Over the past ten years I have devoted myself to bringing free actor-training to inner-city youth. In that decade I have experienced clearly and conclusively, that theater can have an impact on a young life that goes way beyond the craft of acting. I have seen it over and again: the veritable transformation of lives, the cultivation of self-respect, of confidence, of coming into oneself, one’s voice, one’s life. I would like to share one example emblematic of countless others.
Darnell P. was a young man of sixteen when he joined our after-school program, though he wasn’t in school at the time. Three years before he came to us, his mother placed him in a foster home because she found out that he was gay. Darnell dropped out of school, dropped out of life, changed his name to Peaches and engaged in self-destructive behavior. He ended up living in a homeless shelter.
Darnell’s first year in our after-school program was difficult for him and his faculty though he had a spark, as so many of these young people do. Despite the missed classes, flare ups, despite the tough persona, the mask of the street kid, we stuck with Darnell and he with us. The year ended with a project in which he performed and that spark we saw seemed particularly bright as he left us for the long swelter of a summer in New York City, a difficult environment for any young person regardless of social economic background. We were especially encouraged by what Darrell’s guardian said after his final performance. “This is the first time Darnell has ever finished anything.”
“I don’t go by Peaches anymore,” were the words with which Darnell greeted us upon returning for a second year the following fall. We further learned that Darnell had taken his high school equivalency over the summer and enrolled himself in Manhattan Community College. Darnell still wrestled with his demons (who doesn’t?) but the transformative positive effect of actor training was gloriously present in him.
What is it about actor training that has such a life affirming effect on young people? The answers are numerous. Here are a few. Acting, particularly in the beginning, requires a robust confrontation with one’s habitual self. An all important gap emerges between the self one invents to survive in the world, often a mere caricature of a deeper, free and empowered self. Acting also demands the exercising of the inherent choice-making muscle that exists in all of us. Further, theater, an ensemble art-form, demands that people understand, respect, and make room for one another. Finally, theater gives young people a standard to reach for and fosters responsibility. All of this is true for any youth regardless of socio-economic background. However, it has particular relevance for youth from the inner-city who suffer abominable educational conditions.
Darnell is now is his third year of training. He has become a leader in the group, making daring artistic choices and cheering on his peers. He is articulate about his personal development and recently said that while he arrived at the Studio a depressed teen without direction, he has grown into a man who is connected to his feelings and inner strength. He has his own apartment, a part-time job, and is about to receive his Associate’s degree. When he is ready, he has an offer for a full scholarship to one of our Conservatory training programs. His journey has just begun and his light shines brighter than ever.