While New Haven’s Open End Theater has provided the community with a source of entertainment, the mission of the theater has proved to be much greater.
“It’s about what’s going on in the world, and we really need to make serious decisions,” said an eighth grader in response to “Devonya’s Decision,” a play about teenage pregnancy.
Since its inception in 1996, the Open End Theater on 125 Livingston St. has been using a unique mixture of theater, audience reflection and the resolution of social problems to help kids deal with some of life’s most difficult decisions. The theater’s performers usually consist of Yale undergraduates and New Haven area students.
According to founder Thomas Greene, professor emeritus of English and Comparative literature at Yale, it is this three-pronged approach that has made the theater a success. He said that while many of the audience members have never actually seen theater before, the largest shock for them is that the theater is actually interested in what they have to say. Greene said this process has helped students to liberate themselves enough to truly ask what they feel.
“There are few if any other places where people are actually curious about what kids think and that provides such a trusting environment,” said Richard Squeri, moderator for the performances and production director. “If you provide an honest, trusting environment for kids, they will trust you back and be open.”
Each performance finds at least one cast member in the midst of a moral dilemma. At key points in the performance the audience is asked to comment on the drama and to decide what the characters should do.
Besides gaining accolades from noted public figures like New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and state Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, the performances have also received praise from their most important critics: the teenagers themselves. After seeing the performance, students are asked to share their thoughts on comment cards.
Greene said the comment cards have revealed that the performances have a dramatic effect on the students who see them, perhaps even helping to lower the teenage pregnancy rate in the area. After performances of “Devonya’s Decision,” comment cards contained resolutions from teenage girls to change their ways with respect to their sexual practices.
When the theater first began there were often as few as four people showing up to rehearsals, but Greene said it has since grown to include a steady cast of 25 performers. About 2,700 teenagers attended performances last year, with even greater numbers estimated for this coming year.
Greene attributes this growth to the rewards gained not only by the audience but by the performers as well.
“It’s very exciting and rewarding, especially when bonds form between Yale students and those from the high schools,” Greene said. “It takes longer but when it happens it’s very special.”
After receiving an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven in 2000, Greene resigned from the theater because of poor health. But despite Greene’s departure, those involved with the theater expect continued success.
“After each performance there’s always a buzz in the audience,” said Lara Morton, the theater’s artistic director. “Students always want to talk to the actors and see how they can become involved with the theater.”