Virginia juvenile court partners with Urban Theatre Project

Ten students take to a light-adorned stage. Through poetry, dance, theater and song, they weave together tales of their everyday lives. Six weeks ago they started rehearsals; seven weeks ago they were criminals.

The Urban Theatre Project helps at-risk teens combat emotional instability by giving them a voice through the arts. By teaching 15- to 17-year-olds how to express themselves in a healthy manner. The theater program, which was intended to provide juvenile delinquents fun they didn’t regularly have, has changed their perspectives on life.

“The kids typically improvise stories about a crime the first couple times they try,” said Olymphia Perkins, court service unit director in Virginia Beach. “Gradually over the weeks, they begin to create stories about life.

“The primary goal of juvenile probation is to help kids change the way they view crime. We want to challenge thinking that leads to criminal behavior and help them see the benefits of developing prosocial attitudes and behaviors.”

The Urban Theatre Project started in Oregon. As a baby, Cheryl Cochran was abandoned on the doorstep of a house. She was raised by her uncle and aunt, but never felt the necessary emotional stability that children require. Then she discovered dance. “Make a point, don’t be the point” is a phrase the Urban Theatre Project creator still quotes.

Cochran led UTP for 2½ years, until she finished her master’s degree and moved to Washington state. The Urban Theatre Project continues today in Oregon. For the past three years, UTP has worked in partnership with the Virginia Stage Company and the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

A group of six to 10 teens meet one evening a week for six weeks while the program is in session. Ryan Clemens, lead resident theater artist from the Virginia Stage Company, leads them in theater games that are interwoven with practical life lessons. These lessons range from interpersonal communication, such as eye contact, to building trust. This goes on for the first five weeks. The sixth week is their showcase performance.

During the first half of the show, held in Renaissance Academy, the families, parole officers and other audience members join Ryan and the kids on stage as they go through their theater games with a small twist: the students help teach and demonstrate the games. “The student becomes the teacher and the subordinate becomes the peer,” Ryan said — a dynamic that few experience, yet is crucial for the teens who go through the Urban Theatre Project.

After intermission, the students perform in a traditional manner with an art piece of their own — dance, poetry, singing or a theatrical skit. At the last performance, a girl wanted to sing, but stage fright get the best of her. Instead of moving on, the audience and other performers worked to make her comfortable: It took turning around and shutting off all the lights in the theater, but she did it.

Autumn Laufer, a dancer teacher who worked for Urban Theatre Project, said she believes art gives the students the power to overcome what they are facing.

"Some had amazing voices!" she said. "If we could just help these kids to channel that negative energy through these positive gifts they have.”