By Tres Myers
As I walk into the brightly lit open space of The Living Art Gallery at 1094 Broadway in Bushwick, I immediately notice an aura of intense focus. Like a force field, it prevents me from entering the deep vortex in which six youth are exchanging dialogue in calculated timing. Even though I’ve worked with some of these kids before, they do not even look up, immersed in the script they are bringing to life. This is my first moment of seeing Brooklyn Acts in progress and I am already amazed. Peppered about, sitting and standing throughout the room are their six instructors, lightly guiding them and inquiring their ideas about the words in front of them. All are engaged and involved in a moment of their creation, stimulated by the process of their imagination.
Brooklyn Acts (BK Acts) was founded in January 2012. Initially, it was a collaboration between Yazmin Colon (Jaz) and Nyssa Frank. Jaz, a local artist, event coordinator, youth organizer and longtime resident, had a vision of a place where young people like her son could have an artistic outlet and learn theater arts. She shared her vision with Frank, a fellow artist and owner of The Living Art Gallery, who had moved to the area with the desire to give young people an outlet through the arts as well. They then recruited theater educators Isabel Shanahan and Tara Elliot who constructed the framework of the class and run the class still. I sat with BK Acts students and talked with Tara and Isabel about what the group is, where it’s been and where it’s going.
Bushwick Bridge (BWB): What does a class look like?
BK Acts Students: We start off with a warm up. We do improv warm ups, tongue twisters, stuff like that to get loose. Then we get into the lesson. We gather ideas together to start a new project. Once we do that, we start working on it slowly. We cut the projects into pieces and then bring it together.
BWB: What have been some of your favorite projects?
BK Acts: Our song. It had a lot to do with the change in the surrounding area. It has a lot to do with gentrification. We wrote down a bunch of lyrics on a big piece of paper. And then our advisors put it all together into verses and then John Burgoss made the beat. We used the beat and laid down the song. It was pretty cool.
BWB: Where did you record?
BK Acts: Flux Studios in New York City. Beautiful place [all laugh].
BWB: I saw you guys did a music video too. What was that like?
BK Acts: We actually picked places to record scenes. We all picked one spot (to record at) and did our verses there.
BWB: What were some of the spots you picked and how did you pick them?
BK Acts: The first verse [We filmed] was across the street from one of our houses near Willoughby. The other one was at Knickerbocker Park [Maria Hernandez] where the skateboarders skate.
BWB: That’s awesome. So who are some artists you guys look up to?
BK Acts: It’s funny cause we were coming up with a list the other day. Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco, Big Daddy Kane, Common, Nas. It was a great list. We also like Immortal Technique, Tupac, Slick Rick, Drake.
BWB: Anyone else?
BK Acts: Shakespeare was someone we looked up to during our play.
BWB: Did you guys do some Shakespeare?
BK Acts: We had started Romeo and Juliet. It was hard because his language is difficult.
BWB: What was the hardest part about doing Shakespeare?
BK Acts: The language, definitely, and the love story; to stick to the character. We’re like brothers and sisters and we had to pretend we were lovers. It was pretty awkward. [All laugh] We’ve known each other a while from school or living on the same block.
BWB: What would you tell other kids to convince them to join Brooklyn Acts?
BK Acts: That we go to perform different places and it’s really fun. The advisors are great. They help us write our own scripts for our own plays.
BWB: Are you guys writing a play now?
BK Acts: Yeah. It’s like Sci Fi. It’s about a drug epidemic. A drug dealer uses the materials from an artifact that was found in Vietnam to create this drug that people love. It messes with their minds. The drug itself completely eliminates all sense of pain. You don’t feel any pain, not mental or physical. The world could be ending around you and you’d be OK with it. Your leg could be cut off and you’d be crawling like, “Yeah, this is normal, this is cool”. It’s weird. It also makes people ignorant.
BWB: Who came up with the idea for the play?
BK Acts: It’s our play. We came up with the idea by brainstorming in class.
BWB: What are some of the best things and the biggest challenges about growing up here in Bushwick?
BK Acts: The best thing is the [diversity of] cultures. There’s such a variety here; so many fields, like arts and music, that’s so cool. The challenge is that there aren’t a lot of groups like ours. That’s why we started this, cause we don’t have many youth groups in Bushwick and there’s so many talented minds. It’s cool to gather everyone and put their ideas together and it creates a cool mix.
BWB: What advice would you give kids your age based on what you’ve learned at Brooklyn Acts?
BK Acts: Be hungry for your craft. Keep doing what you want to do. Strive for what you want. Be humble. When you’re humble about things it’ll pretty much go your way. If you’re angry all the time it’s a turn off (for other people). If your humble it will put you into the spotlight and get your attention.
I thanked the kids for their participation and then took aside Isabel Shanahan and Tara Elliot, the directors of the group, to catch up.
BWB: How did you guys start with Brooklyn Acts?
Isabel: Nyssa [Frank] put out a call for theater educators and so I responded to that call. At the very beginning, I met her spoke with her and Jaz trying to conceptualize the group. I decided I wanted to be on board. I then got in touch with Tara with whom I’d run other theater groups and projects, and she wanted to be a part of it too. We took it from there.
Tara: The way it started was pretty bare bones. We held an open house and some kids showed up. We just started playing improv games. The first week was a little scary, I was thinking, “I’m not from Bushwick. What am I doing? Are they gonna hate me?” But they were really receptive and had a good time. We did icebreakers, basic movement and improv games.
BWB: What are some of your favorite games to play with the kids?
Tara: Human knots. Sometimes it fails and sometimes it’s awesome. You really get a clear sense of their desire to be in contact with each other or not. But this group of kids grew up together [so it was easy].
Isabel: I like a lot of the Boalian games. Augusto Boal, who conceptualized ‘Theater of the oppressed,’ has a lot of games that involve freezing or speaking from a role or mixing up instructions to free your mind from rigid constructs. I like using a lot of those. We use [Boalian] images and frozen images that turn into these scenes, which are responses to words like ‘gentrification’ or ‘community’. We did one on [the word group] “home, school, and community” from there we developed scenes from improvisation that turned into scripts.
BWB: If someone was interested in joining Brooklyn Acts or getting someone they know to join, what would they do?
Tara: Come [here to The Living Gallery] on Monday at 6 and see how it feels. People are free to get in touch with either of us anytime. I’m not in the neighborhood, so Isabel might be a better local contact, but we have an open door policy.
BWB: No auditions then?
Tara: The most important thing is commitment and showing up; Having a positive attitude.
Isabel: It’s not about skill it’s about being receptive to the work.
BWB: How did you two get started in performing arts?
Isabel: For me it was putting on plays in my living room for my family. Then that turned into going to acting classes as a kid.
Tara: Yeah, essentially the same thing [for me]. I was a kid who lived inside my imagination. I spent a lot of time playing alone and making up stories. Then acting out plays in my living room or with my friends or crafting magical experiences for other people. I ended up studying it in college. I have pursued it in various ways ever since. Working with kids is a natural segway. Group dynamics and relational dynamics come out of working in theater. That’s something we’re both interested in.
BWB: Tell me about you teaching experience. How did it prepare you for this work?
Tara: My first job out of college was as a drama teacher position at a public school on an island in Maine. I was teaching kindergarten through high school. Prior to that I had done a summer camp and a teaching internship. I had educational experience, but it was always more defined then this, because not only were we teaching when we started this, but we were also creating the structure of the program and at the same time trying to figure out “What is our policy for communicating with parents?” and “What role do we play in the community?” and “What kind of rules do we need to enforce?” So those were interesting questions. I felt that I had teaching experience but not the teaching experience that was relevant to this situation.
Isabel: This idea of creating a community youth theater group is an idea I’ve fantasized about for many, many years. When were we had that first conversation with Jaz and Nyssa about their vision I said, “Yes! I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to build something from the ground up; have it be completely of and for the community.” It was a perfect moment in time.
BWB: What are some of your favorite Brooklyn Acts moments?
Isabel: It’s hard to pick! Their performances; having people come to watch. Especially with the “Talk Backs” and responding directly to the community about questions that are relevant to their lives. In the performance there are these really beautiful moments. And then there’s moments that come out of rehearsal. Even right now, they’re reading their words and they’re like, “Oh, I said that! It’s on paper and now it’s gonna be in a script!” It’s really empowering when the look at their work and feel that ownership.
Tara: Of course the performances are so impactful. Especially when other kids haven’t shown up and the rest have to rise to the occasion and fill in for each other. That’s been wonderful to witness. Also just the moment when they walk in and give you a hug. Because one of the really wonderful things about this process is it’s totally transcended being a “class”. They have become my friends, and I know that they care for us and we care for them. It’s moved into this really beautiful place. They don’t know whether to call us ‘teachers’ or ‘advisors’ or what. [Both laugh].
BWB: What have been some obstacles you’ve faced?
Isabel: There’s been some obstacles [Laughs]
Tara: Totally. It’s changing. The structure has changed a lot since the beginning. When we started we had about twelve kids involved. In the first three months, we were dealing with discipline issues. There were some kids who didn’t respect us and didn’t seem fully committed to the atmosphere we were trying to create. That was the first obstacle. We were also trying to figure out our identity group and how we functioned as a group. It was really frustrating for us.
Isabel: One challenge has been to convey to families that this is something we want them to be a part of in a bigger way. Knowing how to effectively address invites for performances or other ways to involve parents and families. We’ve now put some of that responsibility into the kid’s hands. Telling them, “It’s us and its you. We’re working together and we need each other in this symbiotic relationship.”
Tara: It’s also totally volunteer-powered. There’s no money. That’s one of our first questions: “are we going to charge for these classes? Do we want it on a sliding scale. Wait, no that doesn’t feel right.” And then we finally got to a place where we said “There’s not gonna be payment.” We can have fundraisers. But that also presents challenges, cause you get to the bottom of the tin can and you ask, “What now? Where’s snack money coming from?”
BWB: What would you say to kids who are skeptical about joining BK Acts?
Tara: Take a positive risk. Come and see how it feels.
Isabel: [I would say,] “You might be surprised.” You don’t have to be an actor and you don’t have to be outgoing. You don’t even have to know what “acting” or “drama” means.
BWB: Have you noticed the kids’ confidence growing?
Tara: Yeah, completely. The confidence, the ownership of their words and their art is pretty huge.
BWB: What are some of the biggest challenges around teaching this age group?
Tara: Well first off, these kids are awesome. This is really a close group of kids who are pretty mature, but there are all of these borderline issues like sex and drugs and gangs. We’re in this role of being the adults in the room, but we’re also relating to them as peers in some ways. Knowing how to address those issues and how much those issues come into the fray is challenging. For example showing them videos: Can we show the more mature content? We know they watch it on their own but now we’re responsible. Also, with the content of this play, it’s all about this drug called ‘Wipe.’ It’s relevant to them.
BWB: Anything else you’d like people to know about BK Acts?
Isabel: Come check us out Mondays from 6- 7:30 PM. If you have a talent, interest, passion, or material thing you’d like to share, come in. We’re always hustling. [If you have something to give], the kids will take it and use it well.
Tara: We love to grow our network. We are always looking for other individuals or organizations inside the community and outside the community who are interested in us as a group.
Isabel: Performance spaces, anything of that sort, especially needed.
BWB: Thanks so much for opening your doors to us!
 A group of people get into a circle and extend hands reaching it out to hold the outstretched hands of two other members of the group. Then they try to get themselves untangled without letting go of their held hands.
 Augusto Boal was a Brazillian dramatist and activist who wrote Theatre of the Oppressed’