A stage is all the world

October 6, 2006
By

ANIKO NAGY

Youth program combines acting, real life
Theater and life lessons come together at Urban Improv, a Jamaica Plain-based organization which for nearly 15 years has sought to educate youths through performance.

This month the group is beginning its second year of a program called Youth Unscripted. The program involves teenagers ages 14-18 who perform improvised skits.

“In the program, we play out some of the things that would happen in a normal teenager’s life,” says Eric Avalo, 17, of Jamaica Plain.

First, the actors of Urban Improv hold what Avalo describes as a “brainstorming session” which produces a list of possible themes for the skits; for instance, the theme of domestic violence might be suggested. Then any of those themes are up for grabs.

A large number of teens, between 20 and 40, participate in each session, says JP resident Kippy Dewey, executive director of Urban Improv. That group then breaks up into smaller ones of three or four teens each, with one of the professional Urban Improv actors helping to perform a skit on the chosen theme.

At a critical point in the story, “The action is frozen and the students take the place of the actors,” says Dewey. A discussion of the events that transpired in the skit follows. The point is not to create great actors, although the program does teach about stage techniques like projection of the voice.

“It’s really not a program about acting. It’s a rehearsal for life. You don’t have to automatically do what has been done before,” says Dewey, who contrasts the Youth Unscripted program to other Urban Improve work as “performance-oriented” as opposed to “process-oriented.”

Both teach alternate ways of handling various topical situations in a teenager’s life, but the Youth Unscripted program trains the participants in developing acting skills so they can go out and perform for their peers. When that happens the process begins again; the action freezes and members of the audience step in and improvise.

Youth Unscripted, which was at first called the “Peer Mediation Program,” is a collaboration of Urban Improv, the SCORE Mediation Program at English High School, Team Mita of the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center and the Hyde Square Task Force. The last three organizations are social service groups from which the program exclusively gets its teen participants, who are paid a stipend for their work.

“They have chosen themselves to make being a peer leader a priority,” says Dewey. “They’re learning certain skills and then passing them on.”

Dewey says the hope is that while the teens use their new acting skills, they will learn how to react in various situations. “Everybody’s learning,” she says. Acting experience is not needed to be a part of Youth Unscripted.

“At first, I thought ‘Acting? I’m not too used to acting.’ But it’s fun. It wasn’t what I expected,” says Avalo. “I expected vigorous training.”

The benefits of the program are rich and varied. “I’ve become more like a people-person,” says Avalo. “I feel like now I can go act on demand.”

Dewey says the participants, “are really understanding they are in charge. They have a chance to make things different.”

Currently, there are two nine-week sessions. Each session has 20 to 40 participants. Dewey is hoping to have a summer session added next year.

“We hope,” says Dewey of possible performance locations, “to go to different youth organizations in Jamaica Plain and the metro-Boston area.”

The program is also supported by Brigham and Women’s and Children’s hospitals as well as the Boston Public Health Commission.

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