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June 25, 2001

EN-ACTE group tackles tough teenage problems

By Eric Rangus


Calvin, an unassuming high school student, has a problem. He’s 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 girlfriend Alesha
just found out she is pregnant.

“Have you ever thought about not keeping it?” he asks, almost shrieking.

“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 today’s teens, but too frequently glossed over in so-called polite conversation and traditional education.

“Most people, when they hear that it’s a show about sex, they think it’s 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 isn’t for the squeamish. The PG-13-rated dialogue openly discusses controversial issues like date rape, abortion and the personal decision behind keeping one’s 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. “It’s not about pushing ideas, it’s about pushing dialogue.”

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.

“We’ll 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 company’s nine actors (normally, EN-ACTE’s 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 surrounds them.

“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 company’s two Emory actors. “It makes me think about what’s really going on in the world. I’m more knowledgeable and more open.”

‘We’re desensitized,” said Pamela Gray, a 20-year-old student at Clark Atlanta. “I’ve 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 spare.

The talent is natural, but much of the smoothness of the stage performance has to do with Antoine DuFour, EN-ACTE’s musical director and an actor with the company since it’s creation in 1997.

While singing is an integral part of the EN-ACTE’s 45-minute show, several of the actors come in without musical training. Not that that’s a problem.

“We’re 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-ACTE’s youngest member and, despite no formal music training has become EN-ACTE’s human beat box, providing the background to accompany the a cappella performances.

Because of their program’s 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 Tanne Foundation.

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.

“We’re really beginning to build some bridges here at the University,” he said.

EN-ACTE also has been accepted into Georgia Shares, which is one of Emory’s 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.


Back to Emory Report June 25, 2001