When Megan Torio arrived at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland to audition for Gritty City Repertory, the city's first stand-alone youth theater company, she was anticipating American Idol-style tryouts. "I was really nervous," said Torio, who is a junior at MetWest High School in Oakland. But once she realized she wouldn't have to recite a prepared monologue but would instead be asked to dive into physical theater activities such as climbing on people's backs and forming sculptures with her body, Torio began to feel more comfortable around the group of strangers.
Creating a strong sense of community was one of founder and executive artistic director Lindsay Krumbein's main goals in forming Gritty City Repertory back in January 2012. The theater ensemble currently has fifteen members between the ages of thirteen and twenty, culled from six high schools and two colleges in Oakland, Alameda, and Hayward. Free for participants, the group provides rigorous, pre-professional theater training to urban youth, many of whose schools do not offer opportunities in the arts.
While a few of Oakland's public schools, like Oakland Technical High School, do have thriving theater programs, many others like MetWest lack them entirely. Recent funding allowed for teachers in Oakland Unified School District to be trained in incorporating theater elements into their curricula, but according to Phil Rydeen, who manages the visual arts and performance programs at OUSD, there are currently only two full-time theater positions at the six major high school campuses.
Krumbein has firsthand knowledge of the precarious state of public school theater programs. She began teaching Shakespeare as part of her English curriculum while working at Mission High in San Francisco and continued to incorporate drama into the classroom when she moved to the East Bay, starting theater programs at a couple different schools. But inevitably, budgets would be cut and her position would be moved. "I was putting in all this blood, sweat, and tears to producing these programs and then I'd have to start over because of some funding thing," she said. She began to reevaluate her path after taking a year off in 2009 to have her son. "I was tired of having other people in control of my fate," she said. "I was just going to open a company as a nonprofit. It would sink or swim based on my own work."
Her initial challenge was fundraising. In the first year, she cobbled together funds from sources including donors, ticket sales, and an IndieGoGo campaign, which raised $10,310. In 2013, the Bell Youth-in-the-Arts Grant, as well as grants from other foundations, have given the group more financial stability. Another accomplishment Krumbein is especially excited about is the company's upcoming residency at a new performance venue in Oakland, the Flight Deck, which is scheduled to open this spring.
Krumbein worked with local teachers to recruit students of all experience levels, believing Oakland youth in particular would benefit from her use of a supportive ensemble model, largely because of its emphasis on positive peer pressure. "Youth in Oakland have just been thrown away," she said. "Kids are getting harassed by police, they're getting locked up for stuff, there's nowhere for them to go." Her hope was that participating in the group would afford students the confidence and courage to tackle future challenges. "I want them to be able to look at something hard and scary and move toward it instead of running away from it," she said.
For Torio, who had always been shy growing up, performing with the company was initially intimidating. "It takes a lot to put yourself out there," she said. But by playing various characters in the company's shows, she realized she had the potential to be more extroverted. During the group's first play, Anon(ymous), her role was to guide the main character. "I discovered a leadership role in myself by playing that first character," she said. "It was something I never thought I could do, but it sparked something." Torio then sought out a leadership position at Gritty City Repertory as an intern, doing outreach and publicity work.
While the ensemble members are generally very enthusiastic about participating in the company, there have been some obstacles. "It's a huge time commitment, and kids are still learning how to juggle multiple commitments and family obligations," said Krumbein. In 2012, a student didn't show up for rehearsal three days before the show was supposed to start and a six-and-half-month pregnant Krumbein had to play her part.
The group rehearses for six hours a week and performs two plays a year — usually one Shakespeare work and another contemporary script — and Krumbein has high expectations. But she said she believes the students are actually "hungry for somebody to be demanding of them" and that her exacting standards are necessary in order to dispel the negative stereotypes about youth in Oakland. "I feel like these kids are starting at a deficit," she said. "It's not enough just to be good, you have to be so good that you're actively disproving the bullshit that people think about you."
The dedication the ensemble requires of the students is also one that helps them in other aspects of their lives. "I've been lazy in school sometimes, but with GCR I'm starting to understand how to handle my business," said Maurice Jones, who is a junior at Oakland Tech. "You can't slack off and expect to get somewhere." For Jones, part of Gritty City Repertory's appeal was how the program could alter how people perceived him. "People see me, they think I'm an African-American kid in Oakland, that I'm just a silly person and that I'm no one to be taken seriously," he said. "I wanted to change that."
Jones has an important role in Caught Up, the upcoming play that the ensemble will be performing from January 9-18 at Un-Scripted Theater Company in San Francisco. Co-written by Krumbein and playwright Tom Bruett, the play was inspired by the book The New Jim Crow, and narrates stories about the prison-industrial complex, mass incarceration, and why so many young black men are caught up in the system. In a scene near the end of the play, Jones plays a convict left in his cell while the other characters watch. "It's one of the first times I've had to take on the emotion of sadness," said Jones. "I didn't know if I was ready to get into this character and make people feel these emotions." Ultimately, he was able to empathize with the inmate he is playing. "Now I understand what it must feel like to be in a closed space, a cold, uncomfortable situation," he said.
Krumbein believes it is the relevance of GCR's plays to an urban population and the diversity of the company — which includes African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and biracial students — that entices non-traditional theatergoers to come to their shows. "A third of our audience are first-time theatergoers," said Krumbein. "The theater world tends to be very white, so having a diversity of ethnicity reflected on stage reinforces really positive things."
Torio's hope is that the company's shows will change the impression that most people have of Oakland. "Oakland is looked at as being a really bad place, but we have so much going on here that people don't hear about," she said. "I hope that it [GCR] makes people proud of Oakland."