A safe place for youthful expression

By Tracey Barnett

No 10-year-old girl should ever look as sad as this one," says Jeff Szusterman, remembering a participant in his theatre programme that pairs at-risk youth with adult mentors.

Szusterman and his wife Jacque Drew - both actors - run a theatre company called Still Water Rising and the girl moved them during one closing session.

Drew says, "She had this incredibly inscrutable face, like an old Chinese master. You could never look at her and know what was going on."

For the quiet student, home was not an easy place to be, and she had closed down.

The programme gave her something she may never have had before - the spotlight.

For two weeks an adult mentor gave her the precious commodity of positive attention, working one-to-one to help her find her voice.

In the SWR programme, actors like Sarah Wiseman of Mercy Peak, Gina Varela and Anapela Polataivao of The Market and Ben Barrington of Insider's Guide to Happiness come in to perform work written by the students. The programme accommodates 10 young people for each session.

When the young girl's time to speak came, she quietly said, "This is the best thing I have ever done in my life."

"We just broke," remembers Szusterman.

"We all started to cry," says Drew. "She had tried so hard to make herself invisible, invulnerable, and the mask came off. We are all emotional beings but we walk around in a world where emotions are sometimes seen as a sign of weakness. We give young people who are full of emotion a safe place to express it.

"Theatre is hugely transformative. A lot of educators forget that by touching someone emotionally, you can make a life lesson stick permanently. I have seen it, I have experienced it. Not everyone is equipped to go there. An actor is trained to use emotions as tools. They are the tools of our trade."

Szusterman and Drew, the Still Water Rising couple, are on stage this week in a four-day run of Lanford Wilson's 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Talley's Folly, to raise funds for their mentor programme.

When Drew saw the play she was moved by the cross-cultural love story set in 1944 about Jewish immigrant Matt who has fallen for Methodist woman Sally after just seven days together.

"I left the play thinking, I wish my husband was here ... I felt it was one of the most well-made plays I have ever seen."

Szusterman, her husband, agrees. "This is an incredibly beautiful play for two actors. It is a tender love story where the two characters have everything stacked against them, their religion, their upbringing and their families."

The character of Sally has denied their relationship since meeting Matt a year earlier.

But Matt has written to Sally every day since then. He comes to ask her father for her hand but is chased away by her brother with a shotgun.

Matt flees to the boathouse where they first met and Sally finds him there. This is where the play begins.

For Szusterman, Talley's Folly felt like the right fit.

"When we work the programme in schools, the tangible product the students create is a two-character conflict play. Talley's Folly mirrors that structure but in this play we come to a resolution - love."

* What: Talley's Folly by Lanford Wilson

* Where and when: Raye Freedman Arts Centre, Epsom Girls' Grammar, Nov 30-Dec 3, 7.30pm; to book ph 521-1343

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