Written Responses. Photo by Center Theatre Group

How do we talk about taboo topics with young audiences? How do we engage in thoughtful, rich discussions that go beyond the reiteration of the production’s plot?

As educators and artists who work with young people, we are constantly searching for new ways to reach diverse audiences and inspire dialogue that examines challenging subject matter. This is a continual challenge, exacerbated by many Theatre for Youth scripts only showing prescribed subject matter, theaters and schools being unable or unwilling to present certain content to youth audiences, and education systems having less and less time to take part in activities outside of tested content areas.
In the spring of 2013, I served as the Graduate Scholar for Center Theatre Group’s (CTG) Education and Community Partnerships Department in Los Angeles, California. CTG is not a Theatre for Youth arts organization. They do not produce performances purely aimed at young people. Instead, they find opportunities to bring middle and high school aged students to productions; thematically challenging and artistically strong productions. They do not have to fight the assumptions and subject matter limitations that can come with a Theatre for Youth label.

As the Graduate Scholar I took on a wide variety of roles and assisted with a number of programs. I was given complete freedom to develop a final culminating project, a daunting and exciting task. Part of the department’s development plan is to find new ways to meaningfully engage communities who do not traditionally attend theatre. With guidance, I finally settled on developing a pre-show interactive engagement for The Scottsboro Boys; music and lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson, direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. The Scottsboro Boys is based upon the true story of nine African American youths falsely accused of of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931 (Linder). What followed was a landmark case and a gross miscarriage of justice.

The Scottsboro Boys Photo 5

Clearly, this is not a carefree musical with a happy ending. This is an uncomfortable production that forces the audience to confront an ugly part of our shared national history. Staged as a minstrel show, the nine actors portraying the Scottsboro Boys, as the 1930s media dubbed them, act out the arrest and trial. In planning the pre-show engagement, I quickly realized that I had chosen to take on a multi-faceted challenge; not the least of which was addressing racism in a thoughtful manner while taking into consideration and acknowledging my own privilege of class (middle/upper) and race (white).

There were a number of things that needed to occur for this project to be a success. I needed to arrange for the location and order tickets so the participants would end the night with a complementary performance of The Scottsboro Boys. I needed experts to frame the culture and history of the 1930s in United States, as well as, explore the artistic choices of the production. I needed community participants. I needed to develop engagements that would set the tone of the experience for the participants. Notably missing from this list is funding. Center Theatre Group made the commitment to support my final project with both staff time and financial support. Though money was not a hindrance in this specific undertaking, I believe this project could be recreated for other productions fairly easily.

Photo by Center Theatre Group

The CTG staff and I had a number of discussions about what type of communities would best be served through this experience. In determining whom to invite, it was important to have non-traditional theatre-going participants. Ideally I wanted to create a space where a cross-section of season ticket holders and first time audience members could engage in dialogue about the complicated issues presented in the show. Due to a number of factors, it was determined that we would focus on developing relationships with new theatre goers and in the postmortem event discussion, determine how to collaborate with season ticket-holders for future engagements. In the end, I was still able to bring together two diverse groups, members of Homeboy Industries, an organization that “serves high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women with… free services and programs” and students from an introduction theatre course at Cypress College (“What We Do”).

In setting the tone for the participants, I tried to be thoughtful in all my choices. Food was provided by Homegirl Café and Catering, a division of Homeboy Catering. Jazz music and top hits from the 1930s played in the background. Throughout the space hung a variety of texts: quotes from the production- “It ain’t for you to say I’m free. In my mind, in my mind, in my own mind, I am free!” Statistics about the incarceration of African Americans- “there are more African-Americans in the corrections system today—in prison or on probation or parole—than there were enslaved in 1850” (DuBois). The passive setting of the mood was complemented by a variety of low-risk, interactive engagements.

Visual Voting.

Photo by Center Theatre Group

These activities allowed attendees to participate in different ways and engage in the subject matter on their own terms. There was a visual polling station where people placed pebbles into containers that corresponded with their personal experiences: “I have laughed at a racist, sexist or homophobic joke” and “I have spoken up or confronted someone when they made a racist, sexist or homophobic comment.” There were visual voting stations where participants cast their votes by placing pebbles in the corresponding containers for what-would-you-do situations: “Would you lie in order to not be punished? Or would you remain truthful, even if it meant being punished?”

Participants then began to more concretely share their viewpoints and interact with one another by writing responses to open-ended questions on large sheets of paper posted on the wall: “What is the single most important injustice in the United States that you think needs to be addressed?” By carefully setting the mood, the participants were primed to take part in a discussion with guest speakers Clinton Roane, an actor in The Scottsboro Boys, and Dr. Brenda Stevenson, a professor of Afro-American studies at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). CTG Literary Associate Joy Meads led the discussion that weaved through the production’s background, actor’s experience, 1930s laws, history, and societal norms.

For me, one of the most interesting moments came when the discussion turned to examining the parallels between the Scottsboro Boys’ prosecution and the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, whose murder trial was a major news story at that time. I found myself getting nervous about the discussion heading in this direction. I wanted the conversation to steer back towards the Scottsboro Boys. In examining this reaction, I realize that I was scared. There is safety in keeping the conversation limited to past events. By only examining historical examples of racism and oppression, we are able to distance ourselves from present day injustices. Current events can evoke passionate reactions. This type of dialogue is necessary and important, but for a facilitator, it can also be terrifying. What if we say the wrong thing? What if we lose the safe space we worked so hard to cultivate? What if the experience turns into a negative one rather then an enriching one for the participants?

So how do we talk about taboo topics with young audiences? How do we engage in thoughtful, rich discussions that go beyond the reiteration of the production’s plot? I believe that we start with producing and promoting shows that tell diverse stories with rich, relevant, and challenging content. Theatre organizations need to reach out and engage with communities that have long been ignored. A space for thoughtful, stimulating dialogue needs to be crafted. Our fear of possibly losing control of the conversation holds us back from truly addressing difficult issues. At CTG, we had many talks about how to keep the discussion enriching and not shifting into defensive posturing and accusatory comments. This is part of the reason why the space needs to be primed for open dialogue and why facilitators like Joy Meads and speakers like Clinton Roane and Dr. Brenda Stevenson are so necessary and valuable. By thoughtfully engaging the participants, we can help keep the discussion meaningful, on-topic, and accessible. There is risk involved, but that is the case in almost all of our work. And, as passionate artists and educators, we have never backed down from what scares us.




DuBois, Joshua. “The Fight for Black Men.” Newsweek 19 June 2013: n. pag. Newsweek. Newsweek Daily Beast Company LLC, 19 June 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.


Linder, Douglas O. “The Trials of The Scottsboro Boys.” The Trials of The Scottsboro Boys. University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School Of Law, 1999. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.


“What We Do.” Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.



Engaging a history of injustice: �?The Scottsboro Boys’ preshow event, by CTG Literary Intern Christina Hjelm


THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS performance information at Center Theatre Group



Stellwagen Headshot

Leslie Stellwagen seeks to engage and empower youth through art. Currently she is a Lecturer at Appalachian State University. In Fall 2014, she will start her position as an IB Theatre Arts teacher at Branksome Hall Asia in South Korea. Leslie holds a MFA in Theatre For Youth from Arizona State University and a BA in Theatre from Beloit College.

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