By Levi Sharpe
NEW YORK — The houselights went up, dimly illuminating the sea-foam green wall tiles and 40 audience members spread out on cracked wooden seats in the auditorium of P.S. 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
“Can any of you tell me a problem that someone was having?” asked Reg Flowers, as he stood in front of the stage where the actors now sat.
The children sitting in the two front rows raised their hands, some quickly, others with hesitation.
Falconworks Artist Group, a theater group based in Red Hook, has been producing “Off the Hook” for the past 10 years, said founder Reg Flowers, 48. He and co-founder Chris Hammett, 49, put on the eight-week program twice a year to help neighborhood kids channel their problems into workshopped plays that they then write and star in.
After the performance, Flowers encourages audience members to go up on stage and act out their own
resolutions to problems in the plays. In the past, children explored violence in schools, gender oppression and troubles at home, Flowers said. His youthful face and frequent ear-to-ear smile contrasts with his intimidating height and shaved head.
“It’s important for people to know that the tools to create theater are within their grasp, and that it becomes a powerful tool for sharing ideas,” he said. When he was a child, he struggled to write and produce his own play because of lack of resources.
When those ideas have a platform to be communicated, Flowers said, they can be an effective agent for change.
“When we live in a world where a lot of the choices that we’ve made about how we live are quite destructive,” he said, “it’s important for people to imagine a different way of being.”
Javiarré Watkins, 14, a soft-spoken high school freshman, was one of two teens who wrote a play for a recent production. Set in Coney Island, the play tried to convey the complex emotions and internal conflicts one feels when stricken with a first crush. It included haunting circus music, colorful costumes and choreographed dance numbers.
Watkins, who lives in the New York City Housing Authority Red Hook Houses — the largest public housing development in Brooklyn — said the workshopping process helped him digest other issues he sees plaguing his neighborhood such as gangs.
Now he wants to write a play illustrating “racist problems” he sees in Red Hook brought about by the changing demographics. On one side of the neighborhood, he said, there are “people driving around in their nice cars,” and on the other side there are people “asking for money trying to get their lives back together.”
His play would focus on how these inequalities lead to violence, he said.
Past “Off the Hook” playwright Chance Dickson, 15, who volunteered to act in this year’s production, explored race in his own piece back in 2011.
“It was about a black kid — like an ‘Oreo’ — who was sick of people calling him white because he listens to rock music, skateboards and has tight jeans,” he said. “That’s what I was going through,” he added. “I wanted to send a message that it’s cool to be different.”
Helping Red Hook youth express their problems isn’t Falconworks’ only mission. The organization brings together diverse groups of people who might not meet otherwise, Hammett said.
“One of the things that is important to me is that we work with all kinds of kids,” he said.
“People that may not encounter each other except through this program, whether it’s because of their background or because they live at different ends of the neighborhood.”
Falconworks enlists the help of adults from the Red Hook community as well as professional actors and actresses from around the city. Ashlie Atkinson, 37, who has 53 IMDB credits and has acted in major films such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Inside Man,” said she “begged to be included.”
“I grew up doing children’s theater and it was one of the most positive influences on my life,” she said. “It’s really exciting to work with young artists who are passionate about what they’re doing but are also in that really delicate age where encouragement is crucial.”
Flowers, who teaches theater at Pace University, encourages his students to participate in the plays to fulfill the course’s “civic engagement” requirement.
Musical theater major, David Park, 23, who often played pop songs on the piano for the cast during rehearsals, said he was drawn to “doing theater as a means for social change as opposed to entertainment.”
Although the long-lasting benefits of the program are not immediately apparent, Hammett said, he is optimistic that the children take away something positive from the experience.
“I hope it provides a little bit of insight into what’s going on with themselves or the world,” he said.
“If nothing else,” he added. “It can be a very clear way of coming to understand that you’re not alone.”
This story first appeared on YouthToday.org.