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'Next Actors' Program Lets Teens Try Their Hand At Creating A Play

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Rachel Morello
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Students participating in Next Act Theatre's "Next Actors" program listen to notes from director Grace DeWolff during a final rehearsal.

Summer is in full swing, and many Milwaukee kids are in the throes of summer camp.

And for a group of local teenagers, it has been a mix of work and play.

They’re part of "Next Actors," a summer intensive program at the Next Act Theatre. Recruits from nine area high schools have come together over the past five weeks to write and produce an original play. This week, they’re touring the show at 10 venues in the metro Milwaukee area, before returning to Next Act for a final benefit performance this Saturday.

The entire six-week program is funded through grants, donations and ticket sales – which means it’s free of charge to the students who participate.

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Credit Rachel Morello
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Students rehearse an original song during the final week of preparation for their "Next Actors" live shows.

Those students are in charge of creating the play from beginning to end -- as writers, producers and actors. Director Grace DeWolff says her role is better described as "facilitator."

"The program is the vessel, and it's really just a vehicle for what the students want to say," DeWolff explains. "We have trained artists in the room guiding them, but it's really up to the students to write and direct and perform and produce all of the work, so it's really something special."

Interested students go through an audition process that Next Act says ensures "as many different cultural, ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds as possible."

Once selected, the group spends a week reviewing theatre skills like improvisation and stage direction. Then, they get together to decide on a theme: what kinds of stories do they like to watch on TV or onstage? What do they want to talk about?

This year's group titled their piece "Out of Order." As student-actor Kaleb Hamilton describes it, the play focuses on four families dealing with different challenges of love -- marriage, parenthood and budding relationships. 

"It's really interesting, and it does relate to real life, because these are things that could happen in someone's everyday life," he says. 

Says director DeWolff of the script students put together: "[These] characters could have their own Netflix series, and I would watch it!"

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Credit Rachel Morello
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Students in the "Next Actors" program create a play from start to finish during six weeks over the summer months.

Hamilton, a 17-year-old student at Rufus King High School, says Next Actors gives him a chance to learn about theatre differently than he would in his school's program. 

"I was interested in theatre coming into high school, and it gave me the start I wanted," he says. "To be able to say that we created this masterpiece of a play, it's great to see how far we've come. I like it a lot more than if I were to just have a script, no say-so. I'm my own director." 

Fellow participant Aryanna Strickland says there's a unique challenge in being part of the creative team. This is her second consecutive year participating in Next Actors. 

"What makes me kind of nervous is, how is the audience going to react?" Strickland says. "That to me is the most important part abotu plays, is if it really speaks to the audience and moves them. Even if they get up and leave because they're uncomfortable -- we made you uncomfortable."

For DeWolff, the challenge lies in making sure every student gets something out of the experience. 

"We have five weeks to go from looking at each other in the room for the first time, to putting togehter a play that's ready to tour, and I want everyone to be able to feel like they've contributed to it," DeWolff says. 

Tickets are still available for the students’ final performance this Saturday, July 30 by calling 414-278-0765, or visiting nextact.org. All proceeds benefit the program.

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