The actor-driven play returns after the pandemic forced an intermission
As Broadway reopens in New York City, a courageous and lesser-known group of actors also takes to the stage this weekend, after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
Nine teens raised in government care are performing through Sunday at Brooklyn’s Mark O’Donnell Theater, their unfiltered and personal struggles presented in “Foster Care Unplugged, The Stage Play Part Two.”
The production, created with the financial support of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services and local charities, provides current and former foster youth the opportunity to “heal by acting,” according to its founder and director, licensed social worker and former foster youth Melody Centeno.
Foster Care Unplugged has worked with city youth since 2016, in cooperation with Deus Beni Productions, which teaches the cast the fundamentals of acting, including script analysis and scene study. The annual program receives $20,000 from the city child welfare agency.
The therapeutic component is created by Centeno’s Foster Care Unplugged, which provides a 12-week course of performance-based exercises that lead up to a stage performance.
At the start of the program, casting calls are put out to agencies serving foster youth citywide. Live auditions are taped in a studio, and those selected receive weekly acting classes led by a professional writer and acting coach.
The plays are unique because they do not begin with a script. That comes later in the program, as an adaptation of the experiences the cast has had within the child welfare system. In previous years, the play has tackled heavy topics all-too familiar to children taken from their parents following allegations of abuse and neglect and raised in government care: abandonment, rejection and abuse.
This year’s stage play will be in-person, but under city mandates will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for audience members. The production analyzes traumatic experiences from all lenses, Centeno said, from the social worker to the child, illustrating how “no one isn’t affected by the child welfare system.”
“As the script was being produced, I realized this is really us,” said Shanise Spencer, a former “Unplugged” actress and foster youth, in a 2019 video testimony. “This is a true representation of who we are.”
Other past performers have described similarly powerful experiences telling their stories on stage:
“The script is personal to me because it’s my story in all reality,” another actor described. “After three, four placements you begin to lose that drive of just wanting to be a part of anything. You basically become a loner, you do things by yourself, you take care of yourself because that’s what your life becomes, you just survive on your own.”
A fellow actor agreed: “People should see this play because they don’t really understand the mind of the foster child. We hold on to a lot and we have so many thoughts: How am I gonna survive?” Acting her story, she added, “was beautiful because I was telling my therapeutic coach, my acting coach, how I really felt. I’m just releasing all that energy, they can’t hold me back anymore.”
The therapeutic effects of theater for foster youth and others who are living with the aftermath of trauma, such as war veterans and survivors of violence, has not been studied extensively.
A review of the research published last year by the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. described drama therapy as being in a “crucial stage of moving from clinical reports of case studies and vignettes to producing evidence-based practice supported by empirical studies.” The review found promising signs over the past decade, however, showing that “drama therapy offers effective treatment” for certain populations, including children and adults living with developmental disabilities and cognitive impairments.
The benefits of the performing and martial arts, yoga, music and other physical and expressive art forms are increasingly embraced by clinicians and service providers. In Massachusetts, the Berkshire Juvenile Court has worked for 20 years with a Shakespeare theater company as an alternative to more punitive consequences for adolescent offenders. And in Nevada, homeless youth have access to free yoga classes through the Urban Lotus Project.
Since 2009, The nonprofit Possibility Project in New York City has invited foster youth ages 15 to 20 to audition for its musical productions, performed at theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The project — which was founded more than 20 years ago and has served hundreds of young people including those in the youth justice system — reports that 99% of participants graduate from high school or earn a GED. A recent review of the project’s Foster Care Program, led by adjunct assistant professor Michael Hanson at Teacher’s College of Columbia University, found that one to six years after leaving the program, participants were significantly less likely to be arrested or convicted of a crime, and to be parenting as a young adult.
Centeno, 36, who calls herself a “lived experience expert,” entered foster care at age of 3, shortly after the death of her father. She moved between more than 20 foster homes. But by age 7, she tells audiences, she knew where she was headed.
“I was in a therapy session and I didn’t like how the therapy session was going and I decided I’m gonna become you one day so I can teach you how to do your job,” she said in a recorded introduction of a past performance.
In graduate school to earn her master of social work degree, she discovered her love of acting — and the connection clicked into place: She combined both passions to create the theater program for foster youth.
“Acting heals. It has to be done,” she said. If she were a judge, she’d send every child in the system to acting school.
In the Foster Care Unplugged training program, every staff member has a background in the child welfare system, which they use in group exercises to roleplay things like what living in a safe and healthy environment looks like. It creates a unique kinship between cast and crew.
Centeno has watched the young actors transform in the program — from distant and anti-social at the audition to bursting with confidence as the performance dates near.
Each year, it is confirmed in these children’s experiences, she said, that the benefits of acting challenge the notion that therapy is the only way for the youth to express themselves. And it gives these actors the freedom to tell their stories authentically.
One actor described that feeling after appearing on stage in 2019: “We are doing this because we want to get things off our chest. We want freedom,” she said. “Being here, we are able to let go and be free and be ourselves.”
“Foster Care Unplugged, The Stage Play Part Two” runs through Sunday at The Mark O’Donnell Theater at The Actors Fund Arts Center, 160 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn, New York. Tickets can be purchased here.