In 1992, Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro were teaching aspiring actors and actresses, training them for the professional stage. But in the course of that work, the duo discovered something about their clientele.
"Pretty early on when we were teaching classes, we realized that people were taking acting classes because they were interested in the real-life benefits of theater," she says, noting in particular the overcoming of stage fright, social and communication skills that emanate from the performing arts.
The pair developed an appreciation for those benefits, also realizing that such opportunities were being offered primarily to those with the means to pursue performing arts education.
Ms. Gottesman and Mr. Mauro – co-founders and co-executive directors of The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts in Washington, D.C. – decided to leverage their position to help apply the transformative potential of theater to various social issues confronting their city. They launched The Theatre Lab's Life Stories program, a tuition-free offering that gives opportunities for self-expression to hundreds of individuals, both young and old, who are not typically reached by the arts.
The program serves at-risk youths, including adolescents who have been expelled from school or could be facing criminal charges; homeless women; those recovering from an addiction; critically ill children and their families; and even elderly residents of assisted living facilities.
"The idea about Life Stories was to get people talking about the other things about who they are," Gottesman says.
The first Life Stories class was offered in 2000 to seniors in assisted- living facilities. For those living in any type of a facility, a daily, constant narrative tends to take over, she says. "You are really only telling yourself, often, one story," she says, using the example of a nursing home or care center. "Your day becomes about medical routines."
The results of the pilot program, Gottesman says, were astounding: Beautiful, moving tales were woven together with some humorous accounts, with residents quickly getting to know much more about the background of the people around them.
"No one knew these things," she says.
With that sort of immediate success, the team expanded their Life Stories model to tackle pressing social challenges throughout the city, including homelessness, substance abuse and violence. Their mission is to work with people who are often marginalized and provide them with the chance to discuss their life experiences and, finally, to turn them into a film or play.
"When you take control of your own narrative, you take control over your life," Gottesman says. "When you become the storyteller of your life, you no longer become victims of circumstance. You're an artist."
The Life Stories program has also been brought to a correctional facility, with the final product being a 45-minute documentary film chronicling the stories of the inmates. Beyond being an exercise in self-expression, Gottesman says it produced a lasting product for those involved.
"The guys would have tangible evidence of something good they had done while they were incarcerated," she says.
In 15 years of the Life Stories program, some 2,700 people have participated. The classes often focus on individuals "who really don't have much of a voice in our society, and need a way of being able to let people know that their stories matter," Gottesman says.
The Theatre Lab's Life Stories program has been confined to the District of Columbia. But since last October, Gottesman and the team are beginning to train people from around the country on how to adopt the program and bring it into their own communities through the Life Stories Institute.
"There are a lot of applications for Life Stories that go beyond what we ever imagined," she says.
Gottesman recalls being at a shelter with a group of women who had created a handful of scenes and captured them on video. The final product was screened for the women and the shelter staff, and afterward the group engaged in a discussion.
One of the women, Gottesman says, told the group: "When I saw myself on that film, that's when I knew I was important."
That comment, Gottesman says, sums up the purpose of the Life Stories program.
"So many of us are lucky to have lots of experiences in life when people tell us we did a good job," she says. "Very often, we are working with people who don't even have one experience like that. They never get a chance to see themselves reflected positively in the eyes of others.
"We know that everyone has a story to tell, and a voice that deserves to be heard. And we also know that the impact of telling and hearing those stories is really profound."
• To learn more visit The Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts.