Troupe sets the stage for life decisions

For nearly 2 decades students have acted in FoolProof


The question-and-answer sessions after a performance by the drama troupe FoolProof often get rather personal.

Because the cast remains in character to respond to audience members - during a portion of the show that troupe members use to further their issue-driven skits - often the inquiries become somewhat pointed.

Audience members have been known to take troupe members to task over a character's response to peer pressure or bullying, or sex abuse or drug abuse.

"A lot of times we think we know how we behave, but oftentimes [people] don't know how that impacts the people around them," said Cathy Baker, program director at Shoemaker Addictions Rehabilitation Center, an inpatient adult residential treatment facility in Sykesville.

"The value of [a FoolProof performance] is it gives patients another tool or mechanism to begin to look at their behavior and the things that they've done to the people in their lives and how they behaved when they were under the influence.

"It gives them another view of life's situations," Baker said. "It helps them explore their own lives and their life history."

Mission accomplished for the Carroll County drama troupe of high school students, which has used the art of improvisation for nearly two decades to raise awareness about such issues as teen suicide, drug abuse and domestic violence, and to get people talking.

"We've had audience members say things like, `If I had seen this when I was younger, I might've made different decisions," Paul G. Zimmerman, FoolProof's artistic director, said of people, especially recovering substance abusers, who have thanked him and troupe members for their performances.

The troupe, created 19 years ago, performs at schools and Shoemaker, and other venues across Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia.

"What we want to accomplish depends on the audience," said Zimmerman, who is also the county's register of wills. "When we're in front of a middle school or high school audience, we want to show them the issues so they don't have to experience it themselves. We want them to know they don't have to get into risky behavior. And to let them know they are not alone.

"With adults, we kind of want to hold a mirror up to them to let them see how the decisions they have made affect others and get them talking about it," Zimmerman said. "It gives them permission to talk. We let them know it's OK to talk about these things."

Nearly two decades ago, Roberta Gore, the North Carroll drama teacher who formed the troupe, was brainstorming a name for the troupe as she headed back from watching a similar group in Talbot County, Zimmerman said.

One day, Zimmerman said, Gore passed a billboard for a local library system that said: "Reading is knowledge. Knowledge will make you foolproof."

That motto has been the driving force behind the troupe.

Being a member of the cast requires a willingness to accept a demanding schedule of rehearsals and performances.

The cast spends eight weeks in the fall learning improvisation and miming skills. During the school year, cast members delve into the issues with experts from local agencies, including the state's attorney's office and a rape crisis center.

Students can earn up to 300 of their required community service learning credits each year, Zimmerman said. FoolProof is not funded by the school system, but troupe members are allowed to miss six school days for performances, he said.

The group does not charge admission to its performances but is supported by donations from the community and audiences.

Because it is an improv troupe, students frequently rotate roles. To help develop the characters, they hold "extended improvs," or rehearsals, during which the cast performs background scenes, most of which will not be seen by audiences. Troupe members form strong bonds over emotionally intense sessions that often draw upon personal experiences.

At the end of their skits, troupe members take questions from the audience while in character. It's a part of the show that audiences and troupe members seem to like best.

The cast is so adept at getting into character that their audiences walk away with a changed perspective, Zimmerman said.

"A counselor at one of the rehab centers once said to me that `If someone took all my tools away, [FoolProof] would be the one I'd keep,'" recalled Zimmerman, who said audience members have written letters to the troupe thanking them for their performances and detailing how touched they were by the presentation.

While many of the student performers find their way to the troupe because they are interested in acting careers, most of them join for the opportunity to educate people, especially teens, about topics that include alcohol abuse and bullying.

"It really opens up your eyes to all the possibilities and opportunities to help people," said Jill Copek, 17, a senior at Winters Mill High who has been a cast member for two years.

Copek, who plans to stay in touch with the group after she graduates and heads off to the University of Maryland in the fall, said that juggling the troupe's schedule with her school studies has been a worthwhile sacrifice.

"FoolProof is just crazy. Before you really know anybody, it seems like such a huge commitment," she said. "But you form such close bonds with people, and when you see that you've reached an audience member, it's just an amazing feeling."

FoolProof performances

The following shows are open to the public and are free:

April 25 at 7 p.m.Shoemaker Addictions Rehabilitation Center, Sykesville

May 23 at 7 p.m.Shoemaker Addictions Rehabilitation Center, Sykesville

May 28 at 7 p.m.Carroll Arts Center, Westminster

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