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Giving a Voice to LA Students: Inside Out Community Arts’ Political Theatre

in The Word is Text by

by Jose Medrano

“Inside Out and all it’s members teach me more about myself every year I’m with them. Because of Inside Out I’ve learned to embrace my creativity in all aspects of my life. The program has allowed me to take my all my emotions  and let them run free by throwing it all on the stage. I’ve been burned and bruised in order to give it my all out on not only the stage in a theater, but the stage of life. The support system and experience I’ve gained and continue to gain from Inside Out is something I am eternally grateful for.”

When I was in the seventh grade, two theatre artists walked into my my arts class and asked if anyone in the class was interested in acting, dancing, and singing. To my surprise, maybe three hands (including mine) went up in the air and everyone else seemed a little shy or uncomfortable.

The follwoing Wednesday I found myself sitting on the stage of the John Adams Middle School auditorium surrounded by a small group of other students, playing an improvisation game based on hitch-hiking while embodying the emotion “hyperactive.” Some of the students were just like me and were excited and ambitious, jumping at every opportunity to go first in a game, and others were more quiet and perhaps even a little afraid. There was one thing we all had in common, however. All of us in that room grew up in the same area of South LA and had issues we needed to work out or speak up about, and Inside Out Community Arts gave us the opportunity to do so. 

Later that semester after several weeks of acting, creative writing, and visual arts workshops, we went to see what was for many of us our first play. Then start writing our own plays that would culminate in a showcase of several twelve minute plays created by the student groups at each of the three greater LA area schools Inside Out hosted each Spring, and later for three years in the Fall as well in the South Bay area. The name of the showcase, which remains the name to this day: What’s On Our Minds? We filled up a white board with several social topics that interested us: ranging from topics such as divorce, bullying, and depression, to my very first play topic – animal abuse.

The program itself, founded by Camille Ameen and Jonathan Zeichner in 1996, was founded as a response to the Los Angeles Uprisings. We went up to a three-day camp in Malibu which we hold every year and rehearsed our plays, and had fun activities with the other schools such as painting scenic flats to use as posters for our shows. I remember feeling so safe and heard in this theatrical environment. I’d never felt this sort of freedom before – the freedom to express myself openly and talk about the issues that matter to me, and the freedom to dress up in wild costumes and wear make up and sing songs. 

In eight grade, I returned and did a play on a silly topic – celebrity obsessions. Come high school, I volunteered as part of the formerly existing alumni mentor program (which is unfortunately on hiatus at the moment and I’ve been told the program is being restructured). Each year of high school, I mentored students and helped them learn to express themselves, participated in mentor program plays and even directed a short film developed by writers from ABC. I helped direct scenes for the plays with our teachers (dubbed Artist Leaders) and at times even fill in the roles for missing students. I gained the most, however, was during my years as a post-mentor program “A-Team” member – helping run our yearly camps. I developed such a strong name for myself within Inside Out Community Arts, and I use my skills and talents at camp to push students to their limits. My goal every year is to make sure they feel fearless, confident, and ready to speak their minds.

At this year’s 2018 Spring Camp, the students are working on much more serious political topics that reflect the current political climate. One of the plays, We Stand Together, deals with racism through the expression of microaggressions, subtle forms of discrimination that in this case are rooted in racism. Another play, The End?, students discuss the idea of a corrupt government which leads to an apocalypse that leaves the remaining few stuck in a world where they struggle to bring nature back. Perhaps the most directly relevant play is Please Stop This. Think About It., which deals with school shootings and the effect they have on the students and the community. Our middle school students have always had something to say and this year their voices were louder than ever.

While I sat in during rehearsals, you could see the passion in the words they were writing. Often times, students found themselves struggling with creating scenes because they wanted so hard to make sure their message was clear. These students were discussing ideas that I had never even heard of when I was their age – such as cultural appropriation, mental health initiatives, and those subtle yet destructive microagressions. 22 years in, the students are still carrying on what the program set out to do: to take those feelings and thoughts we typically keep trapped inside, and let them out – put them on a stage, make an audience be aware of the social issues that are impacting our communities.

The El Popo Newspaper was first published in 1970 by students concerned about the lack of a Chicana and Chicano perspective in newspapers. As a result, students called the newspaper, El Popo. The paper was named El Popo after the volcano El Popocatepetl. Involved in Chicana/o Movement of the 60’s and 70’s, students saw a connection between the smoke spewing volcano ready to erupt and the student movement ready to engage. Thus, throughout the El Popo’s forty-six years, the name continues to symbolize and to represent the spirit of each generation of students that contribute to the pages of the El Popo Newspaper. Faculty Advisor/Publisher Carlos R. Guerrero, Ph.D.