I can take no credit in the creation of my library’s longest-running teen-led program (teen programming guideline 3), and only a little for it’s continued existence since I took it over in 2007. Project Playbill is an intense, 5-week summer theater program. Teens meet together at the library three days a week to write, produce and perform an original short play. Besides the inherent value in their participation, we also entice them with volunteer service credit.
In 2008, My then-supervisor told me that I could cancel Playbill if more teens didn’t participate, because it sucks up a tremendous amount of time. In fact, because Playbill depends on teen leadership and labor to run, the fewer teens who show up, the more work I end up doing. That’s one of the reasons why no teen is ever turned away: you can’t host a teen-led program without teen participation. For the first couple of years I ran it, attendance hovered around five teens. I seriously considered putting Playbill out of its misery.
Then, in 2009, it took off. Three teens who I’d pulled in the previous year (a pair of sisters and one of their guy pals) were not only passionate about theater, but supremely talented and driven. They recruited new members on their own before summer even began. They set up a facebook page and cajoled their like-minded friends into joining. As their friends pulled in more friends, the program spread by word of mouth. Attendance grew to the point where there wasn’t a lot of work for me to do other than the occasional odd job that no one else could (to purchase spray paint in my town, for instance, you need to be over 18).
The teens do it all: write and edit the script, lead rehearsals, throw costumes together, paint the set, play sound effects, run the lights, and even decide on casting — with my okay, but I’ve never had to say “no” to their choices. Attendance at every rehearsal is not mandatory, but the teens understand that the success of their play depends on their active participation. The skills they learn go beyond the obvious writing and acting to sticking to a schedule, working as a team, problem-solving and decision-making.
One thing I’ve learned is that, for the most part, teens are good at self-selecting the right roles for them. Some teens know right away that they only want to be on crew, and others are ready to do a little of everything. The younger actors are sometimes disappointed when bigger parts go to older, more experienced actors; but are usually satisfied with their smaller assignments. As they come back year after year, the teens gradually take on more responsibility. It’s gratifying to watch a goofy, misfit kid grow into a funny, talented writer who gets along with everyone.
Attendance does go up and down a bit from year to year, as teens graduate high school and move on. Some teens have gone on to study theater or related fields in college, and I’ve heard that those three key members from 2009 have started their own nonprofit to help other young actors.
Last year we had 18 participate, and I’m not sure how many to expect this year. Promoting the program and recruiting new members from schools and other organizations is one area where I could do better — the truth is that I haven’t needed to promote it much over the last few years. I’m determined that as long as the teens keep showing up, however, I’ll keep Project Playbill going.