Teen stage production isn't child's play

Column by Ann Macari Healey

Ann Macari Healey
Posted

They file onto the stage, in red-and-white collared shirts, 10 young women and men intent on provoking indignation among the hundreds of sophomores in the audience.

Their words overlap into layers, resounding, pulsing, reverberating:

It is happening.

It is around us.

There is abuse.

There is assault.

We are victims.

We can fight it …

Feel the outrage in this room.

Then: “If you are holding a card with the number five on it, please stand.” Across the auditorium, boys and girls slowly, unsurely, rise.

One in five high school students reports being physically or sexually abused, or both, by a dating partner, students are told.

“If you are standing,” a voice says from the stage, “you are giving our statistic a visual image. Standing does not necessarily depict your future.”

But, if you don't pay attention, it could.

On a recent morning, the Encore Players, an acting troupe comprised of juniors and seniors from Chaparral High School in Parker, presented a 20-minute performance called “The Outrage” to sophomore students at another school. Its purpose is to educate about teen dating violence, a problem on the rise — to define in no uncertain terms the meaning of rape and sexual assault.

“It's such a powerful message to share with kids,” said Ann Carter, director of the Women's Crisis and Family Outreach Center in Douglas County.

It becomes even more powerful when teens themselves tell the story.

Initially, there was a bit of awkwardness among the actors.

“I was a little uncomfortable with it at first,” junior Alex Soto said. “It covers topics people don't usually bring up. You don't talk about things like this in everyday conversation.”

But then came the education piece: “I was pretty shocked,” senior Sam Larson said. “I had no idea the extent to which this is a problem.”

And, finally, the realization they could make a difference: “A theater isn't necessarily for entertainment purposes,” junior Anne Heart said. “It's for getting a message across.”

Their teacher, David Peterson, agreed.

Besides dealing with an issue that could affect them, he said, the production “is a wonderful experience for students to learn about the social change that can come from an art form like theater. … Hearing that your performance has helped someone is a powerful experience.”

“The Outrage” also demonstrates the power of community working together to create change, in this case an organization that works to prevent domestic violence and a school district.

Carter, from the women's center, had seen a YouTube clip of “The Outrage” and immediately thought it would be an effective educational tool.

“Teen violence tends to get hidden — they think that's just part of growing up, that it's not a big deal,” Carter said. But it's learned behavior, and that can carry into adulthood.

So, the center bought the rights to the script about two years ago and approached Peterson about having his students perform it at a gala fundraiser. The performance touched several audience members so much they provided seed money to produce it in high schools. The Douglas County School District agreed to pilot it this school year in three high schools. Next school year, the Encore Players will perform for sophomores in all of the district's high schools, always accompanied by someone from the women's center to answer questions and provide resources.

“Relationship safety … is a topic we all value, and all our kids could benefit from hearing about it,” said Staci McCormack, the district's student wellness coordinator. “Kids might not be in it (violence), but they are affected, they are impacted, because it is around them.”

And because of technology, “our generation has a lot more diverse forms of dating violence,” junior Kirsten Brandes said.

Texting. The Internet. Social media. They all can make it easier for abuse to happen. Lynn Adams from the women's center told students at the performance the story of a 10th-grade girl who received 17 threatening texts, including one of a gun, from her ex-boyfriend because they broke up.

“When things like that happen, it's pretty serious,” she said. “It could potentially ruin your life.”

The incidence of dating violence among teens is growing, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It reports 25 percent of teens say they are victims of dating violence, whether it be emotional, psychological, physical or sexual, and 54 percent have witnessed such violence among their peers.

Carter wants teens to know unequivocally those relationships are not OK. “You need to have a respectful relationship where both parties have a voice, where both parties are empowered to make decisions to have the relationship go in the way they both want it to go.”

In its 20 minutes, “The Outrage” covers a lot of ground. Woven among short scenes that depict a boyfriend's physical abuse and how to get help are these eye-opening statements:

• One in four teenage girls in a relationship say they have gone further sexually than they wanted to because of pressure

• Eighty percent of teens consider verbal abuse “a serious issue” for their age group

• Fifty-four percent of parents say they have not talked to their child about dating violence

• One in three teenagers say they know a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, strangled or physically hurt by his or her partner

• Eight of 10 female survivors of rape know their rapist as a boyfriend, friend or casual acquaintance

And then there's this one: One woman is abused every nine seconds. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.

To the Encore members, the statistics on the page have become real.

Brandes said: “They are people.”

They line the stage, in their red-and-white shirts, young faces with hopeful hearts and a message intended to shock into action.

The words overlap. They resound. Pulse. Reverberate. They envelop the listening students.

Education …

Strength …

Courage …

This is the change.

It is happening.

It is around us.

There is abuse.

There is assault.

We will stop it.

We will fight it.

Change the rage in this room.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at ahealey@ourcoloradonews.com or 303-566-4110.

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