By Bridgette M. Redman

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

About…Productions has been reaching out to at-risk, low-income youth in Pasadena with workshops designed to empower them to become more successful in school and life.

The program, Young Theaterworks, reaches into Pasadena and East LA public schools.

On Saturday, May 15, the production company will celebrate two decades of work with the retrospective variety show “The Young Theaterworks Experience: Twenty Years of Storytelling, Culture and Community.”

With a combination of prerecorded and live performances, “The Young Theaterworks” premieres at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 15. It will then be available on About…Productions’ website through June.

“It will uplift youth voices as well as community elders and honor that community culture and community history,” said lead teaching artist, actor and singer Marlene Beltran Cuauhtin.

The event covers the organization’s beginnings through the pandemic, where it had to pivot to provide services in new ways.

The lineup includes the five teaching artists, workshop and residency students and testimonials from community members.

Students will perform monologues and there will be interactive Young Theaterworks exercises.

“We’re proud to be celebrating Young Theaterworks’ 20 years of serving low-income, highest-risk and educationally disadvantaged youth,” said Theresa Chavez, co-founder and producing artistic director.

“From its inception, Young Theaterworks has been dedicated to providing public high schools with transformative residencies that reflect About…Productions’ focus on literacy, the collaborative process and uncovering buried cultural histories. Our teaching artists awaken students’ power to find their creative voice, improve their academic achievement, boost their confidence and strengthen their communication and collaboration skills.”

The event will celebrate student work in several ways. Some will share original monologues, while others will see teaching artists perform their work.

The free one-hour event is open to the public. It represents work from four LA-area high schools: Garfield, Ramona, Marshall and Rose City high schools. The schools did two programs this year — “Art of the Monologue” workshops and a “Collective Playwriting” residency.

Youth Theaterworks changed its program this year in response to the pandemic and the civil unrest sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. Their programs were put online and encouraged Pasadena and East LA students to attend classes and to share self-expression.

Segments in the event include:

• Young Theaterworks History Photo Collage underscored by Cuauhtin’s music

• Engagement exercises to create live audience participation

• Student monologues

• Personal reflections by teaching artists and classroom instructors on the program and its effects

• Testimonials by Young Theaterworks’ founder Rose Portillo and community elders who have participated in past programs, including poet Gloria Enedina Alvarez and visual artist Linda Nishio

• Excerpt from the “Collective Playwriting” residency at Marshall High

• Excerpt from “I: Witness,” a student-written full production from 2017

• Excerpt from “Through the Ages,” an intergenerational program

Taking up the mantle

Cuauhtin has been working with Young Theaterworks since 2015, but was named lead teaching artist in mid-2020, at a time when the pandemic changed the world. She took the program online and worked with teachers to provide a Zoom experience.

The Monologue Workshop was designed as a six-week residency in Pasadena and East LA high schools to introduce students to the conflict of monologues and the art of storytelling.

“It is just an opportunity for students to express themselves, an opportunity to dream about something that is not common in their lives or to examine some of the thoughts and feelings that they have,” Cuauhtin said.

Getting students involved

Students are graded on the workshop, so it isn’t necessarily a choice to be part of the program. The classroom teacher decides for them. However, Cuauhtin said, students decide how much they want to engage, especially in the virtual space.

“Students have a bit more agency over their level of engagement,” Cuauhtin said. “If they don’t turn on their camera or unmute themselves or connect in the chat — that’s a choice they have to make every day which has to do with showing up. Showing up has become an important part of our mantra.”

Once students show up, the teaching artists encourage them to engage and to express themselves through their life experiences or story creation.

“When we were able to get students on camera speaking unmuted, it was just revolutionary,” Cuauhtin said. “We work with underserved youth and the goal is to be able to provide an opportunity for students that they might not otherwise get to engage in arts education.”

They learn to create a monologue or a play. Teaching artists are modeling life skills about how to work together, build community and stay connected in the community.

They were met by skeptical classroom teachers, who had been struggling to engage their students. They warned the teaching artists that they had students they’d never seen or heard. They said the artists were welcome, but they weren’t certain how it would go.

“I really had to express that yes, this is going to be challenging. I’m not telling you it is going to be easy, but it is worth the challenge of figuring it out. I feel fortunate the classroom teachers said, let’s do it,” Cuauhtin said.

She said they stressed the hard work of building community and ensembles with any tools they had.

“Some days we only communicated by chat. There were many days where students wouldn’t come on camera,” Cuauhtin said. “It became a revolutionary act for students to feel comfortable enough to be engaged in a fully present way.”

That’s why there is a mix of students performing their monologues on May 15, and teaching artists are sharing student monologues. Cuauhtin said, for many students, it was a big deal for them to share their stories through different mediums.

“It is another way of honoring that work and that exchange when we go into the space,” Cuauhtin said. “We’re going in with a sense that we are all part of this classroom collective. We’re here to listen to what you want and need. If you don’t want to perform, do you want your work to be heard? If yes, we’ll perform it for you.”

Celebrating collaboration

With 20 years under its belt, About…Productions continues to commit to youth who need opportunities like this.

Cuauhtin credits the teaching artists she works with and Chavez.

Like Cuauhtin, the teaching artists are of color and that reflects the communities they serve. In addition to Cuauhtin, the teachers are Carissa Pinckney, Edwin Alexis Gomez, Brandon Rachal and Eddie Ruiz.

“They have a dedication to their craft, which I think is super important to being a theater artist,” Cuauhtin said. “We go in as artists who are currently out there pursuing our fields and at the same time giving back to our community and teaching what we love. So, I really want to commend the work of the whole team. It couldn’t be done without them.”