Trio Uses Theater to Build Self-Confidence in At-Risk Teens

Posted: January 31, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: January 28, 2011 at 3:38 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Janet McGraw

Janet McGraw. Photo courtesy of Janet McGraw

“I think some people tend to give up on teenagers, but they are really just on the brink of realizing their potential,” says Mason theater alumna Janet McGraw. “They just need an extra push from someone who believes in them.”

McGraw, fellow alumna Dannie Synder and current theater student Patricia Talmadge share a passion about two things: the theater and helping at-risk teens. Now, after starting their own theater company, Peripeteia Productions, the trio has found a novel way of combining these interests.

Originating from Greek, the word “peripeteia” means an unexpected change of fortune or a turning point. Peripeteia Productions uses a combination of exercises, playwriting and performing that educates teens about conflict-resolution skills and positive lifestyle choices.

The three co-founders hope these techniques will help teens build self-confidence and realize that they have the power to change their thinking and, thus, the conditions in which they live.

“We wanted to work with teenagers because both Patricia and I have always felt very invested in helping kids who have come from difficult backgrounds and who need some guidance in their lives,” says McGraw. Talmadge herself had a troubled childhood and adolescence.

Patricia Talmadge

Patricia Talmadge. Photo courtesy of Patricia Talmadge

The idea for the company originated as a class assignment when McGraw, BA Theater ’10, and Talmadge, currently a senior theater major, were enrolled in THR 440: Advanced Studies in Directing and Dramaturgy last spring. Students were tasked with creating their own theater companies, complete with mission and vision statements and season programs that put the missions into action.

By a stroke of luck, the pair struck up a conversation with Snyder, BA Film and Video Studies ’10 and BA Theater ’10. She had recently returned from Manchester, England, where she was studying the same topic: theater’s role in the community. Together, the trio discovered a void in the Washington, D.C., area of companies that provided participatory theater experiences to at-risk teens.

“In England, theater plays a huge role in the community and is often used as a tool to bring people together and help them overcome oppressive conditions,” says Snyder. “I was still very much interested in this idea when I returned to Mason, and working with Janet and Patricia presented the perfect opportunity to put this idea into action right here in the Northern Virginia area.”

The three were also inspired by the work of Augusto Boal, Viola Spolin and Michael Rohd, who are renowned for using theater to help bring people out of oppressive conditions and confront the reality in which they are living.

Dannie Snyder. Photo courtesy of Dannie Snyder

Once the plan for the theater company had been completed on paper, the group began transitioning from the classroom to the real world — a task that proved challenging. Having to quickly learn about the business side of running their own company, the group sought the services of an attorney, who helped guide them through the steps of creating a board of directors and bylaws, as well as incorporating a nonprofit organization.

Last summer, they launched a three-week pilot program with the Girls’ Outreach program at Argus House, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that serves girls ages 13–17 with troubled pasts.

On a volunteer basis, McGraw, Talmadge and Snyder spent one day a week with the girls, taking them through exercises and role-playing activities that helped to address areas of conflict in the girls’ lives.

“After each exercise, we talked with the girls about the activity they had just seen and whether or not the situation was handled effectively,” says Talmadge. “From the beginning to the end of the program, we noticed positive differences in the girls and hope that they take the conflict-resolution skills they have learned throughout the program and apply them to their lives.”

With the pilot program at Argus House under their belt, the group plans to branch out to other organizations and run programs, this time for a fee, that last from six to 12 weeks. They hope to work with the boys’ program at Argus House; Vanguard, a substance abuse facility; and area detention centers.

Although Peripeteia Productions will tailor its curriculum specifically to the needs of the group or facility, its program is generally structured with three main sections: a team-building stage, a creation stage and a rehearsal stage.

In the team-building stage, participants explore internal and social conflicts using a variety of theater exercises. The creation stage allows participants to discover a story they wish to share with the world. Finally, the rehearsal stage involves using their playwriting and improvisational skills to create a staged production that will be performed for a local audience.

“Our ultimate goal is to eventually establish program directors in cities across the country and perhaps even globally,” says McGraw. “If this program helps even one teenager realize their potential and teaches them how to overcome their current situation, we will consider it a success.”

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