NEA Arts Magazine

NEA Spotlight: Teachers & Writers Collaborative

Will Power to Youth Partners with NEA and DOJ


A man and woman in costume

Andrew Arnold as Florizel and Carla Lopez as Perdita in Will Power to Youth's performance of The Winter's Tale. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Higher graduation rates, improved self confidence, better school attendance records -- these are just some of the proven successes of students who have participated in Shakespeare Festival/LA's Will Power to Youth program. Created in 1993 by Shakespeare/LA, in partnership with Los Angeles city government, Will Power to Youth employs at-risk teenagers to put on the plays of William Shakespeare. The evidence that the program changes lives is not just anecdotal; statistics from three independent studies indicate that Will Power to Youth students will not only turn their high school careers around, but they are more likely to succeed after graduation. For example, in a five-year study at west LA's Belmont High School, at which 90 percent of the student body receive subsidized meals, the Will Power to Youth students demonstrated a 75 percent graduation rate as compared to the 33 percent rate of their Belmont High peers.

When initially drawing up plans for Will Power to Youth, Shakespeare Festival/LA aligned the program with standards for youth employment training programs already developed by the U.S. Department of Labor. Chris Anthony, the company's youth education director, made sure the program was fully evaluated by outside experts, so she could statistically prove Will Power to Youth inspired young people to succeed in school and beyond.

Shakespeare Festival/LA Founder and National Council on the Arts member Ben Donenberg said, "We can come up with all the warm fuzzy stories ad infinitum, but what's interesting about Will Power to Youth is that we've found ways to quantify results and report back."

The theater was nominated for a Coming up Taller Award for the youth program in 2002. The award -- offered jointly by the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services -- honors outstanding youth education programs in the arts and humanities.

In January 2003, while in Washington, DC, to receive the award, the Will Power to Youth students were hosted by Senator Dianne Feinstein (California) and other members of the state's delegation for a performance in the Capitol building. NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, who attended the performance, was impressed and mentioned the program to Mrs. Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush was so intrigued that she stopped by the theater the next time she was in Los Angeles.

Mrs. Bush then invited Will Power to Youth to perform at her inaugural Helping America's Youth conference held at Washington, DC's Howard University. That performance of an excerpt from Romeo and Juliet was attended by officials from several federal agencies, including the Department of Justice (DOJ), which saw the potential of Will Power to Youth to positively affect at-risk youth.

Subsequently, Shakespeare/LA developed a proposal to replicate the Will Power to Youth model in other cities.The NEA partnered with DOJ's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to support the development of a program manual and replications of the program at a second site in Los Angeles and a new site in Richmond, Virginia, a city the department has targeted for reducing gang activity.

"You don't normally think of [the Department of] Justice as a theater-producing organization," Anthony said. "However, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is interested in programs that challenge young people's energies in a positive direction."

OJJDP Administrator J. Robert Flores commented, "While promoting the importance of completing high school, [Will Power to Youth] helps keep kids in school and teaches them life skills for the responsibilities they will bear as adults and as parents. The program provides them with job skills to help improve their success in the labor market and offers a safe place to participate in extracurricular activities."

Young people surround Rep. Berman

U.S. Representative Howard Berman (California-28th District) with the Will Power to Youth cast of The Winter's Tale in April 2008, with NCA member Ben Donenberg on the right. Photo by Michael Lamont.

In Los Angeles, social service workers and guidance counselors recommended students to Shakespeare Festival/ LA. In April 2008, students from Belmont High staged a '50s and '60s version of The Winter's Tale. In Richmond, students were handpicked by the local district attorney's office. During the summer of 2007, the Richmond teens staged Romeo and Juliet, set in 1930s segregated Richmond. In both cities, students were interviewed as they would be for a summer job, and then went to work for seven weeks at a miniature theater company. After some intensive icebreakers, the teens set about adapting the Shakespearean play for contemporary audiences aided by professional playwrights, actors, and designers. The goal is to find plays that allow students to talk through issues like conflict resolution and family strife. And granted, with Shakespeare, no one has to look far to find those issues. The casts became peer support groups for the students, the adult leaders extended relatives.

Shows are always well received by the local communities, and some students don't want to part after the cast party. According to Anthony, the impact of Will Power to Youth on the students is not merely short-term. "The skills that you learn in theater are going to go with you no matter what you do in life...things like working in team, expressing your opinion, speaking clearly," Anthony said. "We want to help kids make a smooth transition from being a teenager to being an adult."