I had the opportunity to interview Sarah Lawrence College student Joshua Langman, a Junior, who is currently doing his second year of theater outreach. Once a week, Joshua and some of his classmates travel to a residential school for at-risk youth in Yonkers where they spend time in a classroom leading theater exercises. Ultimately, they are working towards putting together a piece of theater created by their students.
How did you get started doing theater outreach in New York?
Last year, I was introduced through a theater outreach class at Sarah Lawrence, taught by Allen Lang. He and Shirley Kaplan are co-directors of the Theatre Outreach Program. As part of the class, every student in the class works at least one community "placement." A placement may be a weekly visit to a hospital, school, library, shelter, or anywhere else where there are people who can benefit from engaging in theater. One of my placements last year was with [a school for at-risk youth], and I enjoyed the experience so much that I am returning and leading this year's outreach team.
What does your process look like?
Essentially, we spend the first semester doing "creative dramatics" and the second devising a show. The lessons learned early in the years are essential for working toward a performance, but the energy and excitement associated with "putting on a show" can provide some excellent motivation for the students to put in a little extra effort.
Is there a final product?
Last year, the school program culminated with a production of Bullies & Buddies, a musical about bullying written by the class. It incorporated rap and dance routines generated by the students. I don't yet know what this year's culminating performance will be about. In the end, though, it's not the showcase that matters. Kids who participate in making theater learn teamwork, self-confidence, respect, and the appreciation of artistry. I believe every middle-school student should take a theater class. Unlike sports, theater teaches teamwork without competition — everyone is working together TOWARDS a common goal, not AGAINST an opposing team. The amazing confidence that theater can instill is especially important in middle school, when everyone's egos are shifting and craving definition.
What are some of the challenges working with at-risk kids?
It is a challenging population to work with, because many of the students have behavioral problems or learning difficulties; they come from broken homes or have been caught up in the legal system. Yet by the end of the year, every one of them is revealed — both to us and to themselves — to be an artist. But doing theater with sixth-graders is challenging. Make that a room full of sixth graders who have led some horribly scarring lives, and the challenge becomes even greater. But that's precisely the point. We're not teaching them to be professional actors — we're using the tools of theater to give them a chance to express themselves in a supportive environment and to find confidence in their creativity.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Working at the school is incredibly rewarding. Every single class, I am astounded and impressed by the work the students do… I have seen a boy who wouldn't speak for six weeks jump into improv in week seven to exclaim, "Don't bully him! He's my friend!" I have seen a girl who was overwhelmingly self-conscious volunteer to be the narrator of our final showcase. You can't predict who will really take to the work. The outspoken, popular kid may turn out to be very shy on stage, while the quiet kid in the corner may end up stealing the show.
Do you recommend theater outreach for other college theater students?
There are so many people who could benefit from seeing and participating in theater but who are unable to go to the theater — so outreach brings the theater to them.