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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

Student Theater: Raw and Real

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John Schneider has seldom chosen the easy path. If he had, the playwright and actor might have done something other than directing Project Non-Violence—oh, like writing grant proposals or schmoozing with wealthy donors to perpetuate theater for the comfortably well off. For nine years Project Non-Violence has provided the most disadvantaged inner-city teens with an opportunity to learn playwriting and acting by creating their own plays and performing them in public. As much as anyone in town, Schneider has given a megaphone to the voiceless.

How did Project Non-Violence begin?

It started as Theatre X’s summer program. The federally funded Cease Fire project and Milwaukee Public Schools partnered to provide summer jobs for inner-city students and an opportunity for kids to speak to other kids about gun violence. They sought out Theatre X and me because I had written several plays dealing with social issues and with Milwaukee specifically. I began auditioning teenagers who had something to say on the subject.

The project has gone through several phases since then…

When the Bush administration took over, instantly federal funding went away. We had to depend on a variety of foundations, civic organizations and individuals for support. I borrowed props and costumes from Marquette University. Because of the experiences of the kids involved each summer, the theme expanded from strictly gun violence to all the forms of violence that kids experience. Eventually Project Non- Violence was discovered by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Milwaukee, which made it a year-round project.

Have you worked with some of the same kids over the last few years?

Yes, there are several who have been at it for at least two years. We are poised to become a theater company focused on original plays made by kids in which they speak of things of importance to them.

Tell me about this year’s Project Non-Violence performance.

The play is called What About How I Feel? The central character is a counselor at the Boys & Girls Clubs who is very down because the kids have so many problems. The kids end up helping the counselor even as the counselor helps the kids.

Describe the writing process.

This year I started with a core group of students who have worked in Project Non-Violence before. The core includes the Assistant Director Jasmia Goss, plus Carl Jackson, Louisa Goss and Charlexis Walker. There are also the choreographers of the Project Non-Violence Dancers, Dwaun Bailey and Shanika Davis, which performs at the beginning and the end of the play. I worked with them to decide what the show would be. Then we had auditions for actors at six Boys & Girls Clubs.

The final cast added ideas and made the play their own.

What is your contribution to the playwriting?

I’m the questioner. I keep asking questions. I may tell them, “You haven’t taken this far enough,” or, “This scene needs to be longer.” But I don’t force my ideas on them. And they argue with me like crazy.

You’ve had to face challenges in Project Non-Violence that most theater directors never experience.

The kids are under stress from their lives. Just getting them to rehearsals and performances takes lots of energy and care. Few if any live with both biological parents and some of their parents have drug or alcohol problems. They don’t have enough to eat so they come to rehearsals really hungry. One cast member was raped this summer. Three were homeless.

Describe what the audience will see.

The adults who see the shows are always deeply moved and charmed by them. The performances are very unsophisticated, but sincere, raw and real.

Project Non-Violence performs 5 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St. Admission is free.

Photo by Don Rask

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