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Staying After School TDF’s new “Youth Theatre Initiative” fosters a passion for the theatre and encourages teamwork
I Am From El Café, the first play presented at Landmark High School in midtown Manhattan, boasted a cast of twelve actors, who also doubled as playwrights and directors. The play was a 30-minute piece which touched the social, academic and familial problems faced by today’s teens.

These students were participating in TDF’s new Youth Theatre Initiative (YTI), an after-school program for teens interested in many aspects of the theatre. Under the guidance of TDF Teaching Artist Jenny Pollack, the students met for 12 ninety-minute sessions during this past semester to learn about theatre and create an original piece. I Am From El Café was the culmination of this experience.

 “They learned that expressing themselves through writing and acting was a powerful experience – all of them showed tremendous growth as they began from shyness and shortly thereafter found themselves basking in the spotlight,” Pollack reports. “They also learned that theatre doesn’t have to be a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end, or be boring – it can take any form.”

The students, from diverse backgrounds, all joined to share in their common interest. “I always wanted to be an actress and this was a great experience - we all pitched ideas, wrote and helped by sort of directing each other,” said 12th grader Penelope Cruz. “Before this program began, I felt insecure and anxious about working with others. But as the weeks went on, it helped me to become much more of a team player.”

For 11th grader Terrence Dixon, theatre is second to his first love, filmmaking. “I volunteered for Youth Theatre Initiative because I’m looking to be a filmmaker and I wanted to gain the perspective of being in front of the camera. Also, my mother used to act, so it was something I always wanted to do. At first we were kinda of ‘iffy’ about the whole thing, but when we started working together, we realized that sharing our lives and experiences as teenagers within the play, was creating something other people could relate to.”

Mohamed Ibrahim (the students’ social studies teacher who also collaborated with the students during the sessions) felt the value of the program goes well beyond just appreciation of the arts. “We’re a small school and don’t have a lot of extra curricular activities for the students, so Youth Theatre Initiative offered them something more than academics. In addition to helping them grow artistically, it showed the students the value of keeping commitments and showing up for others – and doing what you say you’re going to do.”

“TDF’s Education Department was trying to fill a void when we piloted YTI last year, offering students with an interest in theatre the chance to explore their passion in a structured, after-school environment,” said TDF education director Marianna Houston. “For this, our first ‘official’ year, the program is in four schools. As we witnessed today, the students had a profound experience as a result of the YTI after school sessions. Our hope is to see the program grow over the next several years.”

Youth Theatre Initiative is TDF’s fourth in-class Arts Education Program serving New York City public high schools. It joins Stage Doors, Residency Arts Project (RAP) and Open Doors which, in total,  involve over 6,800 students in 95 schools.