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For 22 Years, Cleveland Public Theater Has Helped Teens Find Their Voice

awakening heart scene
Steve Wagner
Cleveland Public Theater
Jiliel King-Weaver and Terriona Lee star in "Awakening Heart."

A long-running Cleveland Public Theater summer program for at-risk youth has new funding to expand into the school year.

In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman goes backstage at the Student Theater Enrichment Program .


“No. Do not arrest this man. I am king. I don’t care who you are. You will lose your life. Then I’ll just have to lose it.” 

Actors Jeliel King-Weaver and Terriona Lee star in “Awakening Heart,” an original play based on the ancient tale of Gilgamesh. They’re part of an ensemble that performed the play earlier this month at churches, schools, parks and community centers all over Cleveland.

awakening heart
Credit Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theater
Cleveland Public Theater
Cleveland's longest-running arts and job-training program for urban teens presented the original play "Awakening Heart" this summer in Cleveland parks, school, libraries, and community centers.

Students have taken the stage every summer for 22 years in the public theater’s Student Theater Enrichment Program, the longest-running such program in Cleveland.

Expanded for all seasons
The eight-week program for teenagers can run year-round now, thanks to a $500,000 Cleveland Foundation grant.

Cleveland Public Theater also has a program for younger children who live in public housing. The grant will also allow Brick City to expand this year from two to six Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority estates. It’s for kids from 5 to 14.

The STEP program is for ages 14 through 19 and includes all elements of theater arts. Education Director Chris Siebert says that includes writing a play that draws on the students’ own life experiences.

“All of the dialogue is generated out of student writing, and teachers kind of filtering that writing into a completed script.”

Their own work
Siebert says they typically adapt an existing play, myth or fairytale.

"But from the first day we’re generating original dialogue, we’re generating original choreography and movement. When they hit the parks with their play, it’s like their work. They project themselves to the community as like a positive image of teenagers in a community that maybe isn’t expecting that from them.” 

alex ramirez
This was Alex Ramirez's first summer in STEP and it helped him find his calling. He'll study theater and dance at Cleveland State University.

Cleveland Public Theater holds workshop auditions for STEP four times during the school year. Eighty students tried out for this summer’s program and Alex Ramirez was among 35 selected.

“I found out about it because of my mom. I was, she woke me up with a piece of paper. She’s like, ‘You need to come here.’ And then at school, my guidance counselor also told me, 'There’s this program. Go check it out.’”

Discovering dramatic potential
This is Alex’s first year in STEP, but he’s long been told he can act.

“Friends and family said that I should invest my time in dramatic arts just because they see some potential in me.” 

Having a role in this summer’s play helped him make an important discovery about himself: “I like entertaining people and being somebody else for that moment.” 

Alex found another benefit, too, in the all-day program. “Not being in the streets, not doing things I shouldn’t be doing. So I come here and I stay away from problems.”  

He had considered joining the Marines when he graduated from John Hay High School.

“It’s still an option, just in case. If things don’t go as planned, I’m not going to go into the bad things. It’s not me. So I’ll serve the country.” 

Alex plans to study drama and dance next semester at Cleveland State University, and he’s grateful to STEP for the welcoming atmosphere that helped him find his path.Everybody trusts each other. There are zero problems. It’s like a big family.” 

Need for noise

vocal training
Every day at STEP starts with physical and vocal training.

A big noisy family.

STEP co-director, actress Molly Andrew Cinders gets the actors started each day with vocal exercises. “Hey over there. Hey over there."

She has them gather in a circle. “Feet still,” she instructs, “but bend your knees so you feel grounded.” 

She wants them loud, proud and above all comprehensible. Cinders says the daily vocal exercises help improve diction for mostly outdoor performances.

“They’re competing with a lot of other noise, and so their articulation, their projection, resonance, all of that is very important.” 

Coming out of their shells
Equally as important, as Cinders knows from personal experience, is gently easing them out of their shells.

“At their age, I was a very shy, guarded person, and so to be able to help facilitate their growth, and their being able to explore in a safe and nurturing environment gives me a lot of joy.” 

Cathleen O’Malley, director of audience engagement at Cleveland Public Theater says STEP was designed for at-risk youth.

“Families don’t have the resources to support meaningful arts encounters throughout the summer. That can result in membership in other kinds of activities that are not productive. So one of the 

Terah McGowan is an artist as well as an actress. After three summers in STEP, she's studying art conservation at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

things that STEP does is it provides an opportunity for membership in something meaningful.” 

Graduates become instructors
It’s meant a lot to Terah Mc Gowan since she came into the program as a John Marshall High School 10th grader.

“Art is a part of my life, and it’s really great to use it as an outlet as well as just generating positivity.” 

Terah has watched young people in STEP turn their lives around.

“It provides them a place to be during the summer that is not going to get them in trouble. And it probably turned a lot of people away from the path that they were going.”

After three summers in STEP, Terah is a junior instructor in the program. Also a visual artist, she’s studying art conservation at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

E’lyric Christopher is a sophomore studying theater performance at Kent State University. Now 19, she was 14 when she got into STEP. Today she's a junior instructor.

“It just helped me become who I am, open up, find what I like, find what I didn’t like.” 

Four summers in STEP helped Brandon McSwain find his identity.   “I’m an actor, writer, poet, dancer, director as well.” 

Credit Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theater
Cleveland Public Theater
E'lyric Christopher is a Kent State sophomore. She participated in Cleveland Public Theater's Brick City program for younger children before auditioning for STEP.

Brandon’s now an assistant instructor in the program. “I’ve grown to love it so dearly for what it does, helping teenagers care for one another, and care for their community.” 

From inaudible to loud and proud
Brandon remembers one very quiet boy, Kwandimah Ashley, who gradually found himself as an actor.

“Sometimes you couldn’t always hear what he was saying, but he always worked so hard, and by last year he was Caliban in Shakespeare’s 'The Tempest.' It was amazing to see him really come out of his box and shine.”

STEP helped Ruba Mohammed learn English. “In my house we speak Arabic, so this (is)good.”  

Credit Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theater
Cleveland Public Theater
Ruba Mohammed came to Cleveland from Iraq 18 months ago. She says being in STEP has improved her English.

Ruba and her family emigrated 18 months ago to Cleveland from Iraq. She’s 18 and plans to become a lawyer. Ruba says she  appreciates the patience of the STEP instructors "because they help the students from another country and they explain for them.” 

Helping young people from challenging home environments express their feelings and learn life skills through theater arts is one part of STEP’s mission. Audience Engagement Director Cathleen O’Malley says it’s important that audiences learn something, too.

“We’re also about transforming the public’s notion of what ‘at risk youth’ are capable of.”