Students bare their secret dreads through actors 'RISKIN' IT'

October 17, 1990|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

On the Northern Senior High School stage, the 16-year-old girl has opened an emotional vein, her pain spurting hot and bright into the silent auditorium.

She sits cross-legged, cradling an imaginary telephone receiver, real tears welling in her eyes as she weaves her scene in a production dramatizing issues in teen-agers' lives.

"Hello?" she says, voice on the verge of cracking. "Is this the teen hot line? May I speak to a counselor please? I need help. . . .

"Every day, I come home and I dread the moment that my father steps through that door. . . . He has raped me, and it hasn't stopped. . . .

"Every time I feel him around me, I start shaking, I start crying and there's nothing else for me to do but to obey him because I'm afraid he will hurt me. . . .

"It's been going on for five years. . . . I don't know what else to do. If I give you his name and number, will you please . . . please send somebody?"

And then, abruptly, the teen-ager, whose performance was inspired by the real-life experience of a fellow student, shifts gears.

Standing up, she walks to the edge of the stage, speaking directly to the audience.

"That is what I wish I had done," she says, in a calm, clear voice. "But this is what I did."

She sits again, dials the imaginary telephone -- and is interrupted by the bark of a man's harsh voice.


"Yes, Dad."

"Get in here!"


"Yes, Dad."

And the scene is done.

Incest. Guns. Drug-dealing. Pregnant teens.

Those subjects, drawn from the personal experiences of nearly 50 students, help form the emotional core of a troubling stage production at the school tomorrow morning.

Called "Riskin' It," the one-day performance before a select audience features students acting out real-life scenes from other students' anonymous essays.

Together, they paint a sobering portrait of young people struggling to cope with the often-crushing risks of modern life -- and searching for support.

"I was just surprised that so many classmates in one place had so many things they were holding back for so long," says Chris Crimy, a sophomore acting in the production. "I would have gone crazy."

"You walk around this school every day, there are so many problems, but they just go unnoticed," adds Ursula Bishop, a junior working in the production.

The girl who wrote about being raped by her father remains anonymous. But at least one other student in the production says she also had suffered sexual abuse, and found the courage to seek help.

"I eventually told someone after a year," says the student, who found herself emotionally affected by the story that unfolded on stage. "Telling somebody just took a load off my mind. I'm hoping she will look at this and she'll get help."

Such stories "could be for some people a real shock, because they may be denying what is going on," says Barbara Tirrell, the New York actress who organized "Riskin' It" as a visiting artist with the city school system.

But, she adds, "what you open up is a healing process . . . it promotes understanding among students, it celebrates courage, it helps to provide a community."

Tirrell, who has done drama productions with homeless children in New York, pioneered the "Riskin' It" format in the Little Rock, Ark., schools last year. Her three-week stint in Baltimore is sponsored by the Aetna Foundation.

After performing for Northern students, Tirrell assigned three classes to write short essays.

Students wrote about risks they had taken, risks they wish they had taken and ways in which other people had taken a risk with them.

By last week, Tirrell had read all the essays and organized about 25 of them into 18 scenes involving 48 students, few of whom had any previous acting experience.

"The only technique I need from them is, 'talk loud,' " she says. "Beyond that, all I need is, 'tell the truth.' "

Tirrell was at times shocked by the truth that emerged in some of those essays, though she stressed that "only a small percentage" involved "blood and guts" subjects.

"I thought I had heard everything," says Tirrell. "But a father who has been sexually abusing a daughter for five years?"

She was also surprised by the level of gun-related violence in the students' lives, "kids meeting other groups of kids, and weapons entering the picture."

For example, one essay told of teen-agers playing Russian roulette, another of a boy who shot a vagrant on a dare from a friend.

"When a story begins, 'We went out looking for somebody to beat up,' it's a hell of a way to start the day," Tirrell says.

She is convinced that the stories are true, that the students have bared some of their deepest secrets in an act of cleansing honesty.

"I don't think they've been exaggerated in any way," Tirrell says.

She is well aware of the trauma that can result from young people revealing such intimate experiences. School counselors will be available in the wake of the production, to help cast members deal with those emotions.

But Tirrell also hopes the production will forge a sense of community among students, giving them strength to make the right decisions in difficult situations.

"You won't have a kid shooting a gun down an alley," says Tirrell. "You'll have this girl turn her father in, rather than continue to destroy her life. But that's a very hard thing to do alone."

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