Updated with St. Louis on the Air interview.
The "Teens Make History" Players and are getting paid to act — but first they have to work through very serious issues and distill their findings into a play. Since 2007, this work-based program of the Missouri History Museum, brings together students to research, design and mount exhibits at the museum or to bring St. Louis history to life through their plays.
“It feels like I’m on Broadway,” said Romiyus Gause, who has been with the program for six years.
This summer’s play, "St. Louis Now," is in conjunction with the 250 in 250 commemoration of the city’s anniversary. But rather than look at something in the distant past, the teens decided to address gang violence in the city, an issue that affects many of their day-to-day lives.
One of the players, Amesha Payne, said her father was murdered when she was 7 months old. “My father had been in this gang for so long, probably since he was 13,” Payne said. “It’s been very hard as a teenager, you see the father-daughter dances and you don’t have a father to dance with.”
Payne says meeting other students who have experienced similar tragedies has made Teens Make History a safe haven of sorts. “Knowing that you don’t have to go through these things by yourself and you can talk to others and they can relate to your story, a better mindset is carried on when you come here,” Payne said.
"St. Louis Now" follows the story of Bobby, a young man who feels compelled to turn to gang violence after facing a series of losses in his life.
Students used their personal experiences when writing scenes.
“I had to think about fights and arguments I’ve had with my friends to make them realize what they’re doing is wrong,” said Taylor Luster. Luster plays Maggie, Bobby’s best friend who tries to dissuade him from getting involved in a gang.
Elizabeth Pickard, founder of the program and director for interpretive programs at the museum, applauds the students for voicing their concerns about gang violence.
“I think in St. Louis we have a community that’s incredibly aware of this and lives with it every day, and we may have people who are blissfully unaware,” Pickard said. “It’s a chance to both affirm the experience of people who live through it and to make people aware who may not really recognize what’s going on.”
The program runs a full year, but the time commitment really ramps up in the summer.
Ellen Kuhn, teen and interpretive programs coordinator at the museum, says Teens Make History provides more than just acting experience.
“We really focus on building professional skills, particularly teamwork,” Kuhn said. “It’s super integrated in what we’re doing here because they’re doing real work projects for the museum.”
The students applied for the positions upon completion of the Teens Make History academy, an eight-week course during which they learn about the different aspects of museum management.
The Players are asked to produce a play to go hand-in-hand with a current exhibit at the museum. This year, Kuhn said her boss told her, "We’d really like to look at something going on today and get a teen perspective on the city’s future and issues facing the city.”
The students have used acting to not only raise awareness about issues, but to deepen their appreciation for history. Many of the students didn’t particularly enjoy the subject prior to joining the program.
“Just looking at a history book in school, all I see is what happened,” said Kayla Holmes, who plays a gang member named Trigger. “I see events, I don’t see emotions. I see events but I don’t see what people were actually going through.”
Holmes and her peers agree that the added emotion that acting provides brings history to life, making the subject more relatable and enjoyable.
But Teens Make History isn’t just for actors. In addition to the Players, the Exhibitors develop exhibits at the museum.
The first project they completed was an exhibit on veterans. Kuhn says it’s an extensive process.
“They did all the work in terms of putting forth a proposal to staff that had to be approved. They did all the label writing, they chose the objects that went in, worked on all the oral history interviews that went into the exhibit,” Kuhn said. “It’s definitely more behind the scenes.”
The Exhibitors are now researching for the museum’s upcoming immigration exhibit, which will also be complemented by a Teens Make History play.
You can watch the teens perform Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11 a.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. in the Lee Auditorium on the ground floor of the Missouri History Museum. The show runs through Aug. 2.