They tackle complex subject matter like gang violence and corporate monopolies. They use the power of the spoken word to translate their fears, hopes and dreams. They do this in their own words, with their peers, and in the process of informing others, often touch places in themselves that were perhaps thought at one time as inaccessible.
They are middle school students from predominately local schools who take part in the Neighborhood Arts Project, a Venice-based after-school and Saturday multidisciplinary arts program that has provided a forum for opportunity and creativity to approximately 75 at-risk and underserved middle school youth for the last decade.
The project is a part of Inside Out Community Arts, a 14-year-old Venice nonprofit organization that seeks to bridge the gap between “us and them” through creative arts, says Camille Ameen, the organization’s co-founder.
“The Neighborhood Arts Project was created to bring children of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds together through the arts,” Ameen explained during rehearsals a week before a play. “Middle school is an age where there is a lot of risk-taking, and we want to redirect that behavior towards something creative instead of destructive.”
The students perform plays that are often a reflection of their own experiences or those of a friend or family member, and with the help of their youth artistic leaders, they write and produce them as well.
On Sunday, June 13th, they will showcase their talents at the organization’s home base, the Venice Center for Peace and Justice with the Arts, 2216 Lincoln Blvd. in a 6:30 p.m. performance.
The pre-teens participate in approximately 25 workshops throughout the year, where the students are introduced to improvisation techniques and performance art, which will assist them when the curtain goes up on the night of the play.
“We don’t want to be didactic,” Ameen said. “It’s all experimental.”
During an interview with five young thespians with the arts program, the cathartic longing for self-expression and the excitement of new educational and cultural opportunities were a recurring theme.
“I like the fact that they give you scholarships, they give you more opportunities and it gets me into things that I normally wouldn’t be (involved) in,” said 11-year-old Karina Orozco, a sixth grader at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista. “It also helps me be more confident and they encourage me to do things that I didn’t know that I could do.”
Like Karina, Alondra Jimenez, 11, has won an arts scholarship through the program and both have participated in two other student productions. She said she has grown more confident with each play.
“I can express myself in many ways, and it’s a lot of fun,” she said.
Chelsea Jimenez, another sixth grader at Mark Twain, did not plan to join the neighborhood arts program until a friend invited her.
“But I’m really glad that I actually did come, because I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said.
That sentiment is shared by Brandon Tillis, now a senior at Venice High School who plans to join the U.S. Coast Guard next year. He became involved with the Venice arts program in middle school and now serves as an artistic mentor.
“There’s always kids that I see that are in similar situations that I was in middle school,” said Tillis, who said his home life was at times troubled during his middle school years. “I tell them that no matter what, there’s always someone here that will understand them and support them.”
The three students will perform Don’t Judge Me, a play that addresses various forms of discrimination. They improvise their dialogue on stage, creating a free- flowing artistic performance style that impresses Inside Outs Executive Director Varina Bleil.
“What astounded me was not only the incredible topics that they chose but also what they had to say about it,” Bleil, who has been with the non-profit for six months, said. “When you hear them and see the work that they’ve put together, it’s very hard to think of them as kids, because they have a lot to say that you might not expect from this age set.”
Bleil echoed Ameen’s remarks about assimilating young people from diverse backgrounds.
“Part of our program is to teach conflict resolution skills,” she noted. “And one way to do that is to ensure that we have kids from all walks of life, and it asks the youths to deal with these issues of diversity and to learn how to understand and respect one another.”
Michael Zeitlin and Essence Diggs will be taking on the subject of frivolity and laughter and their significance when they take the stage June 13th in their play, entitled The Importance of Laughter. The theme of the play is to show how people need cheerfulness in their lives, according to Michael, 13.
“I love laughter. I think that it makes you enjoy life a lot more,” he said.
Michael, who lives in Mar Vista, will be performing for the first time with the arts program. He calls the group “fun and energetic.”
Karina will have two roles in the discrimination play, which will mark a new experience for her.
“I’m used to comedy, so it’s really challenging for me to do a serious play,” she said.
The subject matter and the importance of the play’s topic are not lost on the students.
“Sometimes I get really sad when I’m rehearsing my parts,” Karina said.
The students chose discrimination because some of them have had direct experiences with it, have heard or read about it or have family members or friends who have felt the sting of prejudice.
“Discrimination is everywhere,” stated Alondra, who plays a wheelchair bound pre-teen whose teacher, in an effort to “protect” her, attempts to discourage her from going on a class field trip.
Alondra says she can relate to that experience because her cousin is physically challenged and she also spent a brief time in a wheelchair.
“That’s why this play is kind of sad for me,” the sixth-grader explained.
Chelsea will portray a young girl whose friend is a lesbian and faces unpleasant teasing.
The young performers often incorporate current events into their plays. The controversial Arizona immigration law, enacted in April that will soon allow law enforcement officers there to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and make it a crime not to possess proof of citizenship, was referenced by Alondra.
The three Latina students say they often think about the new Arizona law.
“You think about what if your parents get caught,” said Karina. “You see the children and you think, ‘what are they going to do?’ ‘Where are they going to live?’”
The need to laugh is a direct contrast to the more serious topic, but there are instances where laughter is shown not to be a cure in every instance.
“In one scene, we show that it can’t diffuse all situations,” said Michael.
Alondra said she hopes the audience pays close attention to the intensity and the emotions that drive the play. “I want them to know that discrimination is awful and I hope that this play inspires anyone who has practiced discrimination to stop,” she said.
“We want there to be tears,” Karina added.
Essence said her parents are happy that she is involved in the neighborhood art project.
“It’s a good way for me to get a lot of my energy out on stage,” she said.
The creativity of the project was another theme that arose during the interview.
“I like how everything can be very spontaneous,” Michael said.
For some students, the project serves as an outlet for thoughts and feelings without embarrassment through the cloak of a play.
“You can get to express yourself on stage with things that you can’t say normally,” said Karina.
Due to the city’s reduction in assistance to arts nonprofit organizations, Inside Outs has been forced to reduce some of its programming. Bleil encourages anyone who would like to donate to Inside Arts to contact her at (310) 397-8820.
While the mentors provide guidance to the students, Ameen says their voices are the ones that should be heard in their plays.
“Our challenge is not to limit or inhibit,” she said. “We want them to think beyond what they ever thought was possible.”