The usually quiet campus of Villa Maria College was transformed this week into Edgemont High School, where gossip flew through the hallways, bullies intimidated students and pupils cut class for impromptu freestyle rap cyphers. MTV cameras were even there to document the commotion for a reality television show.
Actually, it was all part of a world dreamed up by a group of Buffalo and Cheektowaga students, who performed a play they wrote during a six-week theater workshop called Over the Edge, a summer program hosted by Buffalo’s Schiller Park Community Services and Cheektowaga’s Department of Youth and Recreation. The play was a way for the teens to confront the challenges they face on a daily basis, from bullying, to peer pressure to the lure of drugs.
The word “play,” though, is hardly adequate to describe the scope of the performances – Wednesday afternoon and Thursday evening in Villa Maria’s auditorium – which included poetry, dance, song and monologue.
Now in its fourth year, the free Over the Edge program offers students on both sides of the city line – where organizers said there has been an increase in crime in recent years – a chance to stay away from bad influences and learn about theater, which isn’t always offered at their schools.
“It’s a great way for kids to come together and meet each other in a positive social environment,” said Kelly Beuth, who directed the performance and teaches theater at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. “These are the types of opportunities we need to be giving our kids.”
The students, ages 12 to 19, attended the workshop from 1 to 4 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays for six weeks, practicing their writing, improvisation and acting skills. Once they agreed on a theme for the performance – “A Day in the Life” of a high school student – they submitted ideas and scripts for scenes, which Beuth pieced together into a final script.
Each student submitted material and appeared in the performance.
Rather than a traditional play with main characters and a clear plot, the performances were more a series of skits, poems, monologues, scenes and songs.
They are all presented through the medium of an MTV reality show called “A Day in the Life,” which attempts to chronicle life at fictional Edgemont.
“They’re on the edge of adulthood, they’re always on the edge of taking risks, and they’re on the edge of two communities,” said Michael Tritto Jr., executive director of Schiller Park Community Services.
Some of the students have experience in the performing arts, but others have none at all, Tritto said.
“Many of the kids come because their parents wanted to put them in some sort of program for the summer,” Tritto said. “And some of them initially resist it. ... They thought some of this stuff was kind of corny. And then over time, they just loved the camaraderie.”
Justyn Carrier, 19, of Buffalo, has enrolled in the program all four years. He wants to go into acting when he’s older. Putting the play together can be hectic, he said, because of the limited time and diversity of the students.
“You have to work with a lot of different people and become friends,” he said.
It was the first year in the On the Edge workshop for Tony Proctor, 15, of Cheektowaga. He’s been in plays at Maryvale High School, and his mother signed him up since he loves acting. “I thought it was a great opportunity,” he said of the workshop.
“A Day in the Life” covers many aspects of the high school experience – cliques, academic dishonesty and teen romance, among others – and it doesn’t shy away from dark topics like suicide, coping with loss and bullying.
“Someone should have stopped it,” Tony’s character says during a monologue about a lesbian student who was beaten up in the hallways. “Someone should have put an end to it.”
But the performance is also very funny at times, and the students even use “commercial breaks” from the reality show to satirize technology’s ever-tightening grip on their lives. Each commercial is for a new smartphone app that eliminates the need for students to think through their problems and solve them.
Crystal Smith, 18, of Cheektowaga, spoke about how the combined experiences of all the students – male and female, city and suburban – contributed to the play.
“We put together skits that are part of us,” she said.