Plays' topics hit home for teens

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PITTSBURG, Kan. (AP) — The first line of Pittsburg High School's coming theater production asks: "Do you ever take time to look around you? To truly see?"

The answer, at least for students who have been in Greg Shaw's theater classes for the past seven years, is "yes."

Their annual original social awareness plays have opened not only their eyes but the eyes of others, and in doing so have earned them a statewide award and national recognition.

Widely known for perfectly executed theater and musical productions at PHS, Shaw has pushed the envelope on including at least one play each season in which a prince doesn't ride off into the sunset with a princess. Rather, the play focuses on a topic that can be uncomfortable — a topic that can be all too real to the students themselves.

"He is an outspoken advocate for protecting the rights of others," said high school counselor Rhonda White, who nominated Shaw for a Kansas National Education Association Human and Civil Rights Award. "He has produced plays with themes that represent the raw reality that faces our youth every day."

The KNEA ultimately chose Shaw for the award, which was presented last week at a ceremony in Topeka. Last fall, Shaw was given the Character Education Partnership's National Award for Promising Practices.

Shaw began social awareness plays in 2008 with "Phat Girls," a play about eating disorders. Every year since, his students have conducted research and worked with California playwright Debbie Lamedman to create original scripts that have focused on topics including bullying, global warming, dating violence and prescription drug use.

They have performed the plays for not only the Pittsburg district's 2,500 students, White said, but also for nearly 13,000 students from schools throughout Southeast Kansas.

"The programs involve more than just a performance," White said. "Students involved in the productions conduct semester-long research in preparation for the plays. They conduct surveys of students, staff, parents and community. Agencies are contacted and participate in the planning, preparation and talk-back sessions that take place after the performances."

During the talk-back sessions, multiple microphones are made available so that audience members may participate. White said questions often are serious and thought-provoking for both the audience and the cast members.

"They challenge each (participant) to think about their own behaviors and perceptions," she said.

Licensed mental health care experts are on hand after the plays to provide support as needed.

Shaw said his cast members make a point to get across to audiences that they aren't experts — they've just become knowledgeable.

"We're starting a conversation," he said. "That's the whole objective of the entire thing. We just want to elicit a response."

In less than two weeks, the students will present "Snowflakes," an original play that puts the spotlight on autism and disability awareness.

"More generally, it is accepting people's differences," Shaw said. "And it's appropriate for all ages."

It also hits home: PHS has several students with autism and other related special needs. Shaw said such students have been accepted into the mainstream at the school, with one popular senior — Bryce Commons — being elected homecoming king last fall.

Commons took the Theater 1 class twice, Shaw said, and was able to memorize lines and pantomime stage movements.

"I see how they interact, and how people here protect them," Shaw said. "It's a credit to the professionals we have working here who don't hide them away, who don't isolate them. They're part of our school."

But Shaw wants to make sure all of the district's students, and others throughout Southeast Kansas, have a true understanding of some of the issues such students face, or could face.

There is no better venue or method, he said, than theater.

Using a trademark sparse stage for the productions, Shaw typically relies on a strong narrative, effective lighting and projection screens to project realism. "Snowflakes" will be no different, with 12 students each depicting a quality of autism.

"As a parent of teenagers, I couldn't be happier that Mr. Shaw is willing to bring awareness of all the issues and that USD 250 is behind him," said Mandy Commons, Bryce's mom. "These are real issues that need to be addressed and not pushed under the rug."

Commons said she appreciated being given a copy of this year's script for review.

"Once again, it has blown me away," she said. "I had to stop midway through because it hit so close to home.

"Mr. Shaw doesn't just hand these students the script and practice lines. He educates them and really makes them aware of the issues, and makes these students better people because of it."

Sophomore Jack Warring, who plays the role of William in "Snowflakes," said his participation has affected him in a positive way.

"The play affected how I think about people with autism, because I never realized they could understand me," he said.

White said the plays have played a key role at the high school, which is why she nominated him for the award.

"One of the goals at Pittsburg High School is to improve the school climate by helping students make safer and healthier choices, and fostering academic and social engagement," White said. "Greg Shaw and the PHS Theater Department have supported and helped us achieve this goal."

Shaw downplayed the award as an individual one.

"It takes the administration allowing it, teachers and staff from throughout the school supporting it, and kids engaging in it," he said.

"This award is to be shared by everyone."


Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe,


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