Acting, music and dance can have quite a powerful impact on audiences of all ages. With an intense theme put into real life scenarios — that involved audience members themselves — actors and spectators alike took home an important lesson to change and save lives after the 2016 Stages “informance” on Aug. 6, titled “A Brand New Day.”
Stages is a free youth theater program that offers Fresno County high school students the opportunity to write, produce and act in an original production.
Aaron Bryan, program manager for the visual and performing arts department at the Fresno County Office of Education (FCOE), served as the director and program administrator for Stages for the past two years. He directed and facilitated the program with the help of Jennifer Coull, consultant with visual and performing arts at FCOE; Amy Querin, director of the Fresno Dance Collective; Aaron Spjute, a teacher at McLane High School and Fresno City College; and Jenna Brown, school psychologist with FCOE.
The theme of the program this year was mental health and suicide prevention, a heavy topic for such a young group of performers.
“We chose something that affects youth in our community,” Bryan said. “My goal was to present students to be able to equip them to be first responders, because they are really on the front lines with their friends. Teenagers are very intuitive, and we want to challenge them to look beyond themselves, to think about others and see how they might be able to help.”
For three students from Clovis, the performance truly hit home.
Clovis High sophomore McKayla Welty, 15, said that the topic was hard for her.
“It’s something that not very many people want to talk about, so to dramatize it and show how it would be in real life is a good way to show people what things are,” she said. “It’s been rough for all of us. We’ve all had incidents.”
Clovis North sophomore Ezra Heredia, 15, performed an original poem that made him shed a tear at rehearsal.
“It was a personal poem that I wanted to share with everybody,” he explained. “It’s personal experiences that we have; it softens us and makes us more vulnerable.”
“A Brand New Day” was comprised of dance numbers, an original song, a spoken word poem, small scenes and improvised scenes that allowed members of the audience to go onstage to see how they might choose to confront different situations related to the theme of mental illness and suicide prevention.
In addition to the live performance, the students also created art pieces as “messages of hope” to be given to Terry’s House through the Fresno Community Regional Medical Center, the Ronald McDonald House, the Poverello House and the Suicide Prevention Hotline.
This year, the Stages program partnered with the Fresno County Behavioral Health Services, the Central Valley Suicide Prevention Hotline and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Students were able to receive training on how to be aware of the warning signs of suicide, different ways to confront someone considering taking their life and the resources available to someone in need.
“Our message is ‘break the silence,’ so if people see it, the message hits them to speak up,” Heredia said.
Bryan explained before the performance that the goal of the show was to start a conversation.
“My hope is that we open up the door for these students and their families to talk about these issues,” he said.
Along with the educational aspect of the program, students participating in Stages were able to attend Camp Oakhurst for five days, where they bonded through storytelling, exercises and improvisation.
Clovis West sophomore Cristian Castanon, 15, explained that sometimes, a simple improv scene was implemented into the final show.
“We had kind of just been messing around, and then suddenly it all came together,” he said.
Welty said the group created a close environment that felt open and safe.
“I learned that there’s always someone there for you,” she said. “We’re not just individuals performing something, we’re all one group. It’s supportive and it’s loving.”
Having learned so much themselves, Castanon hoped that the audience would have a meaningful experience after seeing the performance.
“Sometimes, parents don’t want to talk about it [mental illness and suicide],” Castanon said. “This shows them that it’s okay to talk about it and these things do exist, because some parents don’t want to believe it. I hope that they gain some knowledge from the show.”
After spending two weeks with the same group of 24 students, Heredia said they were so close, he felt as if he had known everyone for years.
“We realized we’re not so different and that makes us let our emotions out and talk to each other,” he said. “On the last day up at camp, there’s this waterslide, and we were so close, eight of us went on this waterslide. Meeting all these people, I just love Fresno and Clovis even more. It’s filled with good people.”