Teen theater company tackles series of tough topics in upcoming show

East Falls resident Natalie Cisternas Hann believes modern teens don’t get enough time to process life’s tragic moments and that’s why she takes such pride in her work with a Germantown-based youth theater troupe.”Teens might ask questions about things happening around them, but in the everyday rush of life, they don’t get a chance to sit down and decide for themselves what’s happening around them,” she said, chatting with NewsWorks this week as the kids got ready for a special encore performance of their latest show after a successful Fringe Festival run in September.

Hann is a co-director of Yes! And…Collaborative Arts’ teen-driven SHADOW Company, and the director of the youngsters’ latest show, “Trials of Paradox: Mercy on Trial.” It’s coming Saturday night at 7 p.m. to the group’s headquarters at Germantown Mennonite Church.

Voices for empowerment

Yes! And… executive director Michael Brix said that the group’s programming, which includes camps, classes and internships, pushes participants to use their own voices for their “empowerment” as well as educational reasons.

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Yes! And… launched about twelve years ago, administering art programs for middle-school kids across the city. Since then, its focus has grown to include summer enrichment programs, and then began to retain older kids with its SHADOW Company program targeting motivated teenagers who were ready for more.

“Highschoolers were encouraged and equipped and emboldened to create their own self-sustaining theater company,” Brix explained of the program that lets its participants develop an original performance every year with the help of local theater professionals.

Settling in Germantown

Four years ago, SHADOW Company mounted its first Fringe Festival show, performed on South Street and inspired by the “flash mob” crisis that gripped the city at the time. Last year, they developed a show called “Bullseye,” a reality-TV-styled piece that explored the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

Formerly under the developmental umbrella of the East Falls-based Resources for Human Development, Yes! And… recently received its own 501(c) 3 non-profit status. The organization decided to settle in Germantown about two years ago.

“Germantown has that mix that we’re looking for, the people that we want to reach, who are all sides of the spectrum,” Brix said. Saturday’s show will be their first major performance out of the Mennonite Church space.

When bad things happen

According to Brix, this year the SHADOW teens chose to expand their focus on last year’s theme: “what does it mean when bad things happen? What part of humanity is to blame?”

The students this year come from a wide range of city schools, including Science Leadership Academy, W. B. Saul School of Agricultural Sciences, St. Joseph’s Prep, and the Girard Academy Music Program. When the youngsters met last spring to begin developing this year’s show, Hann said they began to talk about the troubling things that were happening in their own neighborhoods: especially the stories that weren’t getting told.

A map of city neighborhoods that illustrated what types of crimes were happening in different regions caught the kids’ attention and led to a discussion about violence.

“They couldn’t believe that these kinds of things could happen in their neighborhood,” Hann said.

The MOVE bombing and Emmett Till

Using music, movement and spoken word, the young artists decided to weave three different true-life stories together: the 1993 gang-related killing of Freddie Adams, a young resident of Kensington, the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, and Philadelphia’s own MOVE bombing in 1985.The show’s central concept lets Mercy “stand trial” after her absence results in fatal cruelty. Who is responsible for violent acts, from those that grip the whole nation to crimes that happen down the street?

Hann said the process involved lots of journaling and different forms of expression, from paintings and collages to art installations that strove to capture the teens’ shifting day-to-day view of the world. Local theater artists Patrick Lamborn and Jess Conda leant a hand in developing the show, which also includes music from Circus Fiction, a band of Roxborough teens.

“They’re dealing with things that are very difficult and they’re very young,” Hann added, emphasizing that the teens’ willingness to listen and to show that they cared about these events was what mattered.

Levels of healing

“We encourage them to ask hard questions, and that is probably unique to our organization, that we have staff to walk them through that,” Brix said of the Yes! And… model.

“They’re in a place where they can share it with each other, and that’s one level of healing. And then when they can take that a step further and share that story with the world, that’s another level of healing.”

Hann cautioned that though the language of the show is appropriate for all audiences, the serious topics are a better fit for adults and mature youngsters only.

Trials of Paradox” is coming to Germantown for one night only on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. at Germantown Mennonite Church, 21 W. Washington Ln. Admission is $7 ($5 with student ID). Tickets for the hour-long show are available at the door, or in advance by calling 215-ART-GANG.

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