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Theater Program Teaches Cleveland Teens Skills For Life

[Steve Wagner/Cleveland Public Theatre]

Cleveland Public Theatre tours a production throughout the city every year. The writing is original, the set is built just for this show, and it’s all done in eight weeks. This would be difficult for a group of professional artists, and this production is actually created entirely by teenagers from the Cleveland area.

CPT’s Student Theatre Enrichment Program, or STEP, is a way to teach mostly low-income middle and high schoolers about theater and also provide job training along the way.

Many of the students involved don’t actually plan on having a career in theater. Fourteen-year-old Gyasi Turner is one of those teens. He’d like to be a biologist or zoologist so he can study or take care of animals.

“(Theater is) not one of my long term goals, but definitely is a possibility,” Turner said.

This is Turner’s first year in the program. He’s a costumer, so he helped design and create the costumes, despite not having any previous experience. He says he learned to sew during the program.

Many of the skills STEP hopes to teach have nothing to do with theater. Tatianna Acoff is a junior at Max S. Hayes High School on the west side of Cleveland. She wants to be a registered nurse or maybe join the military. Although those career choices seem very different from theater, she says the skills she’s learned can help her in any job.

“Don’t get overwhelmed, and try, don’t get frustrated,” Acoff said.

Acoff and the crew helped design the set, which reflects the play’s setting of a dystopian future. Adam Seeholzer works for Cleveland Public Theatre, and he’s the program manager for this student production. He says the set was designed to look like the characters are at an abandoned steel mill, with smokestacks and a concrete column. He says it blends in with the real buildings in the area, near Outhwaite Community Center, where one of the productions occurred.

“It definitely fits into the environment,” Seeholzer said. “This is a part of our culture; this is a part of our city.”

Seeholzer has been working with STEP since 2006. He says each year it’s important to allow the students to do the work.

“A lot is observing and delegating and letting them go through the motions of failing, and maybe they take the long way about it or they don’t do it the way that you would have necessarily wanted, but it’s their way of working, that they’re figuring it out,” he said. “We have built in our schedule enough time for error, and they’re kind of fixing and adjusting as they go.”

Each year, CPT staff selects works of literature in a theme to help the teens write the script. This year, the theme is resistance, and the plot takes place in a future where art is illegal.

In the first act, freshman Quenisha Moss plays a military leader who has locked up those trying to rebel against her. Moss says she does want to be in theater when she graduates. In fact, she’s majoring in it at Cleveland School of the Arts. Moss says her favorite line is one she can personally relate to, where she asks one of her prisoners: “Do you know what happens to a black girl’s hair when it’s raining?”

“I know that struggle myself, so when I read that line, I was so happy and so excited because I can relate to it, and I really know, so I was able to play with it,” Moss said.

Seeholzer says letting the students write the script allows them to share stories from their personal experience.

“It is definitely their words on the page, and you really hear their voice, and most of what you hear on stage is what they personally wrote,” he said.

The cast and crew are paid for their work, which is typically about five hours a day, five days a week, although sometimes it’s longer.

Seeholzer says the long days teach them to not give up.

No matter whether you’re working for Home Depot or the business tower at KeyBank, you’re using those skills in the work environment,” he said. “And that’s being professional, being on time, doing hard work, doing work that may not always be fun, and seeing it through all the way to the end of the project, regardless of how hot it is outside or how scorching the sun may be or how tired you are.”

The 23rd season of STEP is over, but you can catch a new, student-produced production touring around the city next summer.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158