This past summer, while many of us were at the shore, Lisa Jo Epstein, founder of the Philly-based nonprofit Just Act, and Thomas Quinn, PA Youth Vote co-founder and a civics teacher at Central High School, were spending four days a week with Central students to create an original production:
“Survivor: The Teen Voter Edition.”
In it, a character called “Rocky” — aka Rock the Vote — goes to his homeroom class to convince classmates to register to vote. There, Rocky encounters his peers: Too Busy, Too Young, Too Much, Faithless, and Ash Amed, a nod to some of the more common reasons young people say they don’t vote. Through engaging dialogue and improvisation, the student performers develop methods to educate and empower their peers.
The final version of their play culminated during PHL Youth Week this past August at City Hall. The message of that work — to get registered and to vote every six months — is echoed by PA Youth Vote today, National Voter Registration Day, and its partnership with the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) to register as many 18-year-olds as possible before the October 24 deadline.
PA Youth Vote, Philly’s favorite nonprofit get-out-the-vote (GOTV) org, is also partnering with SDP today (Tuesday, September 20) to have students host in-school peer-to-peer voting registration events; PA Youth’s Vote’s staff will be at Community College of Philadelphia from 11am to1pm to register voters in that community.
According to a study by The Civics Center, an L.A.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that supports youth-led high school voter registration campaigns, Philadelphia, which saw youth turnout spike in 2020, only has 16 percent of its eligible youth registered. That leaves a lot of would-be voters giving up their right to decide who makes policy choices for them.
“Conflict is a place of possibility and what’s really central is having peers speaking to peers to show them that as a collective they can transform their world,” says Epstein
Angelique Hinton, executive director of PA Youth Vote, says there are many explanations for this: a lack of civics education in schools; families who have checked out of the process; teenage apathy and lived experiences that suggest civic engagement just isn’t worth the bother. But with issues like student debt, climate action, abortion, and other hot-button issues on the agenda, the stakes for young people matter.
That’s why Hinton tells students how the political machine works: “Elected officials pay attention to who votes, because they want to stay in power — so if you’re not voting, you’re not a priority,” she says. If you care about equitable school funding or making sure our criminal justice system provides equal justice for all, then pay attention to who is elected, she implores them. “Vote for people whose ideas align with your values and hold them accountable.”
Tackling important issues through theater
Epstein, for her part, is no stranger to the power of theater as advocacy. Over the last 32 years, she has used a collaborative, co-creative approach to plays tackling issues from racism to homophobia, from community revitalization to teen voting.
She met Quinn, who reached out to her on behalf of PA Youth Vote, and the pair have gone on to work with teens using the Forum theatre technique for the last two summers. The interactive theater style, created in the early 1970s by Brazilian dramatist and activist Augusto Boal, addresses social issues through short plays in which a protagonist encounters an obstacle, and audience members come into the performance space to create and act out solutions for the characters.
Epstein typically kicks off her sessions with young people by asking them an unexpected question: If you were a kitchen tool, which one would you be?
“From the get-go, they are reflecting on themselves,” she says. “By choosing a kitchen tool, they’re in their bodies and in the present in a way they wouldn’t be in a conventional classroom.”
During the summer session, for example, one student chose a kitchen cabinet, because sometimes they need to be open, and sometimes closed. Another picked a toaster, because they pop with ideas. The kids laugh and enjoy this creative way to deepen their knowledge about themselves and their way of being in the world.
Epstein further breaks down teens’ fear of making mistakes by having them do an exercise with a partner: In pairs, they say the words “one,” “two,” and “three” in order. After a bit, the pair swaps out “two” for a sound and a movement. Anytime one of them makes a mistake, Epstein has them raise their hand in the air and shout “woohoo” to celebrate the mistake. Then the pair begins again. It’s raucous, yes, but it’s also liberating.
The teens invariably appreciate the listening and affirmation Epstein and the culture she fosters provide. “Some say it’s the first time they feel like an adult has really listened to them,” Epstein says. “It grows a sense of ownership in their own role to make their community better.”
Developing improv skills shows the teens how to interrupt the default settings they’ve internalized about issues in our society, and their own agency in the world. After several sessions, Epstein connects the classwork to the topic of voting. Students learn that they can change policy and living conditions. “All of the work I do challenges our habits so we can open ourselves up to different outcomes,” Epstein says. “Forum theatre is about recognizing that the status quo can be changed. Conflict is a place of possibility and what’s really central is having peers speaking to peers to show them that as a collective they can transform their world.”
With “Survivor: The Teen Voter Edition,” the hoped-for result, of course, is that each of the characters — and audience members — comes around to the importance of voting and civic engagement.
“So when they find themselves back in their homerooms, these kids now have all the knowledge of how to affect change,” Epstein says. “I hope that it propels them to stay in the long game of activism and engagement throughout their lives. We want them to take ownership about who they are and really recognize the power in calling into question how the system is set up and how they’ve been educated to move through it. We want them to use these skills to contribute to building a just world.”
Next month, students at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice will join the fray when they perform their own voting-inspired piece, that they’ve been working on with Epstein since last Thursday. The students will present their final version to their schoolmates on October 28.
As with any GOTV effort, the hope with this approach is to open young people’s eyes to the power they can wield — if only they would vote.
“People underestimate this next generation and think they are just playing around on their phones,” Hinton says. But she believes that young people today are action-oriented and that, with the right tools, they can rise up to make the policies they’ve inherited fairer for all of us.
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City Hall performance, photos taken by Bill Cain.