Tackling teen issues with drama

The Baltimore Sun

A high school senior feels overwhelmed by pressures from parents, teachers and peers. A teenage couple converse awkwardly on their first date. Four young friends wrestle with the consequences of drinking and driving.

These and other themes form the plots in Drama Therapy, a series of short plays focusing on teen issues. For the past three years, the Havre de Grace High School drama department has presented the plays, calling the skits "100 Minutes That Matter," to parents, faculty and the student body.

"These are issues that students deal with and issues that all our students might experience," said M. Patricia Walling, principal of the 750-student school. "The plays give students the opportunity to become reflective, to discuss issues and to ask for help, if it is needed. The content keeps them engaged."

The young audience cheered for the girl who finally severed her friendship with a perpetual liar. They laughed at the foibles of a guy trying to impress his date and applauded the teens who ultimately took responsibility for a bad decision.

"The purpose of these plays is two-fold," said Mark A. Cummins, head of the school's drama department. "They test the actors and get the message out to the people who need to hear it."

Drama Therapy, with 32 speaking parts in eight skits, two of which were written by students, is student-run, he said.

"The cool thing is that it gives more kids starring roles," Cummins said. "It is all issue-driven and deals with topics that teens confront. If the issue is out there, these students are not afraid to go after it."

This year marked the debut of "Break," written last year by Brandi Brown, a 2008 graduate of the school, who is now studying drama at New York University. Vera, the central character played by junior Tricia Ragan, continually calls "Stop!" so she can gather her thoughts. In typical teen banter, she tells how she used to be as peaceful as a Zen temple until college applications, family obligations and her far-too-full school schedule gave her insomnia and left her feeling "so old for all the worrying I do."

Her mounting anxiety does not diminish, and the skit ends without resolution, with her completely surrounded by six characters who all demand something of her.

"When I auditioned, I knew I could relate to this role," Ragan said. "I think all of us can."

On a lighter note, freshman Andee Skaggs and sophomore Herniel Fernandez had the audience laughing as they worked their way through their first date. Fernandez particularly mastered the nervous body language and sputtering dialogue. He didn't skip a beat when he dropped his microphone. Nor was he bothered when someone in the audience guessed his next line. He just pointed nonchalantly to the crowd and repeated the line.

"He has amazing timing and was so much fun to work with," Skaggs said. "The whole scene was so true, and I think we were perfectly cast."

The production ended with "Libby Pearce Drinks," the story of an alcohol prank that goes tragically awry. Four girls invite a prissy classmate to a party, where they spike her soda with vodka. She drives away, intoxicated and unaware, and causes an accident that claims a woman's life. The scene is a police department, where the four girls argue about responsibility, before three of them opt to tell the truth.

"I am talking about taking responsibility for a dead woman and a girl in jail," said Lindsay, played by senior Taryn Wem.

Playing the conscience of the group was difficult and the vignette constantly reminded Wem of a schoolmate who lost his life to a drunken driver in June, she said.

Senior Joelle Turner acted the role of Julie, the girl who wanted to hide the truth.

"It was cool to play the bad guy," Turner said. "This was a really good theme for kids our age. It shows another reason not to drink."

Drama Therapy has dealt with racism, dysfunctional families and alcohol abuse in the past three years. The school's guidance department typically sees an increase in appointments after each presentation, Cummins said.

"We are depicting these scenes so kids do not think they are alone with these issues," Cummins said. "Kids are coming in to guidance to talk."

Cummins plans to take Drama Therapy to Havre de Grace Middle School, with some tempering of themes and dialogue. The students will present "Wishing You Were Here," about a girl who suspects a friend is being abused. Senior Chelsey Holian wrote the drama for six players.

"I might change it up a bit for middle schoolers, so it's not quite so heavy," she said. "I will make the focus more on getting help."

Cummins added, "She can make those revisions in seconds."

His brother, Ed Cummins, a teacher at Stevenson University in Baltimore County, is encouraging him to take the production on the road. "This stuff is important," he said. "These are good messages that are getting through to kids."

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