Giving Kids a Powerful Voice

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Theatre Action Project uses theater to enlighten children.

“This isn’t just a living room, it’s also a dance studio!” exclaimed Mandy Jay Goerger-Aguilar. Outside, the rain is coming down in buckets, but inside the house that Mandy, her partner Kim Aguilar and their daughter Jazz share, it’s warm and lively.

The family is talking about Jazz’s involvement in Theatre Action Project’s summer camps, and as they talk they become increasingly animated. It’s not hard to see why they’re drawn to TAP; they’re a theatric family to begin with, regularly performing around their neighborhood for fundraisers, community organizations and just for fun. At age 10, Jazz is no stranger to the stage and has enjoyed singing everything from Elvis to Johnny Cash in front of audiences.

Goerger-Aguilar and Aguilar came across TAP in their search for a good summer camp for Jazz that would get her involved in theater without breaking the bank.

“I had signed her up at another camp, but it wasn’t anything that I had expected,” Aguilar said. “It was just a place where they were there to run around and play video games. Whereas TAP has broadened her to show her voice, really perform, really dance and choreograph and be part of a group of kids.”

But TAP, which uses the creative arts to activate the academ­ic, social and emotional development of young people, also gave something else to the family: a place with an environment of absolute acceptance.

“Sometimes, being two moms, we worry how it will be with friends,” Goerger-Aguilar said. “Will they say rude things? And then there are the parents. We’ve done our best to teach her to be a leader and be strong. But at TAP we’ve never felt uncomfort­able. They know we’re her parents.”

That’s an important element of the organization’s programs, said Karen LaShelle, executive and artistic director of TAP.

“In our camps we have a good number of LGBT families,” LaShelle said. “Anti-homophobia is something that’s near to our heart, and we address that in our programs. It’s not a camp where anyone will ever be bullied. We try to create a safe environment for kids.”

Jazz and her family have participated in TAP’s summer camp programs, but that camp is only one part of the nonprofit’s of­ferings. TAP runs an in-school interactive program for kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade; youth theater ensembles for middle and high school youth; and after-school programs around Austin. A new program, called New Stages, works with youth in the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center.

While creative arts and theater are the mediums, LaShelle said TAP’s core mission is more about empowering children than turning them into actors.

“Our mission is to activate young people,” La Shelle said. “In the arts, we have a particular set of tools that are deeply engaging. Our end goal is to help kids become the four Cs: creative artists, courageous allies, critical thinkers and confident leaders.”

TAP’s roots go back to a group of UT graduate students who, in 1997, created an interactive play as part of a Master’s thesis project called “It’s In Your Hands” aimed at helping youth combat school violence. By the next year, TAP had become a sponsored project of Austin Circle of Theatres. “In Your Hands” became the root of what TAP still does today, and the interactive play was performed 95 times over the next three years. In 2001 the organization got its 501 (c)(3) status.

TAP’s interactive shows use actor—teachers who use role play, group challenges and team building games in a theatrical context to give kids a safe and engaging place to learn about things like conflict resolution, bullying, sexual harassment and leadership, LaShelle said.

“The students are so deeply engaged, they’re in the role,” she said. “They’re in character for an hour a day, for four days…that’s how theater is a critical part of these programs. It gives an imaginary context, a safe place to play in, but it kind of also gives a way for [students] to shed away other social pressures that might be going on in the classroom.”

For Jazz, the experience at TAP has helped her step into a leadership role at school, said Goerger-Aguilar. She and Aguilar have noticed their daughter talk about conflicts when they arise at school or in sports and describe how she tries to mediate and help her peers.

But it’s also fun. Or, as Jazz said, “I like the friends there, they’re all really nice, and the teachers because they’re really fun…it doesn’t make me want to fall asleep; it makes me want to stay awake.”

TAP Program

• Number of school districts TAP provides programs in: 6, plus private and charter schools, Housing Authority of the City Austin sites and Foundation Communities complexes.

• Number of program hours delivered each week to youth from Pre-K through twelfth grade: 480.

• Number of young people involved each year in TAP’s programs: approximately 16,000.

• Cost of programs: done on a sliding scale

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