THE CHALLENGE: Each year thousands of children fall victim to abuse. Whether at home or in the school yard, oftentimes children struggle to communicate what’s happening to them. Sometimes they’re too scared to tell. Other times they don’t even know that what’s being done to them is unacceptable. And far too many times the child feels they have no one to turn to for help. At Lincoln High one group of teens is breaking down the barriers to communication, using theatre as a way to educate and help end the cycle of abuse.
THE CHAMPIONS: Directors Sue Letheby and Molly Thomas, and Patsy Koch Johns of the Lincoln High School theatre department.
THE SOLUTION: Almost 18 years ago, sexual abuse prevention specialist Sue Letheby approached Lincoln High’s principal at the time with an idea. Create a student-based Illusion Theatre company at Lincoln High.
Founded in Minneapolis in 1974, Illusion Theatre is dedicated to “using the power of theater to catalyze personal and social change.” The group is typically represented by troupes made up of adults. That’s what makes Illusion Theatre at Lincoln High even more unique. They are the only Illusion Theatre group made up exclusively of teens. Ms. Letheby believes that’s what makes them so effective. The actors are close in age to their elementary and middle school audiences, and the children can relate to and admire the people on stage.
The nine student actors audition for a spot each year. This past school year the company performed two plays: Touch, which addresses sexual abuse and targets elementary-aged students; and Be Nice about bullying and performed to audiences of middle school kids. The students wrote the script for Be Nice based on the death of Phoebe Prince, a teenager who committed suicide after being mercilessly teased by her classmates.
The goal of each performance is to teach kids without scaring them by making it fun and interactive. A typical performance is moderated by Ms. Letheby and acted by the students. Ms. Letheby starts by asking easy questions that make audience members feel comfortable raising their hands and participating in the dialogue. When they questions get harder the children are typically warmed up and more comfortable.
Touch starts off by showing good and acceptable forms of touching, like a first kiss or a hug from your best friend. The play goes on to differentiate “good” touching with unacceptable forms of touching, helping the audience understand the difference between the two. At the end of each performance Ms. Letheby offers herself (and cast members) up for any child who wants to talk. Illusion Theatre cast members have to learn their lines, but they also learn how to identify red flags in the audience (children who might be struggling with the show’s content) and how to talk to kids after the show. Dozens of children have come forward after performances to share their story and ask for help. After securing two grants from the Cooper Foundation and the Woods Foundations, the team was able to add a forensic interview specialist to the mix. This specialist attends every performance and is available to meet with children and take a statement that can later be given to police and the proper authorities.
THE RESULTS: The results for this ground-breaking program can be broken down into two categories: the effect the program has on the children who sit in the audience, and the effect is has on its own cast members. During the 2010/2011 school year, Lincoln High’s Illusion Theatre troupe performed 38 times and reached more than 10,000 students. Lincoln area schools where the group has performed have reported a lower incidence of bullying because of this program, proof that Illusion Theatre at Lincoln High is making a difference.
Over the course of the group’s 18 year run, dozens of children have come to them to admit that they were victims of abuse in or outside of the home. Ms. Letheby, the forensic interview specialist, and school administrators help ensure that the child gets the help they need. They’ll work with the proper authorities and non-offending parents to make sure the child is safe.
Illusion Theatre at Lincoln High alum Isau Metes is now an English teacher at her alma mater. She admits that Illusion Theatre changed her life and was the reason she graduated high school. Being cast during her senior year meant giving up some unhealthy habits and being a better role model. Ms. Metes believes it wasn’t just about the acting. It was (and still is) about having the heart to do it and stay positive. Ms. Metes remembers one performance of a play that discussed date rape and gang violence. She remembers someone in the audience saying that the victim “deserved” what had happened to her. One of Isau’s fellow cast members – a star football player at Lincoln High – stood up and said, “no one ever deserves that.” That statement opened the door to an impactful discussion among the hundreds of middle school kids who attended that performance.
THE HOW-TO: The Illusion Theatre program at Lincoln High is unique, but Director Sue Letheby offers these tips for creating a similar program:
- A school needs to agree to house the program and support it. Administrators need to see the value of what it can achieve and be proactive about maintaining the effort. The person who runs the school’s performing arts program also needs to help push for and support the program.
- You need a director who is passionate and believes in the mission. This person must champion the cause.
- In the case of Illusion Theatre, Ms. Letheby proactively sought out grants that would help fund the initiative.
- For the best results, cast members should be required to audition, and should be a blend of high risk and high achieving students. Everyone has to earn their spot so all cast members start off on a level playing field.
- To find out about scheduling a performance in your area or for more information about Illusion Theatre, click here.