When she got to the party and someone shoved a beer in her face, Monica Thompson said no.
"No, I DON'T WANT TO," she said.
The 17-year-old student at Chesapeake High School thanks PositivePeer Scene Theater for teaching her she could stand up for herself.
She's one of 15 county teen-agers in an improvisational acting group that performs for elementary school pupils, using drama to discussdrugs, sexuality and relationships.
"You learn so much that you use outside the theater group," says Thompson, in her third year with Peer Scene. "You think maybe people will hate you if you stand up foryour own morals, but I found out a lot of people respect me."
Twice a week for the past two months, students have studied improvisational theater as well as social problems like teen suicide, addiction and recovery, sexual assault and eating disorders. They've listened toexperts and visited such hospitals as Shepherd and Enoch Pratt in Towson.
In the process of preparing for the theater programs, the students learned more than they expected to about themselves.
"You realize how common all the problems are," says Amanda Timberg, a Severna Park High student. "Everything we studied, from eating disorders to date rape, struck a chord in the group. Either someone had experienced the problem or they had a friend who had. Knowing this helps you understand each other better."
Janet Griffin, the Peer Scene coordinator, has found her hopes for the group -- which she started four years ago -- more than fulfilled.
"It's been a drug-prevention tool, but it's turned into so much more," Griffin says. "The actors receive so much training they actually become a peer support group."
When Peer Scene Theater performs for the first time at Anne Arundel Community College at 8 p.m. tomorrow, they'll do so with no advance memorization. The group works without a script, receiving their show justan hour before the performance.
A show is a half-hour long and consists of six scenes. For example, one scene shows a drug dealer trying to influence a younger student to get high by offering free drugs.
Scenes generally aren't resolved. Sometimes characters choose a right action and other times they don't; often, no action is taken.
This prompts viewers to think about what the characters should have done, Griffin says. In the second half hour, the audience may question the characters. The director recalls one scene last year in which alittle girl asked the student playing the drug dealer why he gave the drugs away.
"He said, 'Next time, and there will be a next time,they have to pay for it.' " says Griffin.
"It sounds obvious to us, but the scenes teach a lot of children how to deal with these issues," he says.
Griffin heard about Peer Scene Theater while workingfor the county's drug and alcohol program several years ago. A health training specialist and former drama instructor, she realized she could use her background to direct such a program.
State and Annapolis city grants paid for the program in past years, and this year thecounty is picking up most of the expense, Griffin says.
Each fall, students from all county high schools have a chance to audition forthe group. This year, 10 new players were added to five returning theater members.
Peer Scene will perform 14 times at elementary schools and for other children's groups this spring, Griffin says. But the benefits will last a long time, the teen-age players say.
Says Kareem Johnson, 15, "It keeps you on your toes. You have to think as you perform. And you learn so much about things like suicide, why people do it and how to tell when someone is in danger. I've learned about myself, and how to help deal with people's problems."