Blog: Megan Miller

"All the world's a stage", as Shakespeare said... "world" being the operative term for next-gen Detroiters. Enter Megan Miller, director of programs at the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, who holds forth on why the city's young residents should step outside its urban limits.

Post 3: Service Works

Every year, usually in the fall, Mosaic organizes an annual event called Perform-A-Thon to foster a commitment to community service amongst the young people in our programs.  Young artists, parents and staff wake up early to meet at Mosaic for a rally and then quickly split up into groups of about twelve to fifteen.  We fan out over Metro Detroit and spend the rest of the day performing for audiences who might not otherwise get to experience live music or theatre; for people living in adult care facilities, nursing homes, half-way houses, homeless shelters and juvenile detention centers.  This year we did about 40 performances for local audiences on a single Saturday in November; in past years that number has been as high as 80.  Perform-a-thon is a herculean task for the organizers, performers and chaperones, but we do it year after year because of the impact it has on everyone involved.

The first time I ever participated in Perform-A-Thon was as a young artist.  I was a freshman at Cass Tech and had only been in the company for about a week after having been recently promoted from one of Mosaic's outreach programs.  At the first rehearsal I ever attended I was thrown into a skit being created by some of the other young artists, Matt, F. Scott, and Darlane.  I played a famous singer who was about to be unmasked as a fake.  During the skit I lip synched "The Greatest Love of All" while F. Scott sang backstage, interrupting the song with "intercepted" commercial announcements, conversations from air control, etc.  The day of Perform-A-Thon was a tremendous bonding experience; the company drove, laughed and performed together all over town.  The highlight of the day, however, was our final performance at the juvenile detention center.

As a kid, I did not know anyone in jail, had never visited a prison, and did not know any people my own age who were in the court system.  When I found out we were going to be performing at juvenile hall, I didn't know what to expect and I was scared.  We arrived after a full day of performances right after sunset.  Most of us were nervous because we had been warned that this could be a tough audience – but that you could really be proud if you won them over.  

Our nervous energy came out in different ways as we walked through the courtyard of the facility. Some of us were stone-faced and silent; I played secret agent with a few other company members.  We were lead through a maze of sterile hallways and asked to remain completely quiet so that we could be buzzed in at various points.  Finally we stood outside of the gym where we would be performing.  We could hear the boisterous audience inside.  The door opened and we filed in as a sea of guys wearing jumpsuits turned to watch us, cat call, laugh and point.  

Company members performed a song and one skit while the audience talked and loudly assessed our work.  The guards tried to quiet everyone down, but I think the audience was as excited as we were to be there.  It was time for my group's skit.  I felt blood rush to my face as my hands went cold.  Matt played the announcer and introduced my character from the stage before I stepped out to lip synch.  The cat calling continued – and then we got a laugh.  F. Scott kept working his improvised vocal magic backstage (think Robin Williams if he was a black teenager from Detroit), and the audience stopped talking to listen, and laugh.  We got 'em.

Our group took a bow and I remember noticing my arms and hands quiver as I sat down.  I looked out over the audience and for the first time really saw individual faces.  Then I looked at Matt.  In the van ride over he had told me that he thought he knew some of the kids we would be performing for at juvenile hall.  The long day, the beauty and randomness of life hit me.  I couldn't speak as we made our way back through the courtyard to our vans.  

Driving the young artists on Perform-A-Thon this fall and then reading their testimonials afterwards reaffirmed for me the power of connecting your passion and talent to community service.  Here are a couple of fresh perspectives on the event:

  • During Perform-A-Thon we went to Special Tree. Almost everyone there was in a wheelchair. There was one man in the audience who seemed to particularly enjoy the show. At the end he was cheering, and giving us all high fives. As we left he told each one of us we deserved 2 million dollars. It was absolutely incredible to see that our work could give someone so much joy.
  • The best moment of Perform-A-Thon was the last performance at the Wayne County JD Center. After I left my cousin called me to say how these young guys I knew saw me, also my  late brother's best friend. She was saying how they were happy I had made it this far. The sad thing about it is out of the eight I know they are all just as talented or even better than me.
  • My favorite part of the day was when we went to one of the nursing homes. This man named Dave couldn't get out of his bed.  Sydni along with our choir sang "I'll be there" to him. He must've been paralyzed because he couldn't really move a lot to let us know he liked it. The movement of his hands as a response seemed to be enough to reach us and bring tears to all our eyes. We didn't take that moment for granted. We let this emotional moment fill the room with joy and happiness, tears and memories. That moment will be forever cherished. That was by far the best experience I have had in my life.
Some people make the argument that art is superfluous when people are striving to meet more basic needs.  My experiences during Perform-A-Thon have taught me otherwise.  Art can be a shared gift that creates a connection where none existed only a moment before, and can help cultivate the spirit of service that will transform our city.