Friday, April 23, 2004

Behind the wire: Theater classes at Long Creek Youth Development Center

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s a Monday afternoon as I walk to the desk at the euphemistically named Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. I surrender my wallet, keys, sunglasses, datebook, and jacket. I have a form that allows me to carry my notebook and pens through the locked doors, into where the children are held.

I’ve come to visit a class run by the Winter Harbor Theater Company, in an eight-week session of theater classes for 12 teens who have been locked up here.

Caitlin Shetterly (who writes "Bramhall Square" for the Phoenix) and Tessy Seward, Winter Harbor’s co-founders, along with technical director Chris Fitze, and local actors Chris Holt and Paul Drinan, arrive just behind me.

As the kids arrive in the classroom, there’s a barely contained tension. The kids are bouncing off the walls, and the teachers are uncertain what will happen that day.

First comes a bit of yoga. We stretch and move together, focusing their energy and helping them learn what their bodies and voices can do.

After a few minutes, it’s time for scene practice. Seward, Shetterly, and the others have chosen four contemporary plays to work from, selecting them and the scenes within them to be applicable and attractive to these kids.

"A lot of them have substance-abuse themes," Seward says. Most have characters between the ages of 16 and 20, a good fit for this group of kids, aged 15 to 19, from all over the state.

The center’s staff asked nothing be performed that glorified or romanticized violence, but they allowed plays in which "it’s clear that these behaviors are problems" for the characters, as Seward says.

The kids get "a chance to play a character that they might be able to relate to." It’s their first foray into theater, and given the embarrassment and playful shyness they exhibit during the warm-up session, the kids could use a little familiarity.

One student, whom I’ll call Keith, announces that he has written a short scene during lockdown. Rather than work on the scene he was assigned, he and his scene partner, "Jim," explore Keith’s own work.

It was inspired by an experience in his own life, attending the funeral of a friend who was stabbed to death in a fight. The minute-long scene offers glimpses into Keith’s life and our society.

Keith and Jim play young men at the funeral, talking over the body, asking what the death was for — why their friend sought out the fight. They mourn the loss, empathize for the mother of the dead man, and invoke the feelings of honor and camaraderie that bind young people together. They laugh that if only the fight hadn’t happened, the three of them would be hanging out with "half-naked women, drinking forties."

This is a playwright who has found his voice. Keith acts and directs, exploring his feelings and explaining them to Jim in the process.

At the end of the eight-week class, the students perform for their fellow inmates, as well as parents, guards, and a few visitors. One student is in the infirmary, and can’t be there. His scene partner bows out as well, instead being the stage manager and hamming it up between scenes, as if to show his parents he did participate.

The show, under a basketball net in the Long Creek gym, is a moving hour of amateur theater. Kids who have been told to go away from society explore their feelings of hurt, rebellion, and anger safely, with no parents or guards in their faces and no peers jeering.

The performance is a tribute to the power of human faith, and the strength of theater. In heartbreakingly expressive voices, these kids — many of whom speak too fast and too quietly, most of whom read their lines rather than delivering from memory — open their hearts through the words of others.

Keith plays a dead-on Vietnam vet with an alcohol problem. An expressive kid who knows the hard side of the world, he describes hitting a girl until she stops moving. It is a riveting portrayal, no doubt made deeper by Keith’s own life experience.

One set of scene partners and a solo actor have scrapped the original, modern scripts they were to have performed, choosing instead to bring Shakespeare to life in this lockdown.

"D.J.," one of the shyer kids most of the time, delivers the chilling gallows speech of Aaron, a Goth prisoner in Titus Andronicus.

He is nervous as he approaches the seats, directing his words and his venom at individuals in the audience, but he pulls off a powerful and heartfelt delivery that earns him props from his friends at the end.

Later, D.J. and "Anne," also one of the quieter of the group, have memorized their scene. At one point, distracted by his buddies, D.J. loses his line entirely. It’s clear from his face that it’s gone. Not giving up this time, he fights — the effort is visible — to reclaim it, and does so, finishing the scene with a large grin of pride.

"Evan" and "Carol" do a scene together, in which both appear shy but impassioned. They, too, have promise in the theater.

Jim and Keith are together in the next scene, in which they again explore the consequences of youthful misdeeds. This time it is a part of The Outsiders, in which two young men seek refuge from fate. Keith delivers a strong performance here as well, struggling for but managing to recite Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay and holding the crumbling character together by force of will.

It is a wonderful thing that Keith and "Wyatt" return in the final scene, as Benvolio and Romeo, from Romeo and Juliet. While their voices are a bit too quiet for the gym, Wyatt demonstrates a mastery of the language that few actors achieve so early in their careers.

Shetterly and Seward are now raising money for a second effort to throw a theatrical lifeline to kids behind the wire.