Why let kids write their own plays?
With kids at the center of the project it becomes easy to get adults to sign on. Most people have it in their hearts to help a kid have an early experience of success. Kids also tend not to censor themselves in the ways that adults do, so the plays they write tend to "cut to the core" of issues rather than try to intellectualize them, or talk around them. [The last crop of plays included absentee alcoholic parents, a boy who attempts suicide, a girl whose family is too poor to send her to college—even though her parents have college educations—and a boy who lost his father in Iraq.] Ultimately, we are trying to get folks from all over Brooklyn who would normally not be in a room together to experience something as a community. To give Red Hook, as a community, a chance to reflect on their own humanity, issues, and potential, through the eyes of young people.
How do you find the kids?
They come through many channels. Some are referred to us through schools and other organizations that know about the program or about Falconworks. We meet a lot of kids by virtue of living in this community. They are the children of our neighbors and the friends of our neighbors. Some of the participants are relatives and/or friends of someone who has done the program or someone who came to see a show and decided they wanted to give it a try.
When did you start doing Off The Hook?
In the fall of 2004, I believe. It was the first program Falconworks offered in Red Hook.
What was your inspiration?
We started after being asked to offer theater training to a group of peer educators for HIV and drug abuse prevention. The teens were so amazing and so committed to using theater to engage their own community—teenagers—that I wanted to find a way to keep working with them after the training came to an end. I also wanted a way to allow them to use theater to address their own issues—issues they found compelling. We ended up with two youth participants in the first round. They wrote half hour dramas that were amazing. One play was about a violent kid dealing with paternal abandonment. The other was a fantasy about a kid running away to live in the subway. Amazing!
Do they still surprise you?
The kids still manage to amaze me—their level of understanding, often masked by behaviors that seem typical, shallow at times: behaviors they have, perhaps learned to get through their typical day.
What's the hardest part of working with young people?
It can be tough. Sometimes families will take kids out of the program because they are having problems at home or in school. They see “Off the Hook” as a "treat" or "reward". Those parents miss that “Off the Hook” is hard work that requires tremendous commitment, and that pulling a kid from the program who has worked very hard and shown a commitment to something might be teaching the wrong lesson. For many of our youth participants, “Off the Hook” represents the first time they have been asked to do something requiring this level of commitment outside of a school setting. Some kids have meltdowns and cry in rehearsals, some kids act out with the adult volunteers or staff members. We try to keep reminding them that they are doing all of it to serve the community and to make a contribution. We find that can relieve the pressure.