Teen theater troupe connects with student audiences

Plays tackle tough topics with Kiwanis support.

In February, a group of teen actors stepped onto stages in Roanoke, Virginia, U.S., to present “Lift Every Voice,” a play that explores the impact of racism in an urban high school. Presenting hard-hitting topics for audiences of middle school and high school students is an annual occurrence for the VCT4TEENS group of Virginia Children’s Theatre.

For the last five years, it’s done so with the support of grants from the Roanoke Kiwanis Club.

“The Kiwanis club has very generously been a sponsor,” says Jeanne Bollendorf, the theater’s managing director and vice president of the Roanoke club. “They understand the impact on the community. The plays are always about some major topic that concerns teens in our community.”

Most VCT4TEENS plays are based on real events or situations. Past productions have focused on suicide and mental health, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and bullying.

“Our goal is to put it in a way that engages and resonates with (teens),” Bollendorf says. “Doing that with live theater really works for a lot of people. They can put themselves in the situation. They can feel empathy for the characters. And they may see themselves up there.”

Performance and discussion
Each new play premieres at one of two performance centers in the community. Audience members include families, church youth groups and groups from organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Around 3,500 people attend each year. Tickets are free, with donations accepted. Each show is 30 minutes long, followed by a 30-minute Talk Back discussion. Community experts on the subject matter portrayed in the play discuss the content with audience members.

“It helps us unpack the information. It also gives the people who watched it resources in the local community,” Bollendorf explains.

The Talk Back panel for Lift Every Voice included a consultant on diversity and inclusion, a mental health counselor who works with the Points of Diversity organization, a medical school doctor who is part of a group that facilitates reasonable discourse and the head of United Way of Roanoke Valley’s Black Father Family initiative.

After the public performance, VCT4TEENS visits area middle and high schools to give more students the opportunity to see the show. The theater works with school counselors and administration to bring awareness to the production’s topic.

“The issues are there,” Bollendorf says, “whether you want to acknowledge them or not. So you have to deal with that. And if we can help even just one or two of our teens acquire some skills in dealing with these difficult issues, then that’s an accomplishment.”


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