This past spring the youngsters of Real People Theater Company staged a production of Milton’s Paradise Lost at their Bushwick, Brooklyn performance space that was so raw, articulate and powerful that it blew away those of us lucky enough to have witnessed it. They restaged the piece later in the summer, and friends I sent to view it agreed that it was some of the most compelling theater we’d seen, on or off Broadway, all year. The level of excitement this company of young actors generated was only surpassed by the level of disappointment felt months later when I was told the troupe was in danger of dissolving.
Real People Theater was formed at Bushwick High School by a dedicated English teacher with a rich theater background, Stephen Haff, and an eager collection of students who felt the need for a creative outlet for teens in the neighborhood. Although no longer associated with the school (their performances became a little too racy for a high school setting), the company remains anchored in Bushwick and reworks classic and modern plays into what they call the "ghetto remix"—a combination of original texts, street slang and Spanish.
For six years writer and artistic director Haff, along with a rotating crew of dedicated students and parents, molded RPT into one of the most respected theater collectives in New York City. In addition to staging productions at their home space in Brooklyn, RPT has taken their innovative interpretations of Shakespeare—Romeo y Julieta, Hamlet: Prince of Brooklyn, King Lear Remix, and Canadian George Walker’s Tough—to universities all over New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Nova Scotia, and Toronto. Fordham University at Lincoln Center created a course in its curriculum to foster collaboration between theater majors and RPT resulting in shared productions of Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets and Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule. Last summer, members of the troupe traveled to Germany with RPT’s first commission, Ring Around the Royalty, a remix of the medieval Nibelungenlied. SoHo’s renowned Wooster Group, led by principal member Kate Valk, early on adopted a mentoring role with the youngsters of RPT, crowning them their official apprentice company.
This past August director Haff moved back to his native Montreal after years of diligent work with RPT. The creative and administrative heart of the group, his loss rocked RPT at a time when the lease on their space in Bushwick was about to expire and funding the group relied upon, like so many arts organizations in the city, had dried up. Nonetheless the youngsters pulled themselves together and along with help from parents, enthusiasts in the neighborhood, and Valk and the Wooster Group, are working to renew their lease, make the troupe solvent, and plan future productions. (Before the recent crisis RPT had been preparing productions of Arabian Nights and an original modern drama.)
Co-director Cinthia Candelaria states that despite the troupe’s recent trials, they are "filled with even more motivation to continue with RPT." Having a personal connection to the material they perform and a distinct love for what they do, the members feel they have a responsibility to their audience in Bushwick. Members all hail from the neighborhood and their passion is a mirror of Bushwick youth’s hunger to succeed, despite roadblocks put before them. The desire to "keep it real"—profanity, urban subject matter and all—owes to an appreciation of their audience’s sensibilities and RPT’s ability to articulate those frustrations and desires. Their interpretation of Paradise Lost includes a wicked Lucifer named "Lucy" (played by 18-year-old Marlene Lugo) and incorporates a five-minute monologue interlude in which teenage Chantelle Jones, in the guise of the tree of knowledge, rants about the marginalization of young people of color in American culture.
RPT’s creative process is unique—the company starts with a basic text and then re-contextualizes the material using urban language and references, crafting an alternative cultural perspective. To accomplish this the group utilizes additional sources and texts, a sampling process similar to that of hip-hop. With Paradise Lost the group drew from the Milton text in addition to illustrated poems by William Blake, some Ralph Waldo Emerson, not to mention Shakespeare. Popular song and television references were tossed in aplenty, to the delight of audiences, until a raucous spectacle of heaven, hell and earthly clashes reached a crescendo, always true to the spirit of Milton’s poem. The credited writers for the piece include Haff, a handful of individual RPT members and the actors themselves. All of this is achieved with the use of little to no stage props, and imagination is king.
As a direct result of their work, many members of RPT have gone on to college while continuing to work with the group. A former Latin King gang member, Emilio Rodriquez, recently completed his second year of studies at Bennington College.
Real People Theater Company (the group has expanded its name since Haff’s departure) produces work crafted by teenagers, with the help of a scattering of adults, that is so powerful as to teach adult companies a thing or two about the spirit of theater. Members host bi-monthly open stage events in which area youth are encouraged to develop original poetry, rap, and dance. A benefit held in late August to raise funds in this time of crisis was a cornucopia of performance, song and poetry, with neighborhood kids stopping by to take in the entertainment or perform a little hip-hop freestyling themselves. Some heartfelt poetry was read (much lamenting Haff’s loss and the predicament the troupe finds itself in), a skit was performed along to an old Teddy Pendergras led Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ tune, a beautiful ballad was by sung by a young woman with a stunning voice, and the evening culminated with a rap battle by a handful of young men in a corner of the performance space. Like much of the creativity surrounding Real People Theater this unscripted rap battle was done in an unorthodox manner—in its own context, as if on a street corner. Some of the members’ mothers prepared food—empanadas, rice, and lasagna, all in the hopes of raising enough cash to buy RPT a little more time.
Neighborhood youths say that the discussions held with audience members following every RPT performance teach them more about making important choices than any classroom ever could. Real People Theater Company’s mission is to involve teens from Bushwick in the writing and production of theater works and so offer them a framework through which to move on in their lives, post high school. It is a mission that they hope to be able to continue.
For a schedule of RPT shows—or to give a much-needed donation of money, space or administrative time and guidance (fundraising, producing, arts partnering, etc.)— please contact [email protected]. You can also send donations to: Real People Theater, c/o The Wooster Group, P.O. Box 654, NY, NY 10013.