I never could have predicted the moment it happened, but looking back it was just a mere moment that caused a complete paradigm shift. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but the choice I made to say what I did…may have saved his life. He was a homeless teenager who had been in trouble most of his life. He had committed a lot of crime, messed around with drugs, and had participated in gang violence. I didn’t save Andre by taking him into my home and giving him food and shelter. I didn’t give him money. I didn’t teach him how to survive in this big bad ugly world. I didn’t even show him the power of his own mind. The only thing I did to save him was EMPOWER him to save him- self. I was his cheerleader, and I lifted him up, higher than he’d ever been lifted before.
Before we were married, my husband and I were very involved in a theatre company called Circle X. It was our everything and remains very close in our hearts to this day. We created provocative and forward-thinking theatre in a city that is typically known for bad showcase theatre complete with self-absorbed actors on stage using the opportunity to be scouted by industry agents and casting directors. Circle X had a different mission which valued the arts and the unity of the ensemble. We believed in adrenaline over inertia, imagination over budgets and excellence over all.
The company was a non-profit and in order to obtain funding for our productions we agreed to give back to the community. One implemented program was a weekly improvisation work- shop taught at the Los Angeles Youth Network (LAYN). For years, this program was a thorn in the side of the membership. The kids we had promised to mentor were not the kind of teen- agers any of us felt comfortable dealing with. LAYN was, in a sense, a halfway house for troubled youth. LAYN was founded in 1985 as a pilot program through the High-Risk Youth Project at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, following the passing of the California Homeless Youth Act. When first opened, LAYN existed as an emergency shelter during nighttime hours. By 1989, LAYN had acquired a facility equipped to offer both emergency shelter and drop-in services. Our goal in these weekly workshops was to empower abused, neglected and homeless adolescents to become self-sufficient free thinkers by inspiring their creativity.
LAYN found these children living on the streets in their dark- est moments. Some were hiding from the law, abusive family members, or street gangs.
At Circle X, we were all expected to put in our time at LAYN, but it was a struggle to get many of the members to sign up for their time slots. I was one of them and dreaded the day my ob- ligation showed up on the calendar. It was just uncomfortable being there even as open-minded artists who wanted to do good in the world. We were sheltered. It was just easier to turn a blind eye than to acknowledge the awfulness of what these kids were experiencing.
We were struggling artists, but none of us in our darkest hours could come close to understanding their lives. We couldn’t imagine running out of options and turning to the street, not knowing what we’d eat for dinner, where we’d sleep, or what degrading act we might have to commit in exchange for food and safety. It was hard to imagine experiencing this at any age, least of all at only 15 years old.
This was the grim reality for the teenagers in our workshops and it seemed like teaching them improvisational comedy was a waste of time. Those who attended these workshops regularly rarely saw the same faces. We didn’t know their stories nor did we think to ask, but couldn’t help wonder why most kids seemed to remain only a few days at the facility. Did they give up and go back to the streets? Did the free beds have a time limit?
I spent many years tolerating this “chore” of giving a few hours of time a month to this cause. It was around the same time I had started improving upon my own self-worth by reading empowerment books. I suppose this could have been the reason I stopped dreading the nights I was expected at LAYN. In fact, I started volunteering on nights I wasn’t expected, just to help out other company members or fill in for no-shows.
I began to believe things could be different for everyone, no matter the circumstances. I wanted to see if what I had been ap- plying in my own life could be applied in the lives of others. It was agonizing for me to reveal what I was learning to be true: that there were children in this world who had never been told they were of value. They didn’t know how to hope, only how to survive. No one had ever showed them what they were capable of, they didn’t have any positive role models nor were they ever taught right from wrong. Growing up in the concrete jungle, I could see how they would return to their primitive state and couldn’t even comprehend finding love, abundance, truth or personal fulfillment. Yet they were PEOPLE just like every other person. The idea of human potential never excited me as much as it did during those workshops at LAYN.
I had heard other counselors chastising them for using profanity or discussing things that were not “clean.” I wondered if this was the reason kids never stayed for long. It was at this point that I had decided to sincerely engage with the kids by conscious- ly connecting on their level. I determined I would NOT, under any circumstances, reprimand them for inappropriate behavior. I would allow them to behave any way that felt comfortable. I wanted this space to feel safe for them. I wanted them to feel accepted, if nowhere else, then in this room for a few hours on a Tuesday night.
The night I met Andre, I don’t think he could have been more than 15 years old. He had a baby’s face, but it had become hardened by the things he’d seen. He was belligerent and aggressively confrontational. He wasn’t at LAYN every week. He showed up every few months, complained about being forced to attend this stupid fucking acting class, defiantly got in the volunteers’ faces every chance he could, and terrified everyone in the room. Andre was an example of what all the volunteers feared. The other kids were troubled, disrespectful, unresponsive or aloof, but none as hostile and truculent as this angry young man. Beneath his threatening disposition, I swear I could see something else. As nervous as he made me, I believed that he was hiding something dynamic. Andre had magnificent intellect buried so deeply, I wondered if he was even aware of his potential.
“Okay, listen up everyone. We’re going to do an improvisational game called ‘Freeze Tag.’ You know the drill. You start the scene and keep going until someone yells ‘FREEZE’ and then the person who froze the action will tap one of the players out and begin a new scene with an entirely different intention. Any questions?” I knew better than to ask for volunteers—this wasn’t exactly an ambitious bunch. The kids seemed to dread this type of group therapy just as much as the volunteers dreaded being there.
I looked around the room to choose 2 players, expecting to hear whining and protesting no matter who I chose, as always.
“Let’s see—how about Nicole and … Andre.” The moment I said his name, all eyes were on me: the kids, the volunteers and the counselors. They must’ve all thought I’d lost my mind. I had just welcomed an attack from the most defiant delinquent of them all. He didn’t play these games—he made that clear every time he came. In the past, we all just accepted it and counted our blessings that we could get away with dealing with him as little as possible.
I, on the other hand, had a strong hunch Andre was going to surprise everyone.
What happened next wasn’t a surprise at all, but exactly what everyone in the room expected. Andre strutted slowly over to me, put his face right up against mine with the intention of filling the room with uneasiness, and told me, “Fuck, no.” He backed off just enough to observe my reaction, pleased with himself for having the power to frighten others, and then walked back to his chair and sat down.
I’m sure he expected me to cry—heck, it’s what I would have expected from myself. I didn’t have the best history when it came to personal conflict and was a known loser in public face-offs. I had once locked myself in a campus bathroom in college, crying hysterically and hyperventilating after an ex-sorority sister told me she’d “get me” if I ever squealed the Sigma Kappa handshake. I was a wimp and I knew it.
But THIS was different. I was no longer a pathetic victim. I didn’t cry. I didn’t admonish Andre for disrespecting my authority. I didn’t flinch.
Instead, I slowly walked over to where he was sitting, put my face right up in front of his just as he had done moments earlier, and rebutted, “Fuck, yes.”
You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife, but after a moment you could hear a few nervous giggles and even some applause. I had taken a HUGE risk and it was earning me respect points with this usually indolent crowd.
Andre looked irate, showing the kind of fury only seen when a low-down, spit-in-your-face, punk-ass gang banger has just been shown up by an out-of-touch, privileged little white girl. I half expected him to punch me as a response, but I never gave him the chance. I looked him straight in the eye, smiled and said, “Get up there, Andre. I think you are going to be fucking brilliant. You want to prove me wrong?”
He continued to stare me down. After a moment, he stood up, never dropping his gaze, and walked over to the performance area in front of the group.
I felt myself take a breath for the first time in what felt like an hour.
My heart was nearly ready to pop out of my chest. This was big—a defining moment for us all. Everyone present was feeling shifted. We were letting go of pre-existing ideas about the way we expected things to be, letting go of our fear of one another, and silently applauding Andre’s choice to let go of his own beliefs. If nothing else happened that evening, getting Andre to break out of his comfort zone in this moment was something to celebrate. It was an amazing moment to witness.
The room was engaged. It was the first time in 5 years I re- member the kids being purposefully engaged. The energy had shifted. My internal cheerleader was dialoguing You got this, c’mon Ally. You are doing great. Everyone is engaged—this has never happened before. Don’t freak out, hold your power. It’s okay, you’ll be fine.
I took a deep breath, hoping no one could see how much I was sweating. “Okay. So, I need a situation for Nicole and Andre. Anyone got one?”
In the past, we’d gotten dead air—a statement that this little acting game was a stupid fucking waste of everyone’s time. But not this time. The energy had shifted, opening the door for the wise-asses in the room who had clearly been aching to have some fun.
Someone yelled out, “She’s a whore and he’s her pimp.”
Sounds of giggles. That kind of suggestion was not usually tol- erated and I knew they were expecting me to respond the way a person in authority would—as if they were pathetic and needed to be chided to take things seriously.
I knew I was being tested; this was their game with me.
You want to play, lady? You and everyone else think they can reach us. We’re damaged, don’t you get that? No use in trying. Okay, so you made us laugh. You got our attention. But if you want to play, you play on our terms.
I knew why they were pushing the boundaries with me: deep down, they wanted to have fun. Wanted to find value in these workshops and maybe grow a little bit. Wanted to be capable. Wanted to know what it was like to be more like me…the privileged white girl who couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to be abandoned by the entire world.
These kids had to test the waters first, and there was no way any of them would have offered themselves if it couldn’t be on their terms. I knew I had to allow them to be uncensored. Suddenly, I knew exactly what I needed to do to make this a successful night. I wanted this to be a safe space for them, a space that didn’t threaten them or scold them or make them feel wrong or inferior. This was their shelter, their port in a storm, their chance to play without boundaries, apology or censorship.
In that moment, I wanted to give it to them. I knew without a doubt that if I reacted in disappointment it would be all over. It would be just like any other week, filled with regret and dispiritedness. This was my chance to support them, so I chose to be a cheerleader on their terms.
In improvisation, there are rules to support your team members, and one of the rules is never to deny your fellow actors. A game that many improv troupes play is called “Yes, and…” The intention behind it is to always allow the stage to be set with full acceptance of what the other performers have created. The magic only lasts as long as everyone in the space can agree and visualize the same things. We never say, “No, that’s not a banana, it looks like a screwdriver.” Instead, we say:
“That banana looks tasty, may I have a bite?” “Yes, you may.”
“Yes, and this is yummy.”
“Yes? So, have another bite.”
“Yes! Don’t mind if I do.”
The purpose of “Yes, and…” was to always drive the action forward. By denying what was presented by your scene partner, you were denied the integrity and validity of the entire experience.
This was what I needed to do. I needed to “Yes, and…” them, with full conviction and authenticity. “Okay! She’s a whore and he’s a pimp. Go!”
There was a collective sigh in the room, then laughter.
And then more laughter, followed by applause.
This was going to be interesting. The kids had begun to sit up in their chairs a little straighter, a little more involved, a little more interested.
It suggested we all understood one another. There was an un- spoken promise that I would not rat them out for playing on their terms, and they wouldn’t hurt me, making my job easier.
Andre came alive, filled with hilarious ideas about how to play a bad-ass pimp. It didn’t take long before he found his mojo, and the room erupted with laughter. It was a moment that I will never be able to fully explain, but one that is burned into my memory. I watched him become ever so slightly elevated. It was like he had tasted a new fruit and was falling in love with the richness of its sweetness. Andre had talent, that much was clear. He was bitten and for those of us that are performers there is nothing quite like learning about the power you have to elicit an audible reaction in a room. That was especially for this room which had been conditioned to hate stupid drama games.
Andre lasted nearly 20 minutes before he was tagged out. The other players were replaced multiple times. At first I worried the others were too afraid to tag him out, but then I realized they were all paying him the highest compliment of all: they wanted to work WITH him!
When Andre was finally tagged out, some of the kids in the room booed—a tacit acknowledgment that he was the most prestigious performer in the room. It was an important night for him and I will never forget how his pride lit him up like a firefly as he returned to his seat.
At the end of the night, as I collected my things and waited for the administration to buzz me out of the security door, I heard behind me, an aggressive, “Hey!”
I turned to find myself staring right into a stone-faced Andre. He looked at me for a moment, then opened his arms to give me a hug. “Thank you.” He said, “That was fun.”
I remember thinking it was a shame I would have to start again, winning over a brand-new group of kids the following week. After 5 years, I’d learned the turnover rate was very high.
In the following weeks, I noticed more and more of the same faces showing up in this group, including Andre. This had never happened before.
I wondered if some policy had changed. Perhaps the organization received more funding?
One night I asked one of the kids. “It’s so great to see you every week now, Juan. So many of the same faces show up now. Are they letting you stay longer now?”
Juan looked confused. “Letting us? What do you mean letting us? We can come and go as we please. This ain’t a prison.”
“So, why are you sticking around longer than before?”
“Choice, man. I ain’t missing Tuesday night. It’s the best night of the week.”
That’s when it dawned on me. What I was doing each Tuesday night wasn’t just a fun escape for these kids, it was empowering them. They were choosing to stay, and choosing to better their lives.
Andre continued to show up week after week. He not only actively participated, but volunteered himself to begin the improv games each night. He couldn’t wait to perform and play. I began to introduce other forms of improv and games with quirky rules like Alphabet Soup where the beginning of each line had to be in alphabetical order:
“Let’s go to the movies!”
“Movies? That’s a great idea. What do you want to see?”
“Quiet! We can’t hear with you talking.”
As we added new games to our repertoire, Andre would give audible reactions, “Yes! Love this one. Can I go first?”
On nights where we had some new participants, kids with typ- ical novice attitudes who were not at all open to enjoying them- selves or playing along, I would watch, with both pride and dis- belief, Andre be a cheerleader for them.
“C’mon man. Show some respect to yourself. Have a good time. It’s good for ya.”
Every Tuesday—for two and a half years—he welcomed us with open arms and active participation. Then one Tuesday evening, Andre wasn’t there. Heartbroken and afraid of the answer, I asked one of the counselors why. I was told he had turned 18 and legally it was time for him to leave. I asked if he had any place to go, since I knew he didn’t have any family and was largely in hiding from a gang he was trying to escape from. I was terrified for him.
The counselor smiled, “It’s all good. He’s doing great and comes to visit all the time. He got an apartment with a few others in the valley and a full-time job working at a theatre. He’s their custodian, but gets to see all the plays for free and they even let him participate in some of the classes and rehearsals.”
Andre had gone into the theatre.
My heart was filled with such pride and gratitude. I had not yet given birth to my own children, but for the first time felt like a proud mama bear. I never saw Andre again, and it was against the rules for LAYN to tell me anything in regards to his whereabouts. I never knew his last name, so I couldn’t look him up. In my heart of hearts, I knew he’d be just fine.
It wasn’t ME who had given him this new life. He had given it to himself. It was in him all along, but it had been buried beneath his need to be in survival mode. He’d been fighting the same bat- tle all his life until he didn’t have to anymore. Andre was lifted up. He was shown a glimpse of his potential that first night when he performed for us.
For so many of us, that is all we ever really need.
To be shown what we are made of. To see someone give a damn about us. To feel there is someone in our corner who will be there to catch us. To hear the cheers of our greatest fans even when we are on a real losing streak. The greatest cheerleader in your life… is YOU. Make no mistake, when you have belief in yourself, there is nothing you can’t accomplish. Go on, dare me.