Youth Profile in Action

Impacting Children through Theatre

By Matthew Boring

"We’re not just entertaining; we’re impacting the lives of children.”
–Bryce Tyler Illusion Theatre Performer

It had been five years since I last met Sue Letheby and had the privilege of experiencing the amazing work of Illusion Theatre, a high school student performance company in Lincoln, NE, that creates impactful performances while tackling tough social issues. It only took five minutes of hearing the students’ passion to remind me of what made this group so inspiring five years ago. 

The cast carries important messages, such as sexual abuse and bullying prevention, to schools across the state of Nebraska. This takes them to over 35 schools and reaches over 10,000 students during the fall semester each year. A typical performance consists of short plays designed to teach kids about these topics and is moderated by Ms. Letheby. She provides commentary on the situations being acted out by the cast and creates an active dialogue atmosphere with the audience for them to discuss their thoughts and questions. 

I met up with the cast for a few minutes as they were making final preparations to begin their statewide fall tour.  Many of the students mentioned that while they strive for artistic excellence in each performance, the message they present to their audience is equally important. Cast member Bryce Tyler mentioned that “…a lot more thought is involved with each performance (than in a typical play), because a student might miss a life-changing message if we can’t present it in a way that makes sense to them.” In addition to artistic direction, each student is trained as a bullying and sexual abuse prevention specialist. 

At the end of each performance, cast members make themselves available to talk with students individually about any questions they have about the material covered in the situations portrayed. Many students just want to thank the performers for coming to their school, but some students want to share their own personal experiences, which is where the counseling training each performer receives is critical. Cast member Alicia Medina recalled the first time a student disclosed a negative personal experience to her following a performance of “Touch,” a play that shows acceptable and good forms of touching as well as touches that are unacceptable. “I felt like I was the turning point, knowing the abuse would have continued if we hadn’t been before for that audience on that day.” 

The messages and the plays change from year to year to reflect current events and to better connect with their audiences. Similar to Illusion Theatre, America’s Promise Alliance seeks to provide all children with caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, an effective education and opportunities to help others. 

Illusion Theatre also has an intentional mix of students in its cast that are at-risk for dropping out of high school as well as high-achieving students, which creates opportunities for peer mentoring among cast members. Cheyenne Staton, a new cast member for this year, said her peer actors have “helped me to make changes in my life and help make me a better person.” The ensemble is in many ways a tight-knit community of students bound together by a common purpose. They also hold each other accountable in school and in life. Illusion Theatre boasts a 100 percent graduation rate among its cast members, in part due to the support of the ensemble’s members.

While creating a theatre company with this kind of impact is difficult to accomplish, the core principle of students working collaboratively with their educators to take a personal interest in the lives of their peers and other students can be applied in almost any school or organization. As I left rehearsal, re-energized in why this work is so important, Ms. Letheby left me with a profound comment that she tries not to be “youth serving, but there to teach youth to serve.”