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AZ Homeless Teens Come Out of Shells With Drama Training

September 8, 2010

PHOENIX - A unique series of drama workshops is boosting the self-esteem of Arizona teenagers at a Phoenix homeless shelter. The iPlay curriculum, developed by Christopher Haines of the iTheatre Collaborative, has taught dozens of at-risk teens at the UMOM New Day Center about acting, improvisation and performance.

Haines says extra effort is required to bring the kids out of their shells.

"Working with any sort of teen group, you're going to run into those kind of issues of peer pressure and not wanting to look stupid in front of their friends and all that. But with this group, it was even more difficult for us to gain their trust."

The answer, Haines discovered, was increased individual attention, with one instructor-mentor for every four or five kids. The initial workshops were funded by a Piper Trust grant. Haines, who is artistic director of the iTheatre Collaborative, is now fund-raising for more workshops scheduled for November and next spring.

Melinda Gray, who works at the UMOM Center, says homeless kids have trust issues and are extremely reluctant to let friends and teachers know where they live. She says the iPlay program helps them to become more outgoing and to better express themselves.

"To be able to interact in a positive way but also to take more chances and, with this program, getting up and doing activities in front of their peers. Taking risks – good risks, actually, not bad ones."

Haines cites one of iPlay's successes, a 12-year old girl he describes as "awkwardly shy," who brought in a notebook filled with short stories she had written. She picked one of her stories to be used as the basis for an improvised scene.

"Performing wasn't maybe necessarily something she was interested in, but writing very much was. And so she saw the connection between her own writing and what theater could do for her writing."

Haines says he is refining the iPlay curriculum and plans to expand the workshops to other organizations that work with homeless, at-risk or disadvantaged youth.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ