Staging assaults on life's problems Man uses drama, music for project

December 27, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

You have to wonder what would drive an intelligent 38-year-old man to dress up in a silly green turtle outfit and strut around like a troubadour singing ballads to giggling kids.

Columbia resident Alan Rubinstein does this sort of thing for a living, mind you. And, he says he loves every minute of it.

Mr. Rubinstein, a Harpers Choice resident, is the founder and more or less lone staff member of Involvement Theater Inc., a 5-year-old nonprofit organization focused on teaching kids and adults how to solve life's problems thoughtfully and be sensitive to the problems facing others.

Involvement Theater's lone offering is called "The Problem Solving Project," which has circulated before school and other groups in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It uses music, short play-type scenes and small group discussions to highlight specific challenges and get group members openly discussing their perceptions of the issue and how they might be addressed successfully.

"The thing I really like about what I'm doing is that the music and drama are not art for just art's sake. It's performance art that can teach someone a very important skill," Mr. Rubinstein says.

"Kids see how to solve problems on their own. If they can resolve just a few conflicts using the steps I outline in the program, it can have a lasting effect. They see there are alternatives to addressing problems."

Mr. Rubinstein created the program as a way to merge his interestsin teaching and in music and drama.

A music teacher trained at Oberlin College in Ohio, Mr. Rubinstein says the theater project was the result of brainstorming in his search for a career that would fill the void he sensed in his work teaching traditional music lessons.

"I also wanted to be involved with something that would make sure kids didn't go through what I went through as a kid. I was always the one being teased or left out. Part of that probably had to do with my own attitude, but part of it was the way kids are taught to treat people who are different from them," he says.

Mr. Rubinstein's program works this way:

First, he has teachers or leaders of the group for which he will be performing the program select in advance from a list the issues they would like addressed.

The issues include fairness, drug and alcohol abuse, peer pressure, friendship and time management.

For the performance, Mr. Rubinstein often dons the garb of one of the many characters he has created to act as part-leader and part-moderator of the discussions he hopes to stir during the performance.

For young children, he's "Tommy the Turtle." For older children ,, he's an affable outer space alien, and for middle and high school groups, he's "the problem-solving leader."

He brings a grab bag of hats, T-shirts and sunglasses to his performances so that he can take on specific roles for the issues or themes to be addressed.

"I'm sort of like the game show host. I get things going and keep them focused," he explains.

Performances usually consist of songs, which Mr. Rubinstein sings while strumming a guitar. The songs outline the issue at hand. Students or group volunteers also are asked to create play-type scenes that explore the issue. Group discussions then follow.

For example, a group of high school drama students might perform a scene that dramatizes the issue of teen drinking and how to confront the issue despite peer pressure to view it as hip.

Mr. Rubinstein says the most common issues selected for children from pre-kindergarten to second grade are "getting along with others" and "responsibility." For children from third through eighth grades, the most common issues selected include peer pressure, getting along with others and responsibility. "The long term consequences of actions" is the theme most commonly addressed for high school groups.

"One thing I very carefully avoid is saying this is a program which teaches kids which decision is best. That gets tangled in the debate about teaching values," says Mr. Rubinstein.

"This is not a decision-making program. Its focus is teaching kids how to problem solve so they can make their own decisions. The buzz word here is improvisation. I want the kids to come up with their own scripts so they address the problem in the way they see it facing their own lives. I also want the audience to participate and get them feeling their emotions about these issues. I'll accomplish nothing unless I get them feeling their emotions."

To that end, Mr. Rubinstein bounces around the audience with a wireless microphone asking group members for their ideas on the issue at hand and suggestions for solutions.

Mr. Rubinstein's program outlines a six-step approach to problem-solving: identify the problem, accept responsibility, brainstorm solutions, create a plan, take action and evaluate the result.

Mr. Rubinstein's actual performances last one to three hours, but the program doesn't end there. He and his wife, Karen, who designs educational instruction materials, created a guide book

for the Involvement Theater program.

School guidance counselors, teachers and others receive the book following a performance. The book outlines suggested follow-up study and exercises so that problem-solving skills can be honed.

Though schools are his biggest customer, he also has conducted programs for youth groups, such as Girl Scout and 4-H troops; senior citizen groups; juvenile offenders; and singles clubs.

He charges $325 for a one-hour program and $775 for a full-day program. He says he averages three performances a week.

Aside from creating and performing the songs, he also is the program's sole marketer, spending several hours a week pitching the program to school principals, professional groups and club leaders.

"I've found in doing this that there are some universal things people want in life," Mr. Rubinstein says. "They want love and acceptance, and they want to express themselves and be heard. My goal with this is to show people a way those things can be part of their lives."

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