Shouts of anger and then sounds of a beating echoed from behind tables standing upright in the Edgewood Middle School cafeteria where about 40 pupils and staff listened and watched.
As two boys walked out in front of the audience, the older boy sported a black eye he had received during the beating.
Angrily, he demanded from the younger one: "Hey, little bro, where's your lunch money?"
The younger boy answered: "It's mine. I need it for my lunch. Why do you want it?"
"I need it for something. Hand it over now!" his brother yelled.
The younger sibling complied and then left.
The two pupils were acting in one of several plays as part of the North Harford Middle School Traveling Company. It is a community service group that travels to schools and groups around the state to perform skits dealing with problems facing today's youths.
Their performances are making impressions on audiences of all ages.
"They are the most effective prevention group in the county," said William Kelly, a prevention specialist for the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, which provides a $5,000 annual grant from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to fund the program. "They raise important issues that kids want to talk about and do talk about at their performances."
The idea of a traveling company started about 15 years ago in a Pennsylvania high school under the direction of English teacher Jane Travis of Fawn Grove, Pa.
When Travis retired from her Pennsylvania job and began teaching in Harford County, she started the program with middle school pupils four years ago.
Travis said work begins at the end of each school year for the next year's performances. She polls her pupils about problems that children face.
Last year, pupils cited an array of issues including eating disorders, bullying, drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, gangs and divorce. The same pupils then wrote short skits or plays about those topics.
"The things they write about include the real-life experiences some of them have had, as well as experiences of people the writers have known," said Travis.
"Divorce is the hardest for them to write about, but occasionally, I'll get someone who is willing to talk about it, and they write a play for us," Travis said.
Many of the pupils have had someone bully them or try to pressure them into something they didn't want to do, and these experiences are shared in the skits, she said.
Before each performance, Travis introduces her troupe by telling the audience: "We're not going to show you anything that should be applauded. These kids are playing themselves and acting out things that have really been done. We hope that we'll make you mad and that you will see the things that these kids are doing are wrong."
The pupils perform and then follow it up with a question-and-answer session, where Travis walks around with a microphone like a talk-show host, fielding questions the audience has for the performers. The pupils remain in character during the questioning.
The reality of the issues and the audience feedback is what led Danielle Horoschak, 12, a seventh-grader, into the program.
"I don't like plays with happy endings," said Horoschak, of Jarrettsville. "People dream and dwell on that stuff. I think they need to see what's really out there. I think they need realistic answers to their questions, and we try to give them that."
The recent play covered issues of bullying, drug and alcohol abuse and peer pressure.
"We want to show people things that really happen," said Horoschak. "Drugs have a big impact on middle-schoolers. We hear rumors about it, and we don't want our friends getting in trouble or taking drugs. So we try to show all kids, through the plays, what they can do to get help or to stand up for themselves when people try to make them do drugs or drink or anything else they can be pressured into doing that's wrong."
Pupils listen to their peers more often than they do their parents, said Molly Ploughman, 13, of Pylesville.
"They need to know that their actions have consequences, and we try to show them how these issues can affect people our age," she said.
Another pupil said he's seen what drugs can do in his own neighborhood.
"There were two kids in my neighborhood that got caught with drugs, one for distributing and one for possession," said Patrick Kropkowski, 13, of Jarrettsville. "I knew the kids, and when I found out they use drugs, I quit being friends with them. I want to help people so they stop before they get into trouble."
The actors unanimously agree that the impact of the program on some kids is worth all the work. They spend at least two hours a week for rehearsals and practice and act in two or more performances each month.
When they hear that their program saved a life, it makes them want to work even harder.
One pupil who was considering suicide came to Travis after a program and told her he had decided not to do it, Travis said.
"I think being able to save a life makes this all worth it," said Patrick Cieslak, 12, of Pylesville. "We give them suggestions on who to call and how to get help in the skits, and I feel really good that he decided to get help instead of committing suicide."
Sometimes, the audience gets angry at what they see and stands up for the kids being bullied.
After a recent performance, one pupil asked the older brother who took his brother's lunch money: "Why don't you stand up to your abusive father instead of picking on your younger brother and taking your anger out on him?"
After the performance, Madeline Booze, 14, of Edgewood summed up the experience by giving the pupils advice on making better choices.
"There are too many people dying out there because they take drugs," she said. "And that older kid shouldn't take his anger out on his brother. All of them need to treat people like they want to be treated."