ACTING OUT: Theater workshop nurtures creative side of youth

Sessions to culminate in production

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Members of the Latino Youth Theater do movement exercises and rehearse an original ensemble piece at the Shadowbox Theater.
Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Members of the Latino Youth Theater do movement exercises and rehearse an original ensemble piece at the Shadowbox Theater.

“ARTICULATION!” shouts the instructor, gesturing with hands, slowly lifting them like a conductor raising the volume of a symphony orchestra. “Ar-tic-u-la-tion!” he repeats, sounding out the word syllable by syllable.

“Articulation! Ar-tic-u-la-tion,” the six acting workshop students he is directing repeat after him.

Along with expressive body movements, creative writing and other dramatic skills, articulation is what these youths, most of whom are Hispanic, are learning from their instructor, Jose Torres Tama, in the Latino Youth Theater Project.

These acting sessions, which began April 1 and run through Friday, are being held at the Shadowbox Theater on St. Claude Avenue under the auspices of the Puentes program.

Spanish for “bridges,” Puentes is a post-Katrina initiative aimed at helping New Orleans area Hispanics assimilate and become active in their communities. The theater component targets primarily Hispanic students, ages 13-18, who are considered to be “at-risk.”

“When I use the term ‘at-risk,’ it is not my term,” said J.C. Romero, youth engagement coordinator for Puentes. “I mean it only in the sense that these kids might be attending schools that have been rated as ‘failing’ in their educational mission ... We’re here to help them develop valuable skills and cultural awareness.”

The acting workshop designed and taught by Torres Tama, Romeo said, “allows young people to experience and participate in something they wouldn’t typically experience. It allows them to express themselves through acting and creative writing. And they’re able to learn from each other.”

The Latino Youth Theater Project, now in its second year, is being funded for the second time by a grant from the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. Last year’s theater project was only one week; this year it runs for two weeks. Anywhere from 11 to 18 students take part in it.

At the end of the workshops, the students stage a production, demonstrating both the acting and writing skills they learned. This year’s production is at 4 p.m. Saturday and is open to the public.

Puentes came into being under the U.S. Department of Education’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, in which many school districts were required to set aside some money to allow outside educational service providers, Romero said.

Born in New Orleans to Nicaraguan parents and growing up for a time in a crime-ridden, drug-infested, now-demolished apartment complex in Kenner, he added, “I really wish there had been some programs like this when I was a kid. Programs where I could have expressed myself and shown my creative side.”

Torres Tama, a well-known solo performance artist, demonstrated body movements to the students.

He showed them “fire” by waving his hands in the air like flames burning. He showed them “ice” by wrapping his arms around himself and shivering. Then he asked the students, one by one, to come forward and do likewise.

Each went through the motions in a different manner. Torres Tama applauded and encouraged their individuality. The other students applauded by snapping their fingers.

Their instructor also recorded their motions with a video camera so he could play it back and review the motions with them later. The youngsters were then called upon to read descriptions they wrote about “What the American Dream Means to Me,” as well as descriptions they wrote about New Orleans. Torres Tama worked with them on their delivery, encouraging them to project and articulate their words.

“Jose has been really great with these kids,” Romero said. Focusing largely on the subject of Latino immigration and the Latino experience in America, “We’re hoping to develop some more Latin artists and expose New Orleanians to the Latino flavor to the arts.”

The theater program is not limited to Hispanic youths. “It’s going to be interesting to see how this diversity impacts the performance,” Romero said.

“It’s exciting for me to watch these young people come here and just let go. Express themselves through theatre arts,” Romero said. “Seeing shy kids break out of their shells. To see a young person flourish is the most beautiful thing anybody can witness.”