When Kartina Richardson asked the teen actors and actresses in MissionSAFE’s drama program what subjects they wanted to explore in their end-of-the-summer showcase, they didn’t take it lightly.
Instead, they opted to tackle topics like racism, violence, poverty, sexism, love and family.
The end result was nine teens performing scenes from emotionally charged plays by award-winning playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry, Bertolt Brecht and Suzan-Lori Parks at a performance held last Tuesday at the Massachusetts Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre. The show capped a six-week paid acting internship sponsored by MissionSAFE, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization based in Roxbury’s Mission Hill section.
“I think it’s really important to have high expectations for youth, especially at-risk youth,” said Richardson, the drama program’s student director. “So I really wanted to try to make this production as big a deal as possible.”
This summer marked the second time that Richardson, a film major at the Boston University College of Communication, had led MissionSAFE’s theater program. She instructed students using the Stella Adler method of acting, which focuses on using the imagination through improvisational exercises.
Richardson used the exercises to help students understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes — and sometimes, just to walk. In one exercise, Richardson told the students to pretend they were traveling down a country road, and asked them to describe everything they saw or heard.
She said the exercises were challenging for her students because they had to face the rest of the class on their own. That sometimes led to behavioral flare-ups by some of the kids.
“You run into discipline problems when you’re really pushing people to come out of their comfort zones,” she said. “But they took risks and were extremely courageous.”
MissionSAFE’s Summer of Leadership & Service provides about 100 Boston youth from ages 14-20 with stipend internships, as well as community service, leadership and arts opportunities. The program offers a variety of internships in photography, video, poetry, writing and civic engagement, as well as external placements with partners like Tufts Medical Center.
But with limited space and many applicants, not every student got their first choice, leaving Richardson with some inexperienced and reluctant actors.
“I had some really tough, masculine boys who didn’t want to do any of the exercises,” Richardson said. “But when they saw everyone else was having fun and being silly with it, they eventually got into it.”
In the end, she said, her students pulled together for a successful performance.
“I’m so proud of them, but more importantly, they’re just really proud of themselves,” Richardson said. “They thought this was completely beyond their capabilities. To accomplish any task when you’re a teenager is a big deal, but to accomplish something you thought you could never have done is incredible.”
Richardson said she believes her students’ work within the program will help them make important decisions about their careers, futures and friends.
“The fact that they totally exceeded their own expectations will change the way that they feel about themselves and what they feel is possible for themselves,” she said. “Their imagination is opening, and now they’re able to think in new different ways. There’s no longer just one door open, there are several.”
The theater program is looking to open more doors, but finding funding is not always easy. While MissionSAFE was able to offer the program this summer, the nonprofit was not able to financially support the internship last summer.
Nikki Flionis, MissionSAFE’s co-founder and executive director, said she hopes to raise enough money to not only ensure the drama internship’s survival during the summer, but to make it a year-round program that can recruit more teens to the stage.
“The arts have the power to heal youth who have gone through trauma. It opens them and gets them thinking,” Flionis said. “I firmly believe in this emotional healing to get the brain going.”
Flionis said the program has improved its members’ academic careers, as well.
“We see evidence over time with all that we do because we try to surround them,” she said. “And I would like to surround them with more of it because it’s not just the healing; it’s the skills they’re getting. None of us like public speaking, but they just stood up there and they did it. They were so good, it brought tears to my eyes.”
Rondale Davis, who interned with Richardson last year and returned for a second stint this summer, is living proof of the program’s impact. After a transforming experience in MissionSAFE’s theater internship, he decided to pursue an acting career at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Davis said the program is a great way to keep kids off the streets and on the stage.
“It keeps you doing something positive,” Davis said. “I think it definitely puts people in a good position because it takes you away from all the negative options you would normally have. Acting especially does this because it’s a big commitment. It takes up time when you go home because you have to study your lines.”
He said Richardson’s exercises have promoted a sense of open-mindedness that will stick with him long after the final curtain.
“Acting makes you more considerate of others in different situations,” Davis said. “In one improv, we had to be an Egyptian peasant praying to a god. Normally, you just laugh at an idea like that, but when you’re acting it, you really have to get into their mindset and try as best as you can to portray it. It really makes you think of what goes on in other people’s minds and gives you respect for their way of thinking.”