Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 4:50 am | Fair 45º

 
 
 
 

City at Peace Santa Barbara Gives Youths a Voice Through Theater

Managing Director Karena Jew offers an insider's view of the process of creating shows such as Echoes, showing Friday at Center Stage Theater

The nonprofit organization City at Peace Santa Barbara has produced annual theatrical performances since 1996. Managing Director Karena Jew, Artistic Director Joseph Velasco and a crew of adult artists help shape the shows, but teens from local junior high and high schools write and perform the material, using experiences from their own lives brought out in a workshop setting.

The next performance, Echoes, will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Center Stage Theater. An open mic for teen poets will follow the show.

In the following interview with Noozhawk, Jew provides a look at the process of creating this grassroots work of theater.

Q: How long have you been working with City at Peace? What were you doing before that, and what drew you to it?

A: This is my third year with City at Peace. Previously I was the development director at PUEBLO, but for most of my career I’ve worked with youth organizations. The first City at Peace performance I ever saw was probably back in 1998 or 1999 at the County Bowl. I think it was Home Is a 4-Letter Word — great title, right? City at Peace shows are always so honest and raw. I’m generally pretty stoic, but even I almost always find myself a little teary-eyed. At the same time, the shows are funny, with a lot of youthful creativity.

Q: What is the process you and the kids go through in creating the show?

A: We start near the beginning of the academic year, and our first job is to create an environment of safety and respect, where teens can express themselves freely, without fear of being made fun of or being gossiped about. The participants go through a series of theater games and other exercises that teach about and explore identity, diversity, communication, conflict resolution skills and issues in our community. Along the way we are collecting writings, poetry, ideas, images and life stories.

About midyear we go on a three-day retreat to start bringing all that work together. The participants are mentored by professional artists such as Artistic Director Joseph Velasco, writer-in-residence Sojourner Rolle and Music Director John Douglas, who help them develop their pieces into one cohesive body of work — our annual show.

Q: What are the most challenging and rewarding things you all experience along the way?

A: For me, the challenges are just the typical ones of sustaining a nonprofit in difficult economic times. For our teens, the challenge can be the initial fears that go along with opening up to others, letting go during an improv and not worrying about looking silly. And when we really get down to work, often times it’s acknowledging difficult life experiences that they don’t like to think about, much less share with others.

As for the rewards, we have had teens say they are grateful that they have a place to relax and just be themselves, and not feel the stress and violence that permeate the rest of their lives. Other teens are happy to be with friends and to make new friends. For many students, it’s an entry to artistic expression that becomes a permanent part of their lives. Some participants say their experience was healing, others say they can feel themselves changing and thinking differently.

I think the artists and volunteer adult facilitators would agree that hearing and seeing the impact is our reward. We have the privilege of watching them grow over the course of a year, and sometimes several years.

Q: I understand Waldo Damaso-Figueroa is directing this year after participating in the productions for several years. How has that been for him, and for you?

A: After five years in the program, Waldo was to come back this year as a junior adult facilitator. But Joseph, our artistic director, wanted him to continue to be challenged. He recognized Waldo’s evolution into a true artist, not only in theater, but painting, writing, fashion design — you name it. So we decided he would be the first teen director in our history of 17 years. Waldo wanted the show to reflect the necessity of artistic expression, and that’s a major theme. I think for Joseph and I, it’s just been a matter of choosing when to push a little and when to pull back.

Q: What do you most want audiences to take away from the show?

A: As I mentioned before, the importance of artistic expression is central to the show. It’s also about the way adults, particularly parents, can impact a youth’s life without knowing it. Adults who are trying to do their jobs, parents who are trying to survive, they take actions that may not even be directed at the child, but that still reverberate through the child’s life.

And with Damaso-Figueroa:

Q: What has this experience been like for you, as the first teen director?

A: The experience of directing — let me start off by saying the theater isn’t just a place for me to act, or to evoke a character. A friend of mine once told me that the theater, for her, was a place she could be herself, and those words have stuck with me since. I became Waldo, the artist, on that stage and now, six years later, I see my life clearer when the lights are blinding. This year, when I was asked to direct the show, I said yes right away. I had to. I grew up with City at Peace — it was my time to show Santa Barbara, “Look what I can do!”

I am in this weird transition of letting go of my youth and accepting adulthood. Do I completely let go of who I was to become who I will be as an adult? And how do I do that? It has become an echo, hence the title of the show. The opportunity is timeless, the experience is one of those things that teaches you about yourself. It’s the journey — not the content, but the creation.

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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