Theater group spreads positive messages to teens in Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire
Caroline Biney, 15, from Arlington Heights, dances during auditions Sunday for REALITY Theater's next performances at OMNI Youth Services in Buffalo Grove. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 12, 2012 1:29AM
BUFFALO GROVE — Omni Youth Services’ REALITY Theater group is committed to staging a series of teen theater performances that spread serious, genuine and positive messages to teenagers across the country.
“It is youth talking to youth in their own words,” explained Janet Jesse, the manager of REALITY Theater, which writes and produces original plays with healthy messages.
“From their own experience, they find the right words,” Jesse added. “They’re able to say things that wouldn’t be listened to if adults said the same thing.”
REALITY Theater is an extension of Omni Youth Services, the Buffalo Grove-based non-profit organization that works with young people and their families around the northwest suburbs. The troupe held its auditions last weekend, drawing 13 students from area high schools to take part in its yearlong production calendar.
Jesse is in the midst of her first year as the group’s leader. Her teammates, new artistic director Melissa Estes and incoming assistant director Samantha Gassel, are bringing in fresh perspectives, too. Each come with theater backgrounds: Estes founded Stevenson High School’s Odessey fine arts festival in 1996 and Jesse took over managing it in 1999. Gassel is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston.
“I love being back, working with kids,” Jesse said.
The teen participants said they are excited about the fresh start with new leadership.
Bridget Whited, a Buffalo Grove High School junior, said she got involved with the REALITY Theater group during her freshman year after hearing about it from a counselor. She said the experiences have proven useful.
“We all started high school not really knowing what drugs or alcohol could do to us,” Whited explained. “I can’t be around someone who does that.”
Whited said she has already lost friends because of substance abuse. Whited recalled relationships she had growing up, which no longer exist, because of peers who went too far with drugs or alcohol.
Sunday’s auditions were the first of what will be regular Sunday night creative times and rehearsals for the group.
REALITY participants learn acting, writing and improvisation, Jesse said, with a focus on crafting original productions that speak to teens about bullying, positive body image, distracted driving, safe dating, cyber safety and more.
“Anything that would be of concern to teenagers is fodder for their creativity,” Jesse said.
Among those topics is loneliness, which was the focus of “Therapy,” a production that Whited and Fremd senior Stephanie Fox wrote together earlier this year for presentation at the Girl-Wise conference for teenage ladies in Grayslake.
“We stayed over at each other’s houses, and we stayed up until 4 a.m. every weekend writing the script,” Whited said.
Omni began its REALITY program in 1994. Its annual schedule generally includes a showcase public performance in March, with a number of additional shows at area schools beginning in October.
The group currently boasts about 18 members, which Jesse added has proved to be a good place for teens to meet peers from other schools. She said the group could use a few extra guys, too.
“Boys who maybe are not into theater, but are into leadership, or are into service” can do well with this group, she said.
When she joined REALITY in April, Jesse recalled being impressed with the strong bonds already forged among many of the longtime members.
“When I saw this group of students together, I thought ‘Oh, they must all be from the same school,’” she explained. “And they’re not, they’re just that close.
“This was a challenging last year for them,” Jesse continued. “They kept the program going pretty much with their own commitment. There was some really good student leadership.”
Participation in REALITY counts as community-service hours, she noted, but each participant must sign the pledge to remain substance-free while involved.
Beyond the boost to college and job resumes, Jesse and Whited both added that the satisfaction they get out of their work comes in knowing that they are helping to change young minds. With every performance, they said, there are kids in the audience who think they are the only one feeling the way they do — until they see their feelings brought to life in REALITY’s shows.
“They’re afraid of being ridiculed,” Jesse said. “It gives them a lot of courage, because they see people standing on stage with the positive message.”
“We’re so pumped to get back to work with new talent,” Whited added.