- After-School Theatre Programs for At-Risk Teenagers
What challenges do young people in our society face? How are we making it harder for our youth to succeed? How can we change our tactics and employ the arts to “save lives?” In his book, After-School Theatre Programs for At-Risk Teenagers, Philip Zwerling explores these questions with passion and optimism, offering what he calls the “cold hard facts, the numbers and percentages, the experimental data to convince the skeptical” (1) that programs like those illustrated here can alter the lives of adolescents. He asserts: “In searching for new initiatives to stem youth violence, we need to identify programs that counteract the multitude of risk factors that teens face” (32). Zwerling’s questions are important and his sentiments poignant, yet while the book effectively introduces the issues at hand, it does not fully live up to the claims the author presents at the outset.
Zwerling spends the first two chapters of the text illustrating challenges currently facing youth in the United States. To fully illuminate the depth of the problem, he tells the story of one youth, Johnny, by describing Johnny’s life in the community of Isla Vista, a vastly populated and economically struggling community near Santa Barbara. Zwerling explains how the challenges in Johnny’s life echo those faced by adolescents throughout the country. Through Johnny’s story and other persuasive data he borrows from national studies, the author successfully illustrates a dire situation that can no longer be ignored.
The next three chapters explore community-based theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed in order to tie the objectives and techniques of these practices with the aims of after-school programs working with at-risk youth. Here, Zwerling makes a convincing argument that theatre has the potential to create change in the lives of its participants and audiences. This exploration into the work of Augusto Boal and other activists/practitioners is extremely detailed. While the perspective is relevant and even compelling at moments, Zwerling takes too long to get back to the issues at hand; the reader can easily lose the forest because of the trees. One of the stronger points of this section is found where Zwerling explores the theory (credited to Raul Leis) that theatre “‘of, for and by’ teenagers could have the greatest impact in altering attitudes and behaviors that place them at risk” (85). However, Zwerling could have strengthened the text by noting the ways in which the theory is already in practice through the work of many artists and educators across the country.
Zwerling states that “[s]ince no one else was doing it, I decided to undertake an in-depth study of several theatre groups working with at-risk teens, including an evaluation of their effects upon the teenage participants and an analysis of what makes one program more successful than another. This book is the result” (85). Three subsequent chapters each detail three respective after-school theatre programs where Zwerling conducted quantitative research for the book. Throughout this section, he offers comprehensive accounts [End Page 246] of the structures, activities, venues, and leader/participant attitudes in each project. This analysis provides an excellent comparative snapshot of the successes and challenges of these particular programs. Unfortunately, the three theatre companies are all in Southern California and therefore offer a limited perspective of the field. Any effort to paint a full picture of life-altering youth-theatre projects requires more geographic and programmatic diversity in order to draw pragmatic conclusions.
In the final chapter, Zwerling finally shares his quantitative research; this forms the weakest part of the book. His pre- and postsurvey of young people involved in the three projects, intended to show the power of the programs involved, surveyed, with multiple varying factors, a total of less than 50 adolescents. The value of this kind of quantitative data is merely anecdotal, unless it obtains a larger sample and controls for more variables.
An appendix at the end of the book compiled by Zwerling and one...