,” he says.
Brittany DeNovellis, RYP’s program coordinator, was equally as excited at the opportunity to partner with Everyman Theatre. “I loved participating in the theatre program at my own high school and thought this collaboration could be a special opportunity for the young adults that we serve. It has been a joy to see students take part in theatre games and connect with each other in unexpected ways.”
TNT allows students to experience live theatre at a fraction of the cost of a typically-priced ticket. Ten dollars gets a high school student dinner (sponsored by Noodles and Company), an artist meet-and-greet (with Caite Hevner, projection designer), the show (“The Book of Joseph”), dessert and a post-show discussion.
Everyman specifically connected with RYP because “The Book of Joseph” is centered around one man’s experience as a refugee. Based on the true story of Richard Hollander, who discovered a box of World War II-era letters stamped with swastikas in his attic from his father, the play focuses on the “courage to face difficult stories,” explains Francoise. “It closely parallels with the immigrant experience in Baltimore.”
As the students eat their dinner and wait for the event to begin, it is difficult to see them as anything other than young people. They break out into cliques, tease each other and flirt. Their youthful wonder is evident, and they are incredibly eager to explore the space, which hosts a plethora of pre-show activities.
Set and costume design displays are pinned up on the wall, showcasing designs from “The Book of Joseph.” A mini photo booth is set up with a box of props and costumes, and once the students find themselves more comfortable in the space, they try everything. One girl tries to zip a friend into a dress, but it seems like it does not quite fit.
Lisa Langston, the Education Program Manager, guides the students through two activities that will help them begin to connect to the themes of the show. The first is a suitcase, mirroring the suitcase Richard Hollander found in his attic, where students can place their answers to two questions: ‘What would you want to find in your attic?’ and, conversely, ‘What would you never want to find in your attic?’
This activity is, unfortunately, not as populated as the ‘CENSOR’ activity, where students are given a life story and then asked to write a letter about their life that would pass a censor (the most popular story chosen is one of forbidden love). One student writes in her native Arabic and passes the censor. Another copies what is written on the card with his pretend life story and is denied.
Soon, enough, however, it is time to meet Caite Hevner, projection designer, and then see the show. The students listen with rapt attention, some of them dissolving into giggles or whispers as the Q&A commences. McCoy makes sure to allow everyone to introduce themselves before beginning the talk – no one is allowed to feel unimportant.
Hevner discusses her role in the production, pulling up pictures of her previous work to further explain what she does. “When I’m approached with a project, I think ‘If no one hired me to work on this show, what would be missing?’” she says. “And then I add that in.”
After the talk, the students are ushered to their seats, grabbing their ticket from Langston as they run to the elevator and stairs.
“I’ve never seen a play before,” says Marita*, before she shyly enters the theatre to grab her seat. She is a student at Digital Harbor and RYP participant, and her statement echoes among her peers. She settles into her seat, and the lights come up to reveal a new world.
*name has been changed