June 25, 2001
EN-ACTE group tackles tough teenage problems
By Eric Rangus firstname.lastname@example.org
Calvin, an unassuming high school student, has a problem. Hes been
spotted at a local restaurant holding the hand of another boy, and the
story has begun spreading around school. How does he tell his best friend
Todd his secret?
Fred is 17. He has a college scholarship awaiting him. His 15-year-old
Have you ever thought about not keeping it? he asks, almost
Are you gonna be there or not? is her final, pointed question.
These situations are played out everyday in the school halls and living
rooms around not just Atlanta, but the entire country.
While their experiences most certainly are real, Calvin, Fred and Alesha
are not. They are fictional characters. Stage creations.
They are parts of a dramatis personae of dozens of teens and young adults facing serious dilemmas dreamed up by EN-ACTE, a unique theater company based at Emory, that aims to educate teenagers about how to address difficult issues like unwanted pregnancy, AIDS awareness and sexual identity.
Issues often quite relevant to todays teens, but too frequently
glossed over in so-called polite conversation and traditional education.
Most people, when they hear that its a show about sex, they
think its going to be kind of tame and watered down. You know, a
just say no, message, said EN-ACTE artistic director
Ken Hornbeck. So, I think they are taken aback. We use real language.
And I can definitely see where we have touched a nerve.
Audience members have been know to approach actors afterward and offer
prayers, their phone numbers other types of assistance with the belief
that the performance was real.
The show isnt for the squeamish. The PG-13-rated dialogue openly
discusses controversial issues like date rape, abortion and the personal
decision behind keeping ones virginity.
The opening sketch, for instance, frankly describes the condition of
a boy who has contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
When he tells his friends, their reaction is completely believable yet
sufficiently educational. They are revolted. They flail their arms in
shock as any teenager might. Then, when reality sets in, they encourage
him to seek treatment and take some responsibility.
You need to get it checked out.
It can make you sterile.
You have to talk your girlfriend.
A scene that might have been heavy handed if not put together properly
is instead a serious lesson told in accessible and realistic language.
We want to address the issues and give people a language to talk
about things like personal freedom, said assistant artistic director
Heather Starkel, who graduated highest honors with a degree in theater
studies this May. Its not about pushing ideas, its about
The scenes are scripted, but they come out of improvisation. Hornbeck
lays out a situation, identifies a character he is looking for, then the
actors flesh out the part.
Well brainstorm around a specific topic initially, improv it, then evaluate it, Hornbeck said.
How well it worked, what we would change, how well the characters
are working. Then we would continue the process of improving and refining
until we get it set.
Each of the companys nine actors (normally, EN-ACTEs roster
consists of about a dozen performers, but graduation has thinned the ranks)
play multiple roles. Many are students themselves: some in college, some
just graduated high school, others are still in high school.
Dealing with such difficult material can be a freeing experience for
the actors, as well. It also makes them more aware of the trouble that
I had no idea that people my age were into this sort of stuff,
said Atira Goodwin, a rising junior at Emory and one of the companys
two Emory actors. It makes me think about whats really going
on in the world. Im more knowledgeable and more open.
Were desensitized, said Pamela Gray, a 20-year-old
student at Clark Atlanta. Ive shocked my friends with the
language I use. It gives us freedom of expression in our personal lives.
Despite the relative youth of the performers (they range in age from
15 to 24), they overflow with stage presence.
They bang on walls, they pound on chairs, they sing, they dance, but
never in a showoffy way. With minimal props (just chairs, actually), the
actors have only themselves to rely on and this group has charisma to
The talent is natural, but much of the smoothness of the stage performance has to do with Antoine DuFour, EN-ACTEs musical director and an actor with the company since its creation in 1997.
While singing is an integral part of the EN-ACTEs 45-minute show,
several of the actors come in without musical training. Not that thats
Were not looking for voices as much as a spark of potential
trainability, DuFour said. Someone like Brandon Henderson. The 15-year-old
Redan High School student is EN-ACTEs youngest member and, despite
no formal music training has become EN-ACTEs human beat box, providing
the background to accompany the a cappella performances.
Because of their programs rough content, EN-ACTE has not performed in public schools. It has appeared at some private schools, but most of its shows are in front of other types of youth groups.
Earlier this month, the company performed in front of about 400 teenagers
with the Metro Atlanta Job Corps. Many audience members were high-school
dropouts; the large majority African American.
EN-ACTE has performed on campus only occasionally. Once to Alpha Kappa
Alpha sorority, once to the CDC and most recently to servant leadership
in the ethics center.
While EN-ACTE has been quite successful on stage, funding has been a
constant struggle. For instance, for the first three months after the
program started, Hornbeck had to pay actors out of his own pocket. However,
the situation appears to be changing.
In May, EN-ACTE received a $5,000 challenge grant from the Denver-based
Gill Found-ation, which supports HIV prevention efforts. And earlier this
month EN-ACTE was rewarded with another $5,000 grant, this one from the
More Emory money is one the way as well. A sponsored program of pediatrics
since its creation, the theater studies department will soon share sponsorship.
The agreement is complete, digging up the final funding is the only remaining
hurdle. A formal relationship with theater studies would open all sorts
of doors for EN-ACTE, Hornbeck said, as well as raise its profile on campus.
Were really beginning to build some bridges here at the University,
EN-ACTE also has been accepted into Georgia Shares, which is one of Emorys charitable partners in it new Emory Gives program (click here for story). This fall, the Emory community will be able to contribute directly to the program.