In a recreation room in Venice, 30 teens from throughout Los Angeles are belting out:
“When you got problems, they don’t define you;
You gotta believe you’re going to make it through.”
And at the front, Stephanie Wieland, artistic director of City at Peace, jumps up and down. “Don’t get too close — fill the whole space!” she directs the teens.
Story continues after the break.
It’s a week and a half before the opening of “Way Out of Nowhere,” which the teens will perform in the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood July 9-11. An international program, City at Peace has engaged teens between the ages of 14 and 19 in Los Angeles since 2001. Since January, this year’s group has met from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday to put together an original full-length musical drama composed of stories from their own experiences. They have also completed leadership and conflict resolution workshops, which included a day of approaching over 600 strangers on the Venice boardwalk about issues such as body image and gang violence.
“By working with Stephanie, I learned how to work with adults. You grow up thinking that adults are scary people, and you don’t want to be like them. But I want to be like Stephanie,” says Caumera Parhm, an alumnus of the program who is now attending the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Wieland, 33, is a mentor to the kids in the program. She grew up in North Carolina and studied acting at DePaul University in Chicago. She followed her husband to Los Angeles and, in 2005, volunteered for City at Peace. Within a year, she was hired as artistic director.
“There was one girl in the first cast I was part of,” Wieland recalls, “who always had her hand over her mouth at the initial rehearsals whenever she talked. I’ll never forget, in the final night of the show she was playing a slave character, singing about freedom and what that meant in her life. She was singing a capella, and the lights cut out early, and she just held the song in the darkness. This was a girl who muttered with her hand over her mouth, and here she is singing in the dark for 400 people. Now she is going to college on her own and making something of her life.”
Wieland is passionate about integrating her values into “theater for social change,” and she connects the feelings of alienation she experienced growing up Jewish in the South with the issues her students now face in Los Angeles.
“People were still burning crosses in other people’s yards when I was a kid. Sometimes, for young people, it’s really hard to be in a neighborhood when you’re the only Jewish person or the only gay person.”
Stephen Peck, 19, was abused for eight years. He aspires to pursue an acting career and will enroll in Santa Monica College this winter. He wrote a narrative in the musical, called “Three Friends,” which he says confronts the stereotype that people can’t be both gay and religious. “This is a touchy situation,” he says, “because most people think that if you’re gay you have no connection with God. I was raised Catholic, and I am homosexual myself.”
After this rehearsal, Wieland will be driving Jasmin, aka “Jazzy,” Morgan, 18, to the girl’s latest foster home. Today she moved into a stranger’s house in La Verne for two weeks, after which she will be moving to Gardena, where she works at the YMCA and goes to a continuation school.
“My story is in [the show],” Morgan says. “Domestic violence has a lot to do with what I expressed through the program. It’s really hard for me to watch because I relive it. It’s still really fresh. But if we tell our stories, we let it be heard.”
After the rehearsal, Wieland asked a circle of teens holding one another’s hands, “When you come on Saturday, what do need to bring with you? I’m not talking literally ...”
“You need to bring focus, attitude, you ...” Morgan begins.
“Let’s use an ‘I’ statement,” Wieland reminds her.
“I’m-a bring attitude, I’m-a bring focus, I’m-a bring intensity,” she proclaims.
Another boy adds, “I’m-a bring enthusiasm, I’m-a bring my lungs, y’know, so I can sing,” and the group chuckles.
“I’m-a bring fierceness, ’cuz we all need it,” says another girl.
“Way Out of Nowhere”, an original musical drama written and performed by teens from across Los Angeles County will be performed July 9 at 7:30 p.m., July 10 at 7:30 p.m., and July 11 at 5 p.m. at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd. For tickets, visit bgttix.com or (310) 397-8820, ext. 105.