"I was locked up in a juvenile-camp facility," says D., a seventeen-year-old former resident of the Los Angeles County Probation Department's Camp Gonzalez, in Calabasas, California. "The Unusual Suspects came to the camp and did a presentation. It was an improv, and I thought it was funny. I like humor. I was interested."
D. signed on for the program of intensive workshops with the Unusual Suspects, a nonprofit organization of professional artists in Los Angeles that works with young people, ages 12-21, in the area's foster-care and juvenile-justice systems.
For three months, D. and eleven others at Camp Gonzalez met twice a week with volunteers and teaching artists from the Unusual Suspects to develop, write, and rehearse an original play. Last May, they performed their own sci-fi gangster thriller (about 1920s bootleggers who meet a chicken-zapping warrior android from the future) for the other youths at the detention facility, and then for a public audience.
"During the show for the other minors that were locked up, we were nervous and didn't stick to the script -- we had to make up some of the lines," D. says. "The next day, we did it for outside people, and our lines were on cue."
"It was the best show they've seen at Camp Gonzalez," says Sally Fairman, executive director of the Unusual Suspects. She explains that for many of the kids in the juvenile-detention system (and in the foster homes the Unusual Suspects coach), the experience of performing can be transformative. "They go through an intense experience in twelve weeks, and when they come out the other end, people watch their play and stand up and cheer," Fairman adds. "You see the kids standing there, receiving positive energy from the community -- and these are marginalized teens -- and now they're thinking, 'Maybe I can be part of this community.'"
Because the Los Angeles County Arts Commission approved the Unusual Suspects's curriculum and it meets the state's education standards for the visual and performing arts, participants in the juvenile centers can receive community-service credit to reduce their probation time. But Fairman says the purpose of the program is much broader.
"We're providing not only the academic skills -- by meeting state standards, and through work in theater education, literacy, and public speaking -- but we are also targeting anger management and social skills," she explains. "We're teaching the kids to rely on themselves and others, and to set goals and achieve them. We're working to increase social consciousness. We're working with kids from different races and gang affiliations. All of those things are happening while they're getting these academic skills. That's why this program is successful."
Race to the Stage
Racial tensions were the catalyst for the group's creation, says founder and current board chair Laura Leigh Hughes. "It came out of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992," she says. "I wanted to try to do something about racial tension and racial intolerance. I've always felt that youths were affected the most by these issues, and I wanted to find a way to empower them and give them a voice."
Hughes, an actress, rallied friends in the industry and created the Unusual Suspects, mounting the troupe's first show with a group of teenagers in the foster-care system. A friend subsequently connected her with LA's Central Juvenile Hall, which, Hughes says, introduced the Unusual Suspects to a group of high-risk male offenders and what she calls a "whole new world" of gang and racial tensions.
After the group's first show at Central Juvenile Hall, Hughes explains, one of the young performers took the microphone and addressed the other incarcerated youths in the audience. "He said, 'There are no gangs up here on this stage. We're a family. We've done some things we regret, and we have to stop killing each other.'
"We were working with rival gang members," Hughes adds, "and racial tensions dropped after we worked with them."
D. also spoke about how creating and producing a show affected the racial dynamics in his group. "There was a situation where we were all in a circle of chairs, talking about the play in general," D. says of one of the first production meetings. "All of the Unusual Suspects staff was on one side of the circle, all the blacks were on another side, and the Hispanics were on another side. I stood up and said, 'Everybody move.'"
No one noticed that they had segregated themselves, but the group became more integrated at each subsequent meeting. "At first, it was kind of shaky," D. recalls. "We really didn't get along. It was a different and diverse group of people. Toward the end of play, we may not have all been best friends, but we were getting along."
Jamie Diamond, a journalist who has volunteered for several productions, says groups often show a marked transformation during the twelve weeks they're together. When a new group is being formed and has its initial meeting, she says, "twelve to fifteen boys walk into a freezing-cold gym with no windows, wearing orange uniforms, not looking at us, and hitting each other. And we do theater games with them."
But three months later, after they've performed the show, Diamond adds, the kids know they can work as a group. "There's a spirit of 'We've done something together -- we came every week and we pulled this off,'" she says. "They may not pull off school or reading, but they pull this off. It's kind of an alternate grid upon which they can succeed."
The Plot Thickens
As the Unusual Suspects celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year, Fairman says the organization, funded through a combination of donations, government grants, and contributions from its partner facilities, is experiencing tremendous growth. "We went from two programs a year in 2004 to ten this year, and we think we're reaching a tipping point," she says. "We're predicting demand will double." Fairman adds that LA city officials have recently called for alternative approaches to dealing with increasing levels of gang violence in the area. "We are a leader in this field,” she says, "and the attention is on us."
The organization's plans include a pilot program with fifth graders from an area where many kids are exposed to gangs by the age of nine. And this fall, the Unusual Suspects will begin a new program at Orange County's Camp Glenn Rockey juvenile facility, where they'll collaborate with teachers there by spending time in the classroom during the school day. This is a first, as theater productions at other detention camps for juveniles have traditionally -- and strictly -- been extracurricular.
Another goal of the Unusual Suspects is to expand its alumni program -- a network of kids mentoring each other and coaching each others' transition back into the community. One alumnus who has stayed closely tied to that network is Richard Morgan. In 1998, after visiting a friend in a foster-care facility where an Unusual Suspects's workshop was under way, Morgan joined the program and soon performed in his first show.
"My high school did not have an arts program -- there was no theater, no space to dance, and no place to really write," Morgan says. He remembers that when he saw what the Unusual Suspects were up to, he got hooked the first day.
Morgan now works as a paid program coordinator for the nonprofit organization, and after performing in several productions and working on many more, he has begun to see some patterns emerge. "A lot of the kids are shy, or some have a little chip on their shoulder, for whatever reason," Morgan says. "They don't know what to expect. What's great is seeing them come in with an attitude of 'I don't know why I'm here, and I don't care,' and then take on the responsibility of a whole show they wrote. It transforms them into leaders."
Rob Baedeker is a writer and performer living in Berkeley, California. He is a former college English instructor and the author, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: The Catalog Parody.