A chaotic dress rehearsal did not rattle the drama teacher at Havre de Grace High School. Mark Cummins seemed to be in the thick of the student practices on stage and in corners of Harford County's largest school auditorium. He kept track of it all, even those who spilled into the lobby to study their lines amid the holiday citrus sale and a T-shirt giveaway.
Cummins, who has drawn nearly 60 students into the fourth annual "Drama Therapy," deftly dealt this week with the jitters of several fledgling playwrights and dozens of young actors involved in the eight 10-minute vignettes, each with a director, set and cast. He dispensed advice on sound, lighting and dialogue, but left much to the students.
"It's your show," Cummins told the students. "You are the actors, the writers, the backstage crew. You are running the sets. You are entertaining, showing off your skills and you are making a difference."
Students, some of whom have graduated, wrote four of the plays and Cummins chose the others based on relevance to teen experiences.
There is a comic bit or two, but most plots revolve around compelling themes, like teen suicide, bullying, sex and substance abuse. Powerful messages resonate with students, Cummins said.
"These plays are giving people stuff to talk about," he said. "We know kids go to guidance counselors after seeing these plays and may finally ask for help with a problem. Our message is that it's OK to ask for help and to talk things out."
The students staged "Drama Therapy" for their parents and the extended community Thursday and for their schoolmates Friday.
They will take age-appropriate portions of the production to area middle schools early next year and the entire show to the Northeast Drama Festival in Bel Air in February.
The plays often evolve from the writing assignments that Cummins gives his students.
"These student-written plays push the envelope, but so does life," he said. "We are trying to be realistic. Not to address these themes would be sticking our heads in the sand."
Sophomore Andee Skaggs, who acts in a teen-dating scene, said, "The plays show people that all these things can happen and that you can get help."
After acting in the production for two years, Skaggs said, "I can see myself writing plays. It's a way to get my feelings out."
Ashley Brinegar, a 2009 graduate attending Harford Community College who wrote one of the vignettes, said she found writing more difficult than the acting she did last year.
"It is strange seeing the words you have written spoken and the actors' interpretation," Brinegar said.
She set her story at a sleepover party, where one girl ultimately reveals an incident of sexual abuse to friends. They insist she inform the police, but she hesitates.
"It ends without a solution, because problems like this are not solved in one night," Brinegar said. "I know the audience gets these stories and I think they identify with them."
Paige Kirtscher, another recent graduate and HCC student, wrote about the tragic effects of bullying. Set at a funeral home, the story depicts four friends sharing their regrets at the death of a student they bullied.
"Kids should realize that bullying can lead to really bad things," Kirtscher said. "I think most of us have been threatened and pressured. Maybe I have written a story that will help kids understand the consequences."
Sophomore Sarah Waldron created a disturbing drama about a girl so intent on keeping a faithless boyfriend that she ignores his drinking as well as his abuse of her mentally challenged sister. Although her plot goes to extremes, Waldron said, "It is common for teens to get caught up in themselves and to do things without realizing the repercussions on others."
For senior Justine Cerruto, playing the part of the disabled sister meant "walking a fine line. You couldn't do too much but you had to do enough so that the audience knows this character is different."
Paisley Cascade, a June graduate who is studying acting at the New York Film Institute, returned to Havre de Grace to help with the production of her two-character play about a teenage couple pressured about sex.
"The acting and the writing experiences have given me more confidence," she said. "I really appreciate groups like this. It is how I decided what I want to do."