Speak with Atlas, Eli and Elsa, all students at Sequoyah School in Pasadena, California and you quickly realize that “teenage voice” is more than a high school buzz phrase.

It’s obvious from my first five minutes with these juniors that there is something exciting and important brewing here.  And I’m going to listen. Not just to be educated about Sequoyah’s Social Innovation Program (SIP) or to simply toss around Safe Stages, their developing Theater Impact Project, that intersects the issues of mental health, academics and creativity. Currently, these three are attempting to develop and implement solutions into the regular curriculum as it pertains to these critical issues.

As Atlas, Eli, Elsa and myself sit together at a table in Sequoyah’s high school courtyard one afternoon, we converse about their collective vision, intentions, expectations, and experiences through their Safe Stages SIP project.  Each student’s smart, forward-thinking ideas speak to their incredible capabilities and extraordinary common sense. The discussion also highlights the unique developmental programming that Sequoyah offers.  It also dramatically reflects the up-level, critical thinking the students are engaging in.

Of course, throughout the talk I was catching up on culture through their eyes, ears and dialogues.  And, of course, they are still teenagers.  But what they had to say definitely changed my perspective about how strong a high schooler’s voice can be and why it’s important to seriously listen.

What do they want?  Well, that was kind of a challenge to explain.  There was definitely an arc to the conversation.  Each one of these students was so “teen awesome” I decided to keep their words intact and let them speak for themselves.  (The piece is lightly edited for clarity.)

The mission of SIP, as described on its website, is “to help students hone the design thinking aptitudes and changemaking attitudes needed to challenge both emerging and entrenched social and environmental issues… [To build real-world skills] through developing long-term relationships with people – both the empowered and systematically disempowered.”  And ultimately create sustainable change.

Tracey: I was reading a little bit about what you did. You’re part of the Sequoyah Social Innovation Program. You’re currently in the Impact Project stage. What does that mean?

Atlas: So, I guess it’s easier here if we sort of distinguish what the lead up to it is. So ninth and tenth grade, you’re in a larger group, usually 10 to 15 people working on a larger goal. And it’s more research based. And then in 11th grade, you split off into groups of one to three people and you’re working on something that’s a little more sort of product-based. You’re still doing that research and still making those connections. But it’s a more specific and larger end goal. 

Eli: I think the Social Innovation Program is something that’s pretty unique to Sequoyah and what you research depends on what group you’re in. In ninth and tenth grade, there are a wide range of topics that are mostly designed around the Sustainable Development Goalsthat were put out by the UN, and they’re kind of tailored to focus around local issues to Pasadena. So last year, Atlas and I were in a group around LGBTQ elders and that was in our tenth grade year. So, we’re working on that.

Tracey: That’s not a small project.

Eli: No, it’s not. But it’s smaller than gender, which was ours the previous year.

Elsa: I was in water safety and capture. What we focused mostly on was water reuse and recycling water. Basically, taking old used water and reusing it for things that don’t need totally clean first-use water. And then my ninth grade project, I was in Zero Hunger.  What we did is we organized several food drives and went to local food banks. And then we talked to the people that organized them and asked them about their process.

Tracey: I was also reading that you call yourselves Social Entrepreneurs. So how did this come about as your Theater Impact project, Safe Stages? How does what you’re doing translate into theater? 

Elsa: Well, in the beginning of this year, we brainstormed ideas for projects we wanted to focus on for the rest of the year and potentially the rest of our high school career should we choose to keep on doing our project in 12th grade. When we were split into smaller groups and brainstormed ideas, Atlas and I found that we had a bunch of similar ideas.

After we presented in front of the whole grade later on, a form was sent out to ask people whether they wanted to join one of the two groups that were presented, stay in their own group, or do something else. That’s when Eli joined our group. And that’s where the theater came in.

Tracey: What were some of the other ideas that you tossed around?

Atlas: I definitely wanted to focus on mental health. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for all of SIP. And Eli as well, as we’d been in the same SIP pods by coincidence in ninth and tenth grade.  So, I wanted to focus on mental health and I knew that I was passionate about that. I was like, what else am I passionate about?  Queer studies, theater, school, et cetera. And so, I was thinking like, how can we help young people connect with older people? Or how can we help queer teens make sure that their mental health is being prioritized?  And the thing that I landed on, that I was most passionate about, was the mental health of people in high school like myself who love theater.

Eli: I think like Atlas said, in our tenth grade SIP, we worked on a documentary with a college professor about like queer connection throughout generations. And mental health actually came up in that a lot to do with like loneliness and lack of connection and just like general fear struggles. So, I think that really helped us get interested in mental health. And then applying it to theater was a logical next step. ‘Cause we’re all involved in the theater productions at Sequoyah in some way. So, it was just like finding two things that we’re both pretty passionate about and merging them together.

Elsa: My past at projects didn’t have much to do with health at all. What made me choose to focus more on the mental health side of the theater is I was fresh out of CSSSA at the end of at the beginning of this year. That’s the California State Summer School for the Arts, an intensive month-long program. We stay in dorms and we go to classes every day. It’s multidisciplinary, so you can choose. You can focus on theater, on visual arts, animation, writing, film…

Atlas: Dance…

Elsa: And I noticed among my studio group, whenever we talked about theater, the conversation always drifted a little bit towards mental health. How it had potentially affected our mental health. Whether it be why we were just so stressed or like it’s just a lot of anxiety. And like it’s an anxiety inducing process when you have so much other work going on for academics, because it isn’t separated that much. And also, with high school theater, everything’s a little bit more on a time crunch. 

Tracey: Listening to you all of you, the dialogue in my head is something like… for me as a teen, there were so many things that were normalized. Stress wasn’t even a word we used. But you all have a bigger vocabulary than somebody from my generation in terms of talking about how you feel. How you’re being affected by everything that you do, your environments, your relationships. And, you know, gender is such a big issue these days. I mean, I feel like there is so much compounding on top of your generation of people. I’m not sure how you do it. Because I find that it’s extremely complex. So, I’m just wondering how you each individually navigate on your own?

Atlas: I mean, I feel like the phrase that sort of latched on in my mind was how do you navigate on your own? And I think that for me at least, I like, I don’t navigate on my own.  And I think that, especially at Sequoyah, but also like in general, I try to surround myself with people who I can work with, who I can bounce ideas off, who I can, like, create things with, and just like make it easier for everyone to navigate things, to be able to ask for help.   I think that’s genuinely one of the most important things to me. 

Tracey: Do you just stick to your own group?  I mean, especially in high school, we all kind of go to our like-minded people or like-feeling people.  Or do you try to bring others in?

Atlas: Yeah, I mean, I feel like I try to bring people in like I know myself. I know that I make mistakes and there are certain underlying biases. But I also think that different perspectives and opinions make some of the most interesting conversations.  Like, I have friends who we barely talk about certain topics because they’re just so polarizing for our friendship. But then, like, when we do talk about them, we’re able, because of that connection that we have, we’re able to talk about them in a much more mature, calm way.  And I think that is something that everyone should be able to do. And I’m very glad that I am in some capacity able to do that.

Eli: I think, you know, this world with all the things that we have to navigate is the only one that we’ve ever been a part of. So, it can feel like a lot. But that’s also kind of all we know being in high school and being involved in all the things we are involved in. So, I personally try to take the path of what can we make easier for ourselves?  And I think one of those things is, if we can reduce stress in one area, then that’s a good thing to do. And you know, if we can reduce stress in theater, which is a way that we express ourselves, express our creativity, we can make that a more overall positive experience rather than something that we’d love to do but find hard to do because of certain barriers or certain stressors.

Tracey: What kind of barriers? 

Eli: We’ve been talking about this a lot. We’ve interviewed a number of different people. The one that came to mind for us personally right away was the time commitment that theater takes up.  So, for us in our school, theater is built into our elective block, which is at the end of the day.

It’s 45 minutes long, which is not enough time for a rehearsal. Especially when you’re working on a musical. So, we end up every day staying till 4:30. We have two hours of rehearsal and that’s eight hours of rehearsal per week, which still isn’t quite enough when you only have ten weeks or sometimes even eight or nine weeks of rehearsal.  The time commitment mixed in with other school commitments and other outside activity commitments is a lot.

But as we’ve explored this issue, we’ve also realized that another factor is emotional – how much theater takes from a person emotionally.  It takes a big emotional toll because you’re spending all day inhabiting a character and trying to dig deep into that character and trying to make really meaningful art.  But then having to go home and write your history paper after that can be pretty challenging. Or having to go home and study for your math quiz can feel like a real disconnect. 

Tracey: It seems like it needs to be very compartmentalized for you. And I imagine that’s a way that you manage the time commitments. But how does that affect your creativity?     

Elsa: I talk about this so much. I came from another school. And homework wasn’t a big thing. Like if we ever did have homework, it only took about like 20 minutes. Even less, maybe because it was a lot of vocab tests, learning definitions of words and spelling tests. And I felt so creative in that time because I got to explore different things. And then I came [to Sequoyah] and it was such a big jump because we were given like 20 pages of reading every night and we’d have to do this big MLA format writing assignment at the end of every two weeks. And then there was so much math homework every day. And that was such a big shift for me. I hadn’t really been trained in that.

I do think Sequoyah has given me skills that I definitely would have struggled with later on had I stayed in that [other] environment. But I did notice a decline in my creativity. I felt a lot less inspired and I have more trouble coming up by the ideas.  When the things that I enjoyed that kept me motivated in my classes became such an out of school requirement, it made me kind of not have any opportunity to figure out myself, outside of school.

Tracey: That’s a stress in itself even though it’s a requirement. So, do you call yourselves a pod or what do you call your group, the three of you?

Atlas: Technically we are a like a “team” I think is the word they use. And then our team is within a larger [SIP] pod which is like five or six other teams of one to three people. And then Kevin Delin, the school’s physics teacher, is also our SIP Advisor who sort of manages our pod.

Tracey: You each have so much on your plate. You’re being creative. You’re doing social justice. And, you’re just normal students dealing with all the same things as your peers.  And you’re also creating a program where you do this sort of peer-to-peer, counseling? Is that the right word?

Eli: Almost.  We want to have a space for people to be able to honestly share with someone who can like come up with solutions for them. Or just hear them and just be there for whatever they need. You know, I think something that’s stressful about theater, especially in school, is it’s a very actor and director [driven] relationship that goes hand-in-hand with the student and teacher relationship. And it can be super hard for students to feel like they can talk to a teacher and for actors to feel like they can talk to a director. So, we want to help bridge that gap by having students have good relationships with the director and that can be a conduit for ideas.

Tracey: How do you create those relationships and conversations, peer-to-peer? 

Atlas: I feel like within our group there are some days where like, it’s a Friday afternoon. It’s been a long week and we’re just like one of us is exhausted. The other two will sometimes like, pick up that slack, or say, “Hey we’re here if you need help”. And we’re all friends and we were friends before this and so I think it’s easier for us to communicate, “I’m really tired but I have a massive project due on Monday.” And so, we try to communicate as much as possible.

Tracey:   Well, give me an example of the conversation around someone who says, “I’m really feeling stressed, I’m feeling so under pressure, I don’t know what to do. I’m frozen.” 

Eli: I think I’d start it by kind of unpacking what exactly the stress is because you know we’ve talked about compartmentalizing things for time. But also compartmentalizing things so you can really focus on one aspect of what you’re stressed about. It can help.

So, you know, if you’ve got a math quiz and a science project and an essay due all at the same time, you know, I’d say, “Let’s go through them one by one. Can you get an extension on your essay? Can I help you study for your quiz?”  And I think tackling things one at a time is really helpful to be able to look at the big picture and say, “Oh look, I actually accomplished something.” Because when something is so big and staring you in the face, it can be really overwhelming and really hard to know where to start. So, breaking it down I think is a good first step.

Tracey: As part of the program, are you expected to write about your process and create data points? 

Elsa: We have this app. It’s like an academic Instagram. So, every time we have an interview or we go somewhere or basically anything that’s related to a SIP project, we make a post on there. We include a few photos. We write a summary. We choose a few categories about what we’re focusing on for that, whether it’s defining problems, perspectives, nurturing solutions or collaboration. Then learning outcomes, which is what we’re graded on. Also, things that help us focus what we’re doing that day. That’s kind of our timeline. From there you can either build a moment which is the post, or create a journey to connect all your posts. And then they all line up.

Eli: And that’s really our inward facing kind of progress tracker. That’s available for everyone in our grade. And we can all look at each other’s and give people thumbs up and comment on what they’re doing. 

Tracey: Kind of like an early Facebook…?

Eli: Yeah. And then on the outward facing edge, we have websites. Those are our official journals of our process.  If you look at any of ours, we have different pages about who we’ve interviewed and our progress points and our proof of concept. And then, specifically for us, what we want to implement is a recurring program at our school in the theater program, which would provide a specific position for one student to be a student-faculty liaison between the cast and the director. And that would be a position that happens every single year for every single show – and it would probably be a student who wasn’t a member of the cast.

Tracey: Like having an Equity rep…

Eli, Atlas, Elsa: Exactly. Yeah.

Eli: We talked to Brett Webster at CTG (Center Theatre Group) and he told us all about all of the Equity reps that worked, especially with the children who were doing “A Christmas Story” at that point. And we were, like, “that sounds great.” We were in their practice rooms while they were rehearsing.

Tracey: Tell me what you love about doing this.

Atlas: I feel that SIP, in general, is an awesome program. And I think a part of that is the connections that you build even with your other classmates. Like having done SIP with Eli for the past three years, and seeing him and other people every week, building something and learning something together I think is one of the most engaging and gratifying things for me at least.  As well as just talking about an issue that you care about. Because there is a degree of choice as to what SIP group you get put in. And focusing on an issue that you really care about and that you can engage with is, I think, super fulfilling.

Tracey: So, you get to go full throttle on these issues in these groups…

Atlas: Yeah. And it’s one of the few things that runs throughout the year. It even goes a whole month after the regular classes have ended at the end of the year.

Tracey: Now that you all have created this theater project, will you stick with it or move on to a different subject, for instance?

Elsa: Yeah, in ninth and tenth grade you have to do different projects. But 11th grade is when you begin to create your own. Then you can choose to either carry on that project through 12th grade or you can come up with a new idea in 12th grade, although that’s strongly not recommended. Or you can do an internship with either a company or an organization that follows your interests to help you build that experience.

Ninth and tenth grade is all about learning how to reach out to people and how to draft a formal e-mail; how to be respectful; how to interview. One of the assignments is how to make an interview Zine and then when it comes to the final two years of high school, it’s more about actually doing stuff.  Then you can either choose to carry it on or place it in a more real world [scenario]. 

Tracey: If you were going into the world today, what would you do? Based on your theater project and what you’re passionate about?

Elsa: I’m really passionate about the sciences and acting. Something I’ve always wanted to do is forensic sciences. I just think it’s heavy, but I think it’s cool. And I think I would do pretty well. And then, on the whole other side, is acting. I love acting. I feel like these past few years I’ve been able to really dig deep and really become more in tune with myself and really learn how to fully express things. So, I would love to pursue that. 

There’s a feeder company, Lineage Performing Arts Center, which is connected to the school through internships. I would love to go work with them. I’ve also always wanted to have my own theater company at some point or a little space. My friends’ parents had a theater space called Bootleg Theater and it was really cool. I loved going there and helping out. 

I feel like Lineage is another place to dig deeper, to gain more knowledge in a more active role than I did when I was a lot younger and just hanging out. If I ever end up actually creating my own theater company and leading that, then I could always take this information and the Sequoyah experience to implement my own norms that I create in that space. 

Eli: I think I’d do a green internship. We call them “internSIPs.”

Tracey: I like that.

Eli: I’m a big fan of puns as these two will let you know. Because we’ve worked with CTG and we’ve talked to them through this project, I think an internSIP at CTG would be awesome. There are a lot of logistics, like you have to be able to get there every day.  And it’s in downtown, so it would be a difficult internSIP. But I think that would be a place that I’d love to get a really deep understanding of professional theater. I think that would be an awesome opportunity.

Tracey: The process behind the scenes or the process on the stage?

Eli: Probably the process behind the scenes.  We went into their little office right across from the Ahamanson and the Mark Taper forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where they make all the big decisions.  So, you know, just like providing our services to them in whatever cool way they need.

Atlas: Yeah, I mean, my answer is very similar to Elsa’s.  I’ve worked with Lineage a little bit.  I’ve done some volunteering for them and I just love everyone there.  They’re all super friendly and I think realistically that’s probably what I will do next year.  But also, there are a bunch of other really cool community theater programs like the Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC). I’ve been on their mailing list for ages and because of school, travel, et cetera, I’ve never been able to participate in one of their volunteer programs or one of their internship programs. And, I think if I could pick anyone to work with, it would either be Lineage or the ISC. 

Eli: I mean, I think beyond that, like high school theater is high school theater. But high school theater is also art. And we’re making art. And you know, that’s not something that should be sacrificed because we also have six hours of school a day. So, whatever we can do to create the best art is what we should do. Because we’re artists.

Tracey Paleo is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and the Editor-in-Chief of Gia On The Move.  She previously served as Editor at FootLights Publishing.

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