Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Blake Lawrence Talks About Keen Teens

Today on the Good News Theatre Blog, I talk with director Blake Lawrence about a subject that is very dear to her -- Keen Teens, which is an education program of Keen Company (where Blake is Associate Artistic Director). Keen Teens is a great example of the important educational outreach that nonprofit companies do all over NYC, helping people in their communities in ways that aren't evident when we see them put on shows in theatres.

I asked Blake a few questions via email about Keen Teens. Here's our cyberinterview:

Me: Can you give us a quick description of the Keen Teens program: who it benefits and who participates in it?

BLAKE: KEEN TEENS is a unique educational theatre program with two primary goals. The first is to improve the quality of plays being written for high school students. To that end, we commission 30-minute plays from professional writers whose work we regard highly. Keen Teens makes it financially viable for them to write these plays, and our program partner, Playscripts, Inc., guarantees publication of their scripts.

Our second goal is to give students the opportunity to work with professional artists and perform in a world premiere production off-Broadway. We don't work within one specific school; we open our program up to students all over the metropolitan area, focusing specifically on schools and districts with no performing arts programming. Over the course of three months, students who are cast in the shows work with professional directors and learn how to rehearse a play, develop a new script, find their own voice, connect to a character, and be truthful onstage. There is no fee for students to participate in Keen Teens.

Me: How did you first get involved with Keen Teens? What are some of the specific activities you do to mange this program?

BLAKE: I have been involved with Keen Teens since its pilot season in 2007 and essentially act as the Artistic Director of the program. Each year, I work with Playscripts, Inc. and reach out to a select group of writers to solicit play proposals, then select the writers to commission each season. I oversee the development process for each script and am responsible for fundraising, hiring the staff, overseeing the casting process, marketing the program and the production, establishing and maintaining relationships with schools and personnel, and am the producer for all Keen Teens productions. I also direct one show each season.

Me: What’s been most rewarding to you as a theatre artist about working with Keen Teens? Can you give us a success story of a key accomplishment that has made you particularly proud?

BLAKE: There are so many aspects of Keen Teens that make it rewarding. It is truly the most fulfilling projects I have ever worked on in the theatre. The number of licensed productions of our six published plays is a huge success to me. But two specific examples jump to mind about our work with the students.

The first was a high school freshman who was asked to portray a gay character. He had never met a homosexual and only had stereotypical notions available to him. Through the 12 weeks of rehearsal, we watched him become more comfortable with himself, his character and his scene partner and finally be able to honestly create a complete human being onstage. His scene was one of the most complimented by our audiences. it was inspiring to see his transformation and to know that the understanding that he gained will stay with him for the rest of his life.

The second is how the students come together as an ensemble. It is a vital aspect of the program to bring together students from diverse economical, educational and geographic backgrounds; bringing students together who would otherwise never get to meet each other in high school. At the first few rehearsals, the students sit with students that look like them, sound like them, and are familiar to them. But the end of our three months together, they have all become incredibly close. They are crying, hugging, taking photos together, making plans to keep in touch, it's amazing. The final performance always feels like the last day of camp.

Unfortunately, Keen Teens is facing some financial difficulties at the moment. Blake says, "As is the case with almost every not-for-profit organization, our funding has been cut severely. I just got unexpected news last week that three foundations which gave us grants last season, and on which we were relying heavily for this season, are unable to offer us funding this year."

If you're interested in helping out with an online donation, click here: https://www.networkforgood.org/donation/MakeDonation.aspx?ORGID2=113586346

You can learn more about Keen Teens at: www.keencompany.org/teens.html. On their wesbite, there are links on the lefthand sidebar to more info about Keen Company.

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