Incorporating Drama in Worship Helps Teens to 'See' More Clearly

Alan, a member of our teen group at our Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami, was, for years, a reluctant participant for most activities. He preferred the sidelines and had stumbled from time to time into prankish behavior. As we met for a first read-through of a play we planned to perform for a Sunday service, he was surprisingly engaged in the reading of "Now You See Me." This play, a 'tragicomedy' about school violence, written by Jonathan Dorf, offers a glimpse at the extremes teens will go to—think Columbine—in order to be 'seen.'

The following Sunday we met again to divvy out roles. Most parts were chosen, but the co-lead role was still up for grabs. "Come on, Alan," the group urged. He squirmed a bit, but it was clear there was something drawing him in. "Okay," he mumbled. I was already worried about how we'd handle Alan's voicing.

Following the performance of "Now You See Me," which formed the centerpiece of a worship service coordinated by our Children's Program (RE) this spring, we sat in the courtyard enjoying lunch and the congratulations of the congregation. Alan stopped by my table.

“Hey, you know, if you do any more plays, here or somewhere, let me know. Okay?” Alan had stepped up marvelously. He'd learned his lines, articulated clearly and forcefully, even ad-libbed on stage. His contribution had been recognized, and he'd been 'seen' by the congregation and his peers.

Theater and drama offer a powerful vehicle for expression, and an especially apt one for youths and teens. "Now You See Me" served to educate both those who performed and participated in the play as well as our congregation and audience at the performance.

We opened the play with a few words to provide a context. “Our tragicomedy is about our young people—our children, our teens, our youths—our future. They live in our community and in our city. They attend our schools, visit our churches and malls. We see them—or do we?

The play is about what they want and it is a simple want: To be seen for whom they really are. Not for whom we want them to be, or perceive them to be—but for whom they are and are becoming.”

The play served as the centerpiece of our Worship Service centered on the theme of "Friends." In addition to the play, the service marked the culmination and a celebration of our "Secret Friends" program, a favorite for years at our congregation. For "Secret Friends," children and a congregation member share letters over a course of 4-5 weeks. While the adult knows who they're writing to, the child does not know their "Friend," so there’s plenty of surprise and fun when the two finally meet each other at the service.

To support the vitality of our service, I'd arranged for a percussionist friend to join us. Sean, who specializes in West African rhythms and composes for one of Miami's premier arts high schools, opened the service with a prelude that featured his electronic drum machine. Charles then lit our chalice and led the congregation in a "Thunderstorm" welcoming, a hand-clapping, finger-snapping tribute to Everglades environmentalist Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. We celebrated visitors, read our Affirmation in both English and Spanish, then offered a hymn, "Turn the World Around," a Harry Belafonte calypso tune that encourages us to "see one another clearly." Later, we sang Bob Marley's "One Love" for the offertory.

“Now You See Me” anchored the day.

I’ve been involved in a number of plays at UU Miami over the years, and each one is a Herculean task—finding actors, coordinating rehearsals, generating “buy-in,” yet an effort that offers juicy mangoes. “Now You See Me” was no exception. I reviewed a series of play options over weeks, before settling on “Now You See Me” for its content—contemporary, edgy—its length (30-35 minutes), and suggested cast (8-20 performers, flexible cast).

Our short supply of “actors” necessitated that we make our show “intergen” (Inter-generational) So we mixed adults and teens, each teaching the other about what it means to be “seen” and listened to. A friend helped with the directing. Bezel teaches drama in the public school system, so each of our rehearsals started with a creative mix of warm-ups and exercises to loosen our bodies and our voices. With time for just a handful of rehearsals, we reached the night before the show still far from ready. No one seemed to know their lines, we’d only had one chance to tie in the special effects and the cast seemed disjointed.

By consensus we decided on an extra rehearsal the morning of the show. Our teens showed up droopy-eyed, but for the most part, on time. There had been a transformation over night—our “psychologist” Janice even admitted to staying up to the wee hours to practice her lines.   

I had resisted the suggestion to scratch the references to Columbine and the other references to teen attacks from the play. Growth and awareness happen on the edges of life, I believe, and we do a disservice to our children—who grow up for the most part in homes steeped in love and attention—by sheltering them from the reality that most of the world knows too well. Comfort and “cleanliness” is pervasive in our lives and becomes dangerously seductive. Touching life’s edges oftentimes inspires compassion.

Everyone in the cast and crew stepped up to shine a bit and share their talent, and “Now You See Me” received rave reviews. The congregation couldn’t say enough about how well the teens had done. We all had the chance to share a bit of the truth in our lives. Everyone it seemed was “seen” just a little better. Alan, especially, seemed to see even himself a bit more clearly.

Michael R. Malone is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami and a former director of the Children’s Program.