Barrington Stage's Playwright Mentoring Project: 20 years of 'passing the mic' to teens, giving them respect, time and a voice

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CHYNNA: I was scared when the roller coaster started going backwards.

BRENDAN: I was scared when they threatened not to give me my high school diploma.

HANNAH: I was scared when my chair made a fart sound.

C: I WAS SCARED WHEN THEY TOOK ME AWAY.

So begins a scene from one of the seven original scripts, based on true teen experiences, produced this school year through Barrington Stage Company's Playwright Mentoring Project. This script, called "Just Maybe" is written by a cast of nine youth in collaboration with familiar BSC playwright, Mark St. Germain.

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BROOKE: I'm afraid of having no friends.

JALEIX: I'm afraid of making bad decisions.

BRENDAN: I'm afraid of being a disappointment.

CAMERON: I'm afraid of being lonely.

For the past 20 years, the theater-based youth empowerment program has validated the struggles of hundreds of Berkshire County teens by bringing these issues into the spotlight and giving young people a platform from which to hash them out, on center stage.

"The need has endured because there will always be children at risk in society. I think our program endures because it teaches teenagers conflict resolution skills," Barrington Stage Company Artistic Director Julianne Boyd said.

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JACK: I'm scared of offending someone.

HANNAH: I'm scared of judgement.

NIA: I'm scared of rejection.

By partnering youth with each other, and with a trained team of artistic mentors, peer mentors, playwrights and clinical counselors, Playwright Mentoring Project is designed to teach kids critical social and emotional skills while giving them a safe, encouraging and creative space within which they can practice wielding them.

Boyd said that by teaching young people to own and use these skills, it can better help them cope and function through the angers and anxieties that arise through issues of school, family and various relationships and other circumstances that may be beyond their control.

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"You're at a loss, you're not in control of yourself, until you learn you can solve your own problems," the director said.

The show must go on

This year's Playwright Mentoring Project included 53 students, between the ages of 13 and 19, who worked in six groups, three based in North Adams and three based in Pittsfield. Most have little to no acting experience. The groups' writing, rehearsal and performance processes were collectively supported by six artistic mentors, 11 peer mentors (including a Barrington Stage education fellow), five playwrights and three licensed clinical social workers.

PMP is "completely donor funded," according to Director of Education Jane O'Leary; more than a hundred individuals and businesses have contributed since 2018. In addition to its support structure, what makes PMP unique is that students are not charged a fee to participate, rather each youth receives a $200 stipend to participate in the six-month program, which begins in October and meets weekly.

Boyd said the stipends were integrated into the PMP model after considering that several participants have or need part-time jobs to either help support their families or to cover their own personal expenses.

"By doing this I also believe we're showing them the values of theater. It's hard work. It teaches them a discipline that they need. And we're saying you are really worth every penny we're giving you because you are very special," she said.

When the COVID-19 outbreak began, the groups were in the thick of their three-hour rehearsals, preparing for a tour of school-based performances in March and final performances at BSC slated for April. Social distancing protocols may have kept them apart, but their work continued through Zoom video session.

The 20th anniversary festival of PMP productions debuted on April 22 via livestream on YouTube. The nearly four-hour program — which included readings of six plays, some surprising musical numbers and concluding talkback session — drew nearly a hundred viewers and a whole lot of audience love, as visible in the livestream's chat box: "Epic," wrote one viewer. "So powerful," said another. "I've got goosebumps ... your message is fantastic," read another rave review that included the red heart and bouquet of flowers emojis.

Real work at play

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Year after year, what generates audience reactions like this from PMP plays is that all the scripts are rooted in raw, real experiences, emotions, and yes, drama.

"In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, teens overcome substance abuse, family violence, and school failure on stage at the Playwright Mentoring Project," First Lady Laura Bush said when she presented program representatives the 2007 "Coming Up Taller" award at the White House from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

"It shows the Berkshires that things aren't always what they seem," said Brooke Tripicco, 13, a first-year PMP member.

This year's themes included variations on coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; feeling suicidal; being institutionalized; school violence and bullying; sexual assault and dating pressure; body image shaming and social isolation, among other matters.

Allison Lerman-Gluck, BSC education coordinator and first-year artistic mentor said, "Teenagers' lives are really complicated. The world is not set up to support them or make it possible for them to have full say in everything that happens to them. PMP provides a space where teen voices are heard, amplified, and acknowledged as completely vital."

Kristopher Safford, 16, got involved with PMP last year by going with a friend. But there was something about the atmosphere that motivated him to return week after week.

"PMP has been a great outlet because high school's hard, really hard," he said. "You're going to theater to express your emotions, all these things, with other people who are going through the same things."

The issues participants are facing are often first presented to the rest of the group in the form of monologues or a simple, short story. Then the rest of the group is encouraged to respond by offering their ideas on ways the presenter could potentially address the situation. Those responses are the core of the groups' scripts, but it can take weeks or even months for those ideas and responses to manifest among group members.

"A lot of the time, [teens] are feeling not heard, almost suppressed, and don't feel comfortable being able to talk about these things because it's so personal," said North Adams based counselor Lisa Tessier, who says she has worked with PMP groups for at least six years. She said the theater exercises, youth friendships, adult support, and consistently meeting each week all help participants to develop a bond of trust and respect.

"There could be and should be more outlets for them like this," Tessier said.

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"The biggest lesson I've learned in PMP is that you have to get to know people in order to be able to grow together," 13-year-old participant Julianna Salinovici said, reflecting on her inaugural year with the program.

"The dynamic between each group is so different," Safford said. Last year, his first year, he described his group as both "serious and goofy." This year, he said he and his fellow performers were "always laughing, keeping each other happy, smiling."

Safford recalled one meeting when, "It felt like everyone was just losing their minds because of the hard week so everyone was just letting loose and being weird together and no one judged each other for that. It was just unison — this is fun."

Asked why she returned for a third year with PMP, 16-year-old Elizabeth Weibel said, "I really kept coming back because of the new people, the new experiences that you got to get, and it really opened your eyes to a lot of things that other people were experiencing that you weren't. It was really a great way to learn and connect with people," she said.

"Everyone's open and it's just complete honesty, so when you go there, you come back home and you feel different. You don't feel as upset as you do when you first go there," said Rikiyah Hudson, 18, a first-year member.

Mikey Brassard, 16, said that for him, being involved with PMP is "very freeing."

"Being handed a microphone, so to speak, it's a complete before and after, I find, for me at least, because you live your life very differently as soon as just one person hears your voice. So specifically, it's like you learn a lot about yourself as well through the experience," he said.

"It's a lot of just helping people in a lot of ways," said Tessa Hanson, 15. "I've seen so many people from last year who were, like, so silent and to themselves — I'm one of them — and we've all grown so much, like we're all so confident now and we've become more passionate about stuff and we've grown from PMP."

Vanessa LeSage, 18, who's now completed her third year, said that while she still has anxieties, she's found better ways to cope with them. Earlier on in her PMP experience, LeSage said she depended on the people she had grown familiar with. This year, in a completely new group, she admitted initially being stressed out.

"But then I was like, I'm going to let them give their ideas and I'm going to hear them but then help them figure it out because I'm not new to this, so they would ask me for my advice and it felt really good," she said.

Braving an uncertain future

Back in December, another group under the PMP umbrella, called Excel, created a satire on the social work and juvenile justice system, a shock for some, since the group is a diversion program supported in partnership with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office and Berkshire County Juvenile Court. This year's Excel group included 10 youth, with five completing the program and performing their show back in December, in front of their families and caseworkers, at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center on Linden Street in Pittsfield. "It's very brave of them," said Joe Gunn, who has been working with PMP Excel youth since 2005.

He said young people get caught up in gangs, substance abuse and other risk factors when they don't feel like they have support at home, school or in the community.

Instead of expressing anger at how the teens critiqued the system they were in, Gunn said the audience was humbled. "They were shocked. They were surprised. They thought these kids were professionals. I was in tears," he said.

Gunn's own life has been dramatically changed by the program. He was acknowledged as an Unsung Hero Honoree during the virtual Berkshire Nonprofit Awards 2020 last week, for his mentorship through PMP. But he said he calls the students his heroes.

"For them to come to that space and have that moment of time to express themselves and be vulnerable is huge," said Gunn. "It's good work that needs to be done."

While Julianne Boyd said the effects of the current pandemic have been "crippling" to Barrington Stage's education program, both she and Jane O'Leary say whatever the future holds, they are committed to keeping PMP afloat.

"We hope to be able to continue the work and offer what we have learned about creative youth development to other professionals in the field. The work that PMP does has been honed over 20 years of reflection and documentation," O'Leary said.

Said Lerman-Gluck in support of the program's longevity, "Creating this space of support and encouragement is important beyond the bonds that participants are able to make with each other and with the adults in the room. PMP is about passing the mic to teenagers who get to hold the floor, no interruptions, with full respect from our audience, from staff, and from each other."


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