Knowledge will make you foolproof.
That promise, emblazoned on a highway billboard, is the calling card for a Carroll County drama troupe of high school students, called Fool Proof, which has used the art of improvisation for nearly two decades to raise awareness about such issues as teen suicide, drug abuse and domestic violence.
The troupe, created 18 years ago, performs at schools, an area substance-abuse treatment facility and at venues across Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia.
"The mission is to open the door on problems that people go through and let them know it's OK to talk about it," said Paul G. Zimmerman, Fool Proof's artistic director, who is also the county's register of wills.
"For instance, drug abuse. ... People look at a drug addict and see an addict or a bum," he said. "We show [our audiences] that they are people. We show them the humanity of everybody."
While many of the student performers find their way to the troupe because they are interested in acting careers, most of them join for the opportunity to educate people, especially teens, about topics that include alcohol abuse and bullying, Zimmerman said.
"We try to make the characters as three-dimensional as possible, so we don't have stereotypes," Zimmerman said. "The characters have to be real."
The troupe's cast is so adept at getting into their characters that their audiences walk away with a changed perspective.
"They are so awesome. ... [Their performances] are thought-provoking," said Patricia Levroney, minority achievement liaison for the school system. She enlisted Fool Proof to perform at the district's middle school diversity conference in December.
"It makes you think about how you respond to different people," Levroney said. "It makes you think, 'I do that?'"
At the end of their skits, troupe members take questions from the audience while still in character. It's a part of the show that audiences and troupe members seem to like best.
"The students like that interaction piece," Levroney said. "Because [the troupe] is still in character, the students think it's real."
Nearly two decades ago, Roberta Gore, the North Carroll drama teacher who formed the troupe, was brainstorming a name for the troupe as she headed back from watching a similar group in Talbot County, Zimmerman said.
"She saw a billboard for a local library system that said 'Reading is knowledge. Knowledge will make you foolproof,'" said Zimmerman, who has worked with the troupe since its founding.
This year's troupe of 12 students draws from six of the county's seven high schools. Students can earn up to 300 of their required community service learning credits each year, he said.
Fool Proof is not funded by the school system, but troupe members are allowed to miss up to six school days for performances, Zimmerman said. The group is supported by donations from the community and at performances.
The cast spends eight weeks in the fall learning improvisation and miming skills. During the school year, cast members delve into the issues with experts from local agencies, including the state's attorney's office and a rape crisis center.
Because it is an improv troupe, students frequently rotate roles. To help develop the characters, they hold "extended improvs," or rehearsals, during which the cast performs background scenes, most of which will not be seen by audiences.
Troupe members form a strong bond over emotionally intense sessions that often draw upon personal experiences.
During a recent extended improv, the troupe spent about two hours acting out the pivotal points in the lives of people who would be affected by a pregnant teen's suicide, from the day her parents married until the day of her funeral.
When Zimmerman called the final scene, the tearful cast fell into a group hug, relieved to come out of character.
"For some people, it really brings out a real situation. It hits a nerve," said Jillian Copek, 16, a junior at Winters Mill High in Westminster.
Feeling the pain, troupe members said, is how they bring their characters to life.
"This is a way for me to not only express the way I feel and to learn, but it also helps others," said Steve Cohen, 16, a junior at South Carroll High School. "It's not for the stage time. It's for the feeling you get when you realize you have touched someone else."
Fool Proof is scheduled to perform at the following locations:
March 17: Sykesville Middle School
March 19: Middle School Theater Conference in Annapolis March 20: Wesley Freedom Church in Eldersburg
March 22: Shoemaker Addictions Rehabilitation Center in Sykesville
March 28: Carroll County Human Relations Awards Dinner at New Windsor Brethren Center
April 6: Francis Scott Key High in Union Bridge
April 26: Shoemaker Addictions Rehabilitation Center in Sykesville
April 28: South Carroll High School
May 10: St. Charles Parish in Pikesville
May 18: Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead
May 24: Shoemaker Addictions Rehabilitation Center in Sykesville Please call ahead for times and directions