Blog: Jenny Koppera and Erin McDonald

Jenny Koppera

Jenny Anne Koppera is one of the founding CrossTown Theatre Troupe directors and has worked closely on each of the CTT productions since 2008. She is an MFA candidate in Drama and Theatre for the Young at EMU. Recently, Jenny received a Doyle Fellowship as an outstanding graduate-level student in the area of Theatre for Youth at the 2010 AATE Conference in San Francisco, CA. She has also directed productions with Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and The Young Actor’s Guild of Ann Arbor, as well as worked on the EMU Drama and Theatre for the Young touring productions of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Antigone, and 1+2 Night.

Jenny has also lived and worked in Chicago, where she has taught French, dance, and theatre at North Shore Country Day School, performed as a member of Actors’ Equity at such theatres as the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre, and choreographed numerous productions at her alma mater, Northwestern University. Jenny is thoroughly inspired by her work with CrossTown Troupe and hopes to see CTT grow and continue its work in 2011 and beyond.

Erin McDonald
Erin McDonald is a writer, performer, and director currently working as the director for CrossTown Theatre Troupe. She is a third year MFA candidate in Drama and Theatre for the Young at EMU. She holds a BA in Theatre from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. Erin has worked as a teaching artist at Lexington Children's Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky, Wild Swan Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Harvey School Summer Theatre program in Katonah, New York.

Erin is currently directing the children's touring production Sideways Stories from Wayside School at Eastern Michigan University, which will be touring at local elementary schools this March.  As a native of New York and a Michigan import, she is constantly impressed by the Ypsilanti community and excited to be a part of a program where youth can truly express themselves through theatre.

Photo by Doug Coombe

L to R - Jenny Koppera and Erin McDonald at The Rackham Building on the EMU campus.

Jenny Koppera and Erin McDonald - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Figuring out the In-Between

Our CTT philosophy grew directly from the belief that art – theatre in our case – could be an immensely useful tool for high school students to express their voice and perspectives – to their families and friends, schools, and communities. Our initial experiment from 2008-2009 was based on an artistic curricular progression that grew from students' personal narratives, into community-based performances, and finally into scripted pieces based on youth protagonists.
Our current program is based much more on our partnerships and collaborations. It is these partnerships that now allow us to grow and stretch what we are as a program.  In the fall of 2009, CTT was able to join with EMU's 21st Century Bright Futures after school programs. The focus of Bright Futures is to improve academic achievement, develop self-efficacy, and prepare elementary, middle, and high school students to transition to the next level of schooling.
Upon joining with the Bright Futures program, our CTT philosophy had to shift and grow for the collaboration to be fruitful. CTT became even more rooted in the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation's Youth Program Quality Assessment Model where programs develop from a safe environment where participants are emotionally and physically safe, to a supportive environment where encouragement and skill building are added in, to the interaction and engagement levels where youth participants lead, mentor, and make decisions on their own.
The partnership with Bright Futures also effected our program on the other levels as well. We had new Bright Futures site coordinators, new students and new CTT teaching teaching artists to connect and grow with at Ypsilanti High School, Willow Run High School, and Wayne Memorial High School.  With opportunity comes complexity, and CTT now finds itself balancing artistic, educational, and programatic goals with much more frequency and scope. 
When developing programming, it is important to periodically ask "is this working?" We are constantly asking ourselves – what could we have done better? How else could our youth be challenged and what are they getting out of this? Are we still meeting programatic and partnering goals? And how does one attempt to assess and evaluate something that seems so complex and ethereal? 
Recently, one of our founding CTT students spoke to us about his overall CTT experience; "CrossTown has been an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. Despite the acting side of CrossTown, the program has pulled me out of my comfort zone on many occasions and thrown me into situations where my talents can have a real effect for someone," he continued, "It may not have always been what I wanted to do, but with hindsight comes wisdom, and I realize now that every time I was pulled out of my comfort zone with CrossTown I gained exponentially more experience as a person than I did as an actor."
There are so many worthwhile projects and experiences youth can be a part of in this brief stage in their lives. How can we make sure we are aiding them to make this time count? How can function effectively impact this community? These are just some of the many questions we continue to ask and evaluate as we expand our program and make it more accessible to high school youth and our community.
CrossTown Theatre Troupe is still young and in its own in-between.  We realize we are very much reflective of the developing youth we work with – striving to grow, to understand our place and purpose, and to be heard within this community.

Post 2: What is YOUR Truth?

Teenagers are a group that is often misunderstood because they are IN BETWEEN and speak a language that is neither that of children nor adults.  It is unique to them, and though it would be easier in many ways if they could instantly jump from one side to the other of the child/adult spectrum – the result would leave us a void in one of the most honest and creative moments of our lifetimes.
Having the opportunity to work with young people in Washtenaw County, and more specifically in the community of Ypsilanti has presented us with an interesting cross-section of diverse young people.  In CrossTown Theatre Troupe (CTT), we get to see the passionate, direct, and hopeful side of teenagers that most other people don't get to see.  Given the place to speak out and to be listened to, they often are able to use their 'youth voice' expressively and powerfully to communicate this complexity of their lives with fresh takes and potent sincerity.
It is important to note however that with this kind of work, where youth are sharing so much of themselves and putting so much out there, that we, the adult CTT teaching artists, have to be careful with their words. We strive neither to filter not exploit their ideas. We realize that this kind of work can be therapeutic, but it is not by any means therapy. CTT teaching artists help to spotlight the students' truths and their honesty but are not therapists or social workers. CTT teaching artists help them mold their ideas into performance materials and find the aesthetic in their youth perspectives.
Our group of CTT teaching artists come from a variety of different backgrounds and share a common goal of creating a supportive and collaborative environment for our students and ourselves. One of our teaching artists, found that "the greatest joy is the collective effort we share with the students that goes into creating our shows. As a teaching artist I view everything we do as a collaborative effort to create art." Our CTT teaching artist support system, which provides us with the ability to share ideas and techniques, is incredibly valuable to developing the CTT program itself, our youth's work, and improving ourselves as artists.
But one of the most important questions we need to ask our youth is -- is this, in the end, still your truth? After we help sculpt their material for performance, we need to make sure what is left is still true to them.  And since many of our teaching artists are in this community but not necessarily from it – another question then arises: What is the potential impact our teaching artists have in establishing not only the youth perspective but also the entire community's identity?

Post 1: Youth Voice In Our Community

Young people, teens especially, live through some difficult times.  And we don’t just mean going through puberty – but their lives are more complex than many of us adults tend to believe.  They are balancing family obligations with personal needs and wants.  They themselves and their friends and family are dealing with relationships, sexuality, depression, drugs, perception, and prejudice.  And a lot of the time, they feel like they are going through all of it alone.  They seem to feel stuck and in the midst of constant change - constantly.

In addition, these are teenagers that are busy -- between school hours, clubs, jobs, projects and college applications, oftentimes they have every hour of the day accounted for and can become just as overwhelmed and stressed as an adult. When a young adult speaks out in anger or appears apathetic, an adult assumes what is going on, writes them off as an 'angsty' youth or considers their behavior that of 'just being a teenager'. It's a life constantly in flux.

How often do we consider where they are coming from? How often do adults ask youth what they are feeling and truly listen and value what they are saying? These young people have some very real feelings and experiences that they both want to and need to express.

CrossTown Theatre Troupe (CTT) is one of the programs in the area, based in Ypsilanti, that is committed to providing a safe space to young people to speak their minds and to engage with their communities for the betterment of all involved. CTT's mission is to create and to engage youth voice and to develop literacy through the use of theatre.  We create original pieces to increase community engagement, access to youth perspectives, and generate community dialogue. CTT strives to:

•    Recognize what issues the youth community deems most important
•    Provide a safe place for teens and young adults to share their experiences
•    Highlight the diverse nature of our community
•    Help establish a greater sense of accomplishment for the youth community

Yet, CrossTown Theatre Troupe is merely one program of many that believes that the young people of Michigan have something important to say and share with their community. Other groups that we are aware of in the area that are reaching out to youth – Community Records, 826, Ozone House, The Business Side of Youth, Young Peoples Project, and countless other clubs ranging from Bright Future's Math Dance to step and poetry clubs, to filmmaking are all committed to creating these safe areas where teens express and grow.  Many of these programs are available after school through CTT's partners Bright Futures 21st Century and Gear Up. Other groups nationwide doing this type of work include New York's Vibe & Chicago's Albany Park Theatre Project.

Oftentimes how parents, adults and mentors perceive youth in this community has a lot to do with the value and worth they see in themselves. What role do youth have in this community? Ideally, what role could they have?