There was a nervously positive energy onstage and in the audience at the Front Porch Cafe in South Akron as the neighborhood teenage girls prepared to share the result of 10 weeks of work. Their offering: a unique theatre performance that blurred the line between performer and audience and lessons that would stay with them far beyond the night of the show.
“She is.,” which took place in December, was the result of a partnership between South Street Ministries and Gum-Dip Theatre, an organization that offers community-building through socially engaged performances. The Girls Studio participants were given a space to nurture growth and trust, along with exploring ideas like self-empowerment, sexism and racism, thanks to a talented duo who crafted this unique intersection of art and social identity.
“This is going to be completely different than any other play or movie that you’ve ever seen, because you are all part of it,” said Gum-Dip Theatre Founder Katie Beck to the audience. “You’re going to see a scene happen once, and then the scene is going to happen again a second time, and you will have a chance to stop it and change what happens.”
To start, three “jokers,” or facilitators, led the audience through some theatre exercises, like stating their name along with a gesture created on the spot that the rest of the audience then repeats. And after the various scenarios were acted out, along with the audience feedback and instruction, Beck and Amber Cullen, program director at South Street Ministries, presented awards to the girls while sharing a carefully chosen word for each of them. A word that completes the sentence initiated by the name of the performance.
“The most powerful point of the performance for me was at the end when we presented them with their plaques,” says Cullen. “The volunteers and I all had gathered together weeks prior and had chosen a word that we felt each girl embodied in the depths of who they are. Each girl was called up to the stage and given their plaque and their word. ‘She is bold.’ ‘She is grace.’ ‘She is insight.’ ‘She is voice.’ Powerful words for powerful girls.”
“I really hope that the girls feel super empowered and super loved,” says Beck, who has led a number of community-based theatre projects since moving back to Akron two years ago. “The performance was the piece that really gave them the push from the community. I also hope that they see the power that they have, that they are the ones who will change our world. They performed and facilitated all of the scenes with the audience, giving them full power of what was happening. I hope they use that in other setting in their lives. I hope they change in their world into what could be instead of what it is.”
Theatre of the Oppressed
For the project, Beck channeled lessons from Theatre of the Oppressed, which leverages performing arts as a force for social change. “Knowing the age group and purpose of the program (empowerment, sisterhood), I felt that doing Theatre of the Oppressed exercises for a full 10 weeks would allow for the girls to explore themselves safely and productively in the Girls Studio space. It was truly a perfect middle for me and Amber with our organizations.”
Girls Studio has been a part of South Street Ministries’ programming for four or five years, says Cullen. “At the end of the day, I see Girls Studio as a safe space where our girls are free to be fully themselves, and to explore what it means to be fully themselves. We create a space of family, a space where we have one another’s backs and support one another. It started off by us doing trust exercises, and then all of a sudden one week we found ourselves talking about real life things like racism, discrimination and oppression. Because we had built trust with one another, we were able to dive into these things and explore what it might look like to create a world where these things weren’t the reality.”
One of the challenges of the performance was to instill confidence in these young performers, says Beck. “With almost 50 people there, the girls were able to take the performance and make it their own. Meanwhile, every person in the audience was clapping, cheering, laughing and generally supporting them with every step of the way. It was not a typical theatrical performance, and that’s what was so exciting.”
She adds: “Another valuable lesson I took away from the performance is to always trust the audience. I was nervous for this type of interactive performance to happen with an audience who may not be used to theatre. This proved to be just fine, because the audience was fantastic in participating during the scenes. Lastly, I learned so much from the girls: how to be strong, how to be funny, how to be brave. They taught me so much throughout the process and the performance about what it means to be a young woman in this day and age.”
Gum-Dip and South Street are two organizations that work extensively with marginal populations to explore and help implement change in the community. For more info, visit www.gumdiptheatre.com or southstreetministries.org.