By Lauren Deck, Inside Out Community Arts Programs Coordinator
We are pleased to introduce our first blog post about the Inside Out Community Arts program. Last month, more than one hundred creative individuals including actors, visual artists, poets, storytellers, dancers, and musicians gathered for a weekend camping retreat in the Santa Monica Mountains. These talented and motivated artists rehearsed original plays, created sets, hiked, swam, drummed, and told stories around the campfire and performed for their peers in the natural beauty of Southern California.
If you’re like me, that sounds like a dream vacation. However, this retreat was not for adult artists; it was specifically tailored to support seventy-five middle school youth participants from Los Angeles and Compton who were enrolled in a program led by Inside Out Community Arts (IOCA). IOCA’s flagship program The School Project, is an after-school program that teaches theater arts and social/emotional skills to youth participants from underserved communities. This arts learning and skill development is then applied in a group play creation process during the second half of the program. Students are led in discussions and consensus voting to determine topics that address the most immediate and pertinent challenges in their lives. They co-create original plays about the issues they vote on and examine possible resolutions. Each spring session of The School Project includes a 3-day camping retreat where youth participants get a chance to explore their play topics more deeply, finalize scripts, rehearse, and perform for one another. The culmination of the session features a performance of their original plays in a professional theater for friends, family, teachers, and community members.
At this year’s camping retreat, students from John Adams (LAUSD, South LA), Whaley (CUSD, Compton) and Washington Irving (LASUD, Glassell Park) Middle Schools came together to continue creating and rehearsing their six original short plays on the topics of romance, gangs, hypocrisy, friendship, popularity, and finding support to make your dreams come true.
To provide more history on the program’s start in public schools, we go back to the early 1990’s when a group of artists, led by Jonathan Zeichner and Camille Ameen, banded together to come up with solutions in response to the violence of the Los Angeles Riots. This group of professionals, still growing and now known as IOCA’s Artist Leaders, came from visual and performing arts sectors and the entertainment industry. Collectively, they wanted to share their creative talents and leadership with young people in an after-school setting. They were all in agreement that The School Project’s particular methodology of teaching theater arts had the power to unite youth across conflicted territories and transform them into active and responsible citizens. Almost twenty years later, the program continues to contribute to positive change in the lives of young people in underserved communities. It provides a safe space and structure where students can connect to one another positively while developing their artistic skills to creatively give voice to their concerns and experiences. The results are plays that share strong messages with solutions for issues in their lives.
An overnight cabin camping event soon became a major component of the program, and served as a tool for teaching conflict resolution and community building in a neutral setting. In addition to enrolling in IOCA’s after-school program, students from diverse middle schools across LA County retreat annually during the spring session into the wilderness, where they to continue their process of creating, learning, and working as peer teams. Removed from the city and the daily challenges they face at school, in their neighborhoods and often at home, the students have the chance to accept each other and themselves, try new things, work on art, and bond as a large creative community – all while adhering to the IOCA “Low Down” of having courage, respect, and accountability.
The Artist Leaders who teach the after-school program also serve as camp counselors. Every Artist Leader is well prepared, having completed at least twenty hours of training with IOCA, where they learn methodology, leadership, and best practices for co-teaching the organization’s award-winning and nationally recognized theater arts curriculum. Artist Leaders and staff are additionally trained in child safety and reporting, conflict resolution, and classroom management.
Middle school students and Artist Leaders work in a 6:1 ratio at all IOCA workshops and events. This is especially important at the camping retreat so that each student is well supported and supervised. For many young people, this trip is a first time away from home and out of the city and to be in nature and to visit the ocean.
Former IOCA participants who are in high school and college form the Alumni Mentor Program and play a major role in supporting the event. They set-up for activities, lead games and share stories, serve as assistant cabin leaders, help with costumes and props, and provide extra support to visually impaired students and others with special needs.
After camp, back in the city at their respective schools, the students then continue to rehearse their original 12-minute plays in preparation for a free public culminating performance.
This year’s spring culminating performance, titled “What’s On Our Minds,” was held on Saturday, May 17th at the Aratani / Japan America Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. It was a successful evening where the youth actors/playwrights shared their hopes, dreams, and fears on a professional stage to an audience of friends, family, and public supporters.
We look forward to seeing you in the audience at future original youth productions as IOCA enthusiastically joins forces with P.S. ARTS.
Here are pictures and play topics from the culminating production on May 17th, 2014!
All photos in this post were taken by Amy Knutson, P.S. ARTS Education & Programs Assistant. Thank you Amy!