Troupe improvises growing-up lessons

Teens: A theater group acts out subjects that range from doing schoolwork to dealing with sex and AIDS.

April 27, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The dialogue between the teen-agers is intimate and intense.

"I was wondering, have you ever had sex before?" "Yeah, once or twice." "I'm not sure I'm really ready to have sex."

But the conversation is not being conducted in private. It's before a group of about 30 other youths.

The occasion is an appearance by Mixed Nutz, a Baltimore-based youth theater troupe that takes on subjects ranging from AIDS to schoolwork with a free-form, rapid-fire mixture of improvisation, pantomime and audience participation.

An offshoot of the cutting-edge AXIS Theatre, Mixed Nutz takes its show to a handful of schools and concludes its second season with 10 public performances in June at a theater in Woodberry in North Baltimore.

The idea behind the group is not so much to provide its youthful audiences with answers as it is to help them focus on questions.

"If we act out different issues, it can hopefully wake some people to think about things like AIDS and pregnancy," said Lamont Williams Jr., 19, a student at Coppin State College.

"We're not telling people what to do," added Sara Berlin, 16, who attends Oakland Mills High School in Columbia. "But we're informing them of the consequences of any decision they would make."

Those who have watched Mixed Nutz believe it makes an impact.

Last fall, the group performed at New Foundations, a private school in downtown Baltimore for boys between ages 12 and 15 who have severe emotional and behavioral problems. School officials invited the group for a return engagement this month.

Making a connection

"The boys [from New Foundation] asked if they could come back," said Nancy Marsiglia, assistant to the school's executive director. "The social issues they address are things our kids deal with all the time."

Although several students had to be escorted out for disruptive behavior during the hourlong show, those who stayed seemed to enjoy what they saw.

"They were all right," said one student. (The school does not allow students to be identified because of privacy concerns). "I liked it."

Troupe members believed they made a connection as well.

"Once they settled down, they started to like it," said Alex Peri, a student at Howard County's Hammond High School. "You never know what they took out of it, but I felt it was something."

The show began with a series of improvisational skits involving two actors. When project director Judi Anderson called out "Freeze," the young actors would hold their poses, and one would be replaced by a new actor, who would turn the conversation to a new direction.

"Are you thirsty? Here, have a beer." "You know I didn't drink. I'm straight A's." "Come on, everyone at this party's drinking."

The show also included a skit in which three girls -- Berlin and Mount Hebron students Sarah Reid and Alexis Siebs -- were reviewing their weekend, bragging about how many guys they had passed on sexually transmitted diseases to, concluding with a mocking dance celebrating their exploits.

After the skit, Anderson asked the audience to talk about what they saw.

"I think all of them are nasty," said one student. "They were going around spreading diseases."

"If you are having sex, use protection," Anderson said.

Some of the skits involved audience members who put their names on slips of papers, signaling that they were interested in performing with the troupe. When one New Foundations student said he was a rapper, he was invited to perform.

That kind of involvement is one reason Mixed Nutz relies on improvisation.

"Improv has an edgier feel to it," said Jon Lipitz, co-founder of the 7-year-old, 68-seat AXIS Theatre. "The audience knows it's not scripted. So it brings the audience in more. It also allows the group to adjust to the audience."

A diverse group

Lipitz, who acknowledges lifting the teen troupe's name from a Dennis Miller monologue, said Mixed Nutz is part of the theater's outreach effort. The name reflects the diverse nature of the group's performance and its composition.

"The idea is to get suburban and urban kids together and decide where are the shared issues," said Lipitz. "There's a sense I feel that the concerns of the kids who are living in the suburbs are different from the kids who are living in the city. While there are differences, there are more similarities."

One of the group's signature pieces is a series of monologues about teens who have contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Called "Voices from the Grave," a performance by last year's troupe was videotaped and received several airings on the city's cable channel.

Among the members of that group, one had been homeless and another was bisexual, according to Anderson.

This year, one member of the troupe is a high school dropout struggling to earn her General Educational Development diploma.

"I came to this theater because I wanted to show people what's going on in this world," said Mary McRae, 19, who lives in southern Baltimore. "I'm trying to give people something to listen to. I'm trying to make a point to people in a different way."

Mixed Nutz will appear at 8 p.m. June 10-12, 17-19 and 24-26 and at 2 p.m. June 27 at AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road in Baltimore. Tickets are $5. Information: 410-243-5237.

Pub Date: 4/27/99

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