Sometimes theater can put a community in touch with itself in powerful ways. That’s what happens when the PG-13 Players bring reality-based skits to local audiences at schools, churches, synagogues, parent and teacher groups and civic organizations. The company will premiere scenes from their 2006 program 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Darkhorse Theater.
A diverse group of teenage actors from various Nashville high schools, The PG-13 Players (PG stands for Peer Guidance) probe hot-button issues facing young people today. Post-performance talkback sessions, in which the performers stay in character and reconcile their actions, provide the opportunity for discussion and reflection.
“In the mid-’80s, Plannned Parenthood found that peer education was a great teaching tool for relating to teens,” says Mark Huffman, vice president of education and training for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee (PPMET). “We heard about this theatrical program happening elsewhere, so our education department decided to try it.”
Under the direction of Kayce Matthews, PPMET’s teen theatre coordinator/community educator, this season’s troupe of 20 have brainstormed a script that focuses on topics that include sexual decision-making, healthy relationships, stereotypes and prejudices, teen pregnancy and depression. After the premiere at the Darkhorse, the players will gear up for a year of traveling to school, church and community groups of every kind. The company also draws upon a backlog of scenes mounted in previous years, touching upon other issues such as drugs and alcohol, sexual assault, divorce, body image and STDs.
Matthews casts the teens, grades 9-12, from spring auditions that are announced through various media and the schools. Along the way, she speaks to potential players’ parents to make sure they’re informed about what PG-13 is all about. Over the summer, the actors listen to guest speakers on a range of social issues.
“When the topical training is done,” Matthews says, “the teens collaborate as a group, choosing the top five or six issues. Then we begin the writing process. We break up into groups, work the topics through improv, create outlines for each scene, and it grows from there.”
“Typically,” Huffman says, “if you ask our teens why they’re participating, they’ll say it’s because they’re interested in theater. But if they’ve spent a year performing the skits, they’ll probably say it’s about helping their peers. The theater is the initial draw, but then they get into the community-service aspect. The one thing that has astounded me through the years is the development of the post-show talkbacks. Theater experts have been amazed at our kids’ improvisational abilities.”
According to Chris Baldwin, a junior at Nashville School of the Arts, PG-13 is a real confidence-builder. “The premiere performance is a time for our parents to see what we’ve accomplished and to learn about what we’ve been experiencing,” he says. “If you can perform and know what you’re talking about in front of your parents, then you’ll probably have the confidence to speak out if a friend is having an issue.”
The talkback usually involves some very tough questions, according to Matthews. “There’s no way to prep for questions that come from way out of left field,” she says, “and it’s very exciting to see the actors field them in an intelligent way.”
According to Huffman, the talkback method has a built-in safety zone for the wide range of audiences. “It’s really the audience that sets the tone,” he says. “So, for example, if you’ve got two teenage characters who’ve decided to have sex, more liberal-minded folks might talk about protection, whereas the response in a more conservative setting with the same skit will be different. Yet the method allows for each group to reinforce its own values.”
Perhaps best of all, the PG-13 Players function as a mirror for teens themselves, who can readily be confused in a modern world.
“You can’t tell us that we’re not old enough to deal with this material when we know these things are happening to us,” says Hume-Fogg High School junior Emily Tan. “These issues are presented in the school setting to tell our peers, ‘You’re not alone—it happens to you, and to every one of us, in every high school.’ ”
Adds Michelle Brown, a senior at Nashville School of the Arts, “We want to be real about what we’re doing, because sometimes other teens may feel uncomfortable dealing with these topics.”
Huffman stresses that the group can provide a critical function in performance situations, whereby parents become cued in to things their own children might never say to their faces. “It really is a gift to the parents: they get to hear what’s really going on. The Players aren’t filtering, and if it’s an open group, that can result in a wonderful discussion between the generations.”
For further information on the PG-13 Players and PPMET, call 345-0952.