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Troubled Teens Turn to Theater

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By Claire Walla

Tom Demenkoff would never say he was a therapist. And most people would never assume he was.

Demenkoff kick-started his theater career in the off-Broadway production of Godspell in 1971, and spent the next 40 years acting in television shows and regional theater productions, simultaneously teaching in university theater programs throughout New York State.

But for the residents of Phoenix House, a halfway home for young men 15 to 20-years-old in Wainscott, Demenkoff’s presence certainly may seem therapeutic.

Through the PossibleArts Theatre Project (which he founded a few years ago) and with support from the Artists Writers Softball Game, Demenkoff spent the last eight weeks introducing a group of roughly 15 Phoenix House residents, all adolescents struggling with issues of substance abuse, to the art of playwriting and theater production.

The boys ultimately completed 32 original plays. Some are only a page, and some are up to five pages long; but all of them, Demenkoff said, reflect an honest range of emotions.

“I clearly see how the arts are a vital compliment to education,” Demenkoff explained. “These guys [at Phoenix House] have either been passed over, or have missed something, so a part of their lives is lost.”

Theater give the boys the opportunity to let loose and tap into pent up or oft ignored emotions, Dememkoff said.

“We’re always trying to expose the kids to something that may spark an interest in them,” added Phoenix House Director Dan Boylan. And in the past eight weeks, he added, “Some fo the boys have really come out of theis shells.”

Boylan said he hopes to bring the theater program to Phoenix House regularly, at least on an annual basis.

When the program began, Demenkoff said he pretty much started from scratch—the majority of the boys had never had any theater experience.

Demenkoff started teaching simple acting exercises to get the residents to tap into vocal, physical and emotional abilities. These are skills actors are accustomed to tapping into all the time, he added, though many of the boys at Phoenix House had to learn these techniques. Then, to make the program more relevant for the residents, Demenkoff customized the course.

“I mean, I could go in there and just do theater,” he said. “But, I’ve decided that I need to connect to the whole fabric of the facility, so that when I go in I deliver something that’s a compliment to their work.”

Before the course began, Demenkoff met with Phoenix House staff members to discuss what some of the more pervasive themes were for the boys there, what made them mad or upset.

“A lot of times these guys feel that the challenge is that they don’t have any say, either to carry on a relationship, or within the world at large,” Demenkoff explained. “They feel like stuff has sort of passed them by.”

So, with this in mind, Demenkoff began to focus their work mid-way through the program on a specific theme: “If it was up to me.”

“As simple as that sounds, the minute you start introducing something like that, there’s an explosion of thoughts,” he began. By having a way for the participants to focus their creative energy, he said, “that’s when thing start to click, and that’s when things get written.”

Of course, he added, the process is not the same for everyone involved.

“I definitely understand that these guys are in a recovery program, and they’re dealing with certain issues,” he said. “So, to have this crazy guy come in [with a program] that’s very physical and very vocal — it’s a pretty loose frame-work — it can be mind blowing.”

There are always some people who are reluctant to actively participate, he noted. And while every participant produced written work, Dememkoff said only eight of the boys will be acting in plays this Saturday.

However, he added, the program is still beneficial for all those involved.

“They work out their aggression and their fears through their written work,” he said. “Their plays really reflect their journeys.”

Demenkoff pointed to one of the boy’s plays as an example. Written in the form of a fairytale, the play is about a research scientist who travels to a volcano where he finds a troll. The troll, the research scientist discovers, is terrified of living in the volcano. The heat makes living there very uncomfortable. So, to help, the research scientist invents climate control.

In reaction to the play, Demenkoff said one of the kids exclaimed: “That’s sort of like being here at Phoenix House.”

“It’s true,” he added. “On the outside, recovery looks like a volcano. But, on the inside, it can be climate controlled.”

Eight original works created by the residents of Phoenix House will be performed this Saturday, February 25 at 12 p.m. at the Phoenix House East Hampton Academy.

Make Way for the Music Man

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Rae Keakulina LaBourne and Denis Hartnett during rehearsals at Pierson auditorium.

By Annette Hinkle

“We got trouble, right here in River City!”

Well, not trouble exactly, and not quite River City. What we actually have is the “Music Man” in Sag Harbor presented by the students of Pierson Middle School all this weekend.

Getting a group of 55 sixth through eighth graders up to speed on a musical written more than 40 years before most of them were born can be a challenge. But director Paula Brannon and producer Melissa Luppi have been down this road before — many times.

“I don’t worry anymore because they always pull it off,” said Luppi during rehearsals on Tuesday as she calmly watched the students give it their all. And part of encouraging them to do that involves making sure they understand the lines they are saying (and singing) on stage.

“If you want them to get excited about it they have to know what it means, and like in many shows, you have to step back and clarify,” says Luppi. “For example, the Wells Fargo wagon is unknown to them, and the concept of ordering something — like a double boiler, which they’d also never heard of — and then having to wait for it to show up.”

Despite the dated references, these students are obviously thoroughly enjoying the play.

“I love the idea of dressing up and being someone else up on stage,” says eighth grader Rae Keakulina LaBourne, who plays the female lead, Marion (the librarian). “At first when I was reading my character’s lines, I thought she was very stuck up. But then she shows she does have a personality. In the song ‘My White Knight’ she talks about wanting someone who’s not so simple. She lets the audience peer into her thoughts.”

Playing Marion’s love interest, Harold Hill, is seventh grader Denis Hartnett who, like many of the young actors, comes to the show with lots of experience in Stages productions.

“I like the relationship between our characters,” says Hartnett of his co-star. “In the beginning she hates me because she thinks I’m a fraud — and I am a fraud. I like how it grows, and we go from hating to loving each other.”

Added into the mix is sixth grader Myles Stokowski (he’s the grandson of conductor Leopold Stokowski) who plays Winthrop, the little brother of Marion. Fans of the movie version of the musical might remember young Ron Howard in that role. And given his lineage, perhaps it’s no surprise that the music is this young actor’s favorite part of the show.

“I like musicals because I love to sing,” says Stokowski. “I don’t take singing lessons, but I’d like to.”

In addition to honing their acting skills, all three students have come to appreciate new friendships formed as a result of being in the play, and are now more comfortable on stage together.

“At first I had no idea who Denis was and I thought ‘I have to hug him and put my head on his shoulder? I don’t know you, this is awkward,’” recalls LaBourne. “We’d say our lines standing about five feet apart and facing opposite directions.”

“But now, we have bonded by going over our lines and talking about the play,” says LaBourne. “And Myles, he’s just the cutest thing ever.”

“Music Man” by Pierson Middle School will be performed Thursday through Saturday, February 3 through 5 at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the school auditorium. Tickets are $7 in the main office, or email agalanty@sagharborschools.org to reserve.