Onto the stage
It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday in the middle of July. School’s out, and has been for weeks. Onstage at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, 20 students are taking their summer vacation very seriously — no sleeping in, no poolside lounging. This isn’t a time for play. Well, not exactly.
As members of the Alumni Theater Company, these teenagers spend nearly a workday’s worth of hours each day honing their theatrical craft — and this week, a performance is just around the corner. On Friday, July 23, the ATC will present “Bad Seeds,” the company’s first performance with its newest batch of members.
Friday marks the second time ATC has produced “Bad Seeds,” following a run of performances last October. The company’s founder and artistic director, Hallie Donner, constructed the show — it’s a mélange of monologues, scenes, songs and dances presenting teenage views of stereotypical “bad seed” qualities.
“Teens get this bad reputation. They act stupid sometimes, but it’s because they’re still kids, not because they’re bad people,” said Donner, sitting in the theater as her company runs through a song. “We present the brat, the bully, the juvenile delinquent.”
But looking at the actors of Donner’s company, made of all local African-American teenagers, it seems that they’d really have to act to play those characters; they are, after all, dedicating much of their summers to good old, wholesome theater.
“Doing bad things, the way we portray it, isn’t going out and shooting people,” said Shakira Stephens, a 15-year-old CAPA student. “It’s like not coming home on time.”
The Alumni Theater Company’s three-year history is an impressive one; this is a group created by surprise. During the day, Donner, who is a member of Temple Sinai, is the drama teacher at the Urban League of Pittsburgh Charter School, located in the former B’nai Israel Congregation in the East End. For the school’s 10th anniversary in 2008, Donner was asked to draft former students for a production of “The Wiz.”
“It was supposed to be a one-off, but it was such a beautiful experience, we thought it just couldn’t be over,” said Donner. “So we kept meeting.”
For a theater company of teenagers to be unattached to any school or umbrella theater organization is rare, Donner said. While the company rehearsed in the school before moving to its home in the Strayhorn (it’s now the theater’s resident youth company) last summer, it is almost completely self-sufficient.
The company does receive grants from Pittsburgh’s Multicultural Arts Initiative, but, “There’s no security net as far as funding goes,” said Donner. “We’re responsible for covering our own budget. We sell tickets and the kids sell ads for the programs. But if I say to sell $100 of ads, and you sell $70, you don’t owe me $30.”
Donner has, along with a music director and choreographer, created her own renegade theater troupe — bolstered by the dedication of her teenagers, most of whom she taught in elementary school. She works with patience, but her actors listen with reverence. This isn’t summer school — they want to be here.
“This part needs to be much more intense,” said Donner after a run-through of “A Little More Homework” from the Broadway show “13.” “I know you’re exhausted at that point in the song, but it looks like you’re lost in the desert.”
The teenagers hear her. The next try is tight, purposeful.
“This is doing what you love with the people you love,” said Central Catholic student Brandon Briscoe, 15. “It’s being around your friends all the time.”
Donner has watched that love for three years now, often in awe.
“I can’t even imagine or articulate the bond they share,” she said. “They bounce ideas off of each other, dance together, see other shows together. The rate that their creativity and talent has grown is exponential because they’re around each other.”
While rehearsals for “Bad Seeds” keep the students working through the summer, ATC keeps them together throughout the year. Even without a specific performance on the horizon, the teenagers meet a few days a week to work on their own dramatic ideas and writings, as well as to attend the performances of other groups — they receive free tickets to any show at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.
Donner’s ongoing mission with her company is different than one might find in high school musical theater.
“Artistry is very important here. A lot of times with kids, the mission is simply self-esteem,” she said. “That’s very important, but it comes naturally when you’re doing something that’s good. Our mission is to provide them with really good training, to create work that speaks to their generation.”
And it seems to be working.
“We’re like a professional family. We have our problems like any other family, but we deal with them and don’t let them affect our performances,” said Stephens. “Game face on. You let everything else go. This is what we do; it’s what we want to do. This is our life.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Want to go?
Friday, July 23
10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Call (800) 838-3006 for tickets