Kids light up as they find their place on stage

It looks like a typical evening at Boston's elegant Wang Theater: An enthusiastic crowd pours through the doors. Seats fill quickly. Pre-show chatter ripples through the aisles, sparked by an elaborate set that tantalizes the audience's imagination.

But tonight's show veers far from the conventional. The performers luring this crowd are not seasoned stage veterans, but at-risk children from Massachusetts' Department of Mental Health (DMH).

More than 100 children, ranging in age from 7 to 19, have spent nine months preparing for this show, "Spirit of the West." Part of a program called "Express Yourself," the students have been working with professional artists, actors, musicians, and dancers to develop the program, create the set, and write some of the script.

The goal is to give the participants new avenues of artistic expression - and to break stereotypes about what they can accomplish.

"I think the value of [Express Yourself] is tremendous," says co-executive director Paula Conrad, who has been involved with the program since its inception 10 years ago. "There's no doubt that [the children] build positive self-esteem. Kids who usually can't connect and are very isolated become part of a community, part of a spirit."

Doug Berquist, a 19-year-old who is participating for his third year, this time as an intern, agrees. "The kids have a creative outlet," he says. "Kids don't get to express themselves enough - that's why this program works."

But Express Yourself aims to reach well beyond music and dance in its influence. Ms. Conrad speaks of one boy deemed unable to go to school for behavioral and emotional reasons. He grew so engaged that he became an assistant. Conrad says his mother thanked her for "an experience that really has changed him. It allowed him to engage into his educational program, because he had made a bridge through the arts."

Express Yourself was originally part of a public school program that integrated special-education students with children in the mainstream. DMH staff saw a performance and got excited. They joined forces with Conrad to evolve today's model.

It started out small, at first using a school hallway as the stage. But the group got a boost when Josiah Spaulding, president of the Wang Center, agreed to a request that he loan them the Wang entry hall. This year marks the sixth annual performance at the theater.

The kids in the program, about 90 percent of whom are in residential DMH programs, spend the first part of the year developing relationships and building trust with each other and the staff.

Over the next two months, they work with visiting professionals and staff members to create the set and costumes - this year a colorful medley of masks, mosaics, whimsical animal costumes, and huge kachina dolls. The last eight weeks focus on getting ready for "A Night at the Wang."

This year's show features a spirited drumming ensemble led by Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, a bluegrass medley with fiddler Lucia Linn, first violinist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and dancing.

Including well-known performers like Mr. Lockhart and Ms. Linn blends with the Express Yourself philosophy of collaboration and confidence building. "[The kids] know they're up there with a professional singer or actor, and it makes them feel good," says Conrad.

This year marked Lockhart's debut in the production. He plays an enthusiastic cowboy who has trouble making his conductor's baton work until "The Kid" introduces him to the "spirit of the West."

Lockhart says that the arts are important for all children, but particularly "kids who are challenged."

These kids are "told all the time that they're not normal," he says. Express Yourself "tells them exactly the opposite - that they have something that is worthy of show."

Lockhart relates one particularly poignant experience for him. In a rehearsal "The Kid," whose real name is Tony, started pulling on Lockhart's pant leg after a mock gun battle. A staff member told him, "Tony just wants to give you a hug because he thinks you did so well."

This particular evening, smiles abound as kids encourage each other and let loose with dancing and drumming. Cheers erupt from the audience for one boy who engages in a particularly energetic dance solo, and everyone is clapping along to the bluegrass tunes.

To acclaimed jazz musician Stan Strickland, who shares the executive director position with Conrad, the model of collaboration the project provides the children is primary, as is the appreciation they learn for the arts.

"As they go on in life, they may not become performers," he says. "But at least they'll understand that there's a great deal of joy and knowledge to be gained through the fine arts."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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