PITTSFIELD -- In 2009, Frank La Frazia staged a revised version of his original one-man play, "Living With It," for the first time at Barrington Stage Company. It is an autobiographical account of his life as a young man coming of age while living with and caring for a parent suffering from bipolar disorder.
During that same time, La Frazia was in his seventh year working with Barrington Stage's Playwright Mentoring Project, or PMP, which offers local youths the opportunity to write, perform and discuss an original play based on their own life experiences.
"Working with kids has inspired me as an artist," said La Frazia, director of the Playwright Mentoring Project.
"If I didn't do PMP, I might have done that show differently. I've learned the issues of teenagers really aren't that different from our own [as adults]. There's a certain sense of humility in knowing that."
This week, La Frazia will make his last tour with the Playwright Mentoring Project performance groups. A part-time worker with the I.A.T.S.E. Local 481 New England Studio Mechanics, La Frazia will be heading to New York City to continue in this field full-time.
Meanwhile, he's preparing New Orleans native Yvette "Jamuna" Sirker for her new role as the next director of the Playwright Mentoring Project. She's been a playwright working with the teens for the past two years and was doing theater work in New Orleans public schools when Hurricane Katrina changed everything. She says she brings to the project her experiences of compassion and patience.
"I'm looking forward to it all, the kids, the community engagement, being part of such an outstanding theater company and contributing to the community that now is my home," Sirker said.
Now in its 12th year, the Playwright Mentoring Project started in Sheffield, Barrington Stage Company's original home.
Its premise was to provide at-risk youth in Berkshire County a safe place to tell their stories, learn theater and improvisation techniques, and develop conflict-resolution skills. The six-month theater program meets at least two hours a week -- more as performance time draws near.
"It's a program that matches the needs of the youths," said Barrington Stage Co.'s Artistic Director Julianne Boyd.
Boyd soon saw a need among young people of Pittsfield. The first Playwright Mentoring Project group in Pittsfield was formed in 2002, about five years before Barrington Stage officially moved from South County and opened its doors in the city.
"It's grown, and he's grown with it," Boyd said, praising La Frazia's work with the project.
La Frazia said the first group had about five students, but PMP continued to attract voluntary participants through word of mouth. At one point, there was even a bilingual group in Lee.
Around 2004, the Playwright Mentoring Project partnered with the Berkshire Juvenile Court and Probation Office to sponsor court-mandated groups to support youths. Other partners have since included The Brien Center, Counseling Center of the Berkshires, The Elizabeth Freeman Center, Tapestry Health, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, Massachusetts Cultural Council and Berkshire United Way.
In 2007, the project won the prestigious "Coming Up Taller" award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. La Frazia and Greg Vyska, a then-18-year-old Pittsfield High School senior who had been in and out of foster care, made a trip together to the White House to receive the honor from first lady Laura Bush.
Bush described the program like this: "In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, teens overcome substance abuse, family violence and school failure on stage at the Playwright Mentoring Project."
Today, it's a process that's ongoing. The Playwright Mentoring Project currently serves about 70 youth among seven groups based in Pittsfield and North Adams. There are 21 part-time Barrington Stage staff members who work with the groups; each group has its own artistic mentors, peer mentors and playwrights.
Barrington Stage's director of education, Hester Kamin, coordinates a curriculum and training for the project. In addition, each group has at least one professional mental health counselor available to consult with students and staff.
During a recent rehearsal of a Pittsfield group within the intimate setting of the company's St. Germain Stage on Linden Street, students shared personal details of their lives through theatrical scenes and monologues: the death of a trusted uncle, the betrayal of a friend posting a secret crush on Facebook, "ginger" jokes and being taunted for having red hair, and the home stress created between two constantly arguing parents.
"When I first heard about PMP, I thought it was going to be sappy drama kinds of stuff," said Lawrence Jackson, a senior at Taconic High School who has been with the project for two years. "This is actually real."
Vyska, now 23, has since become a peer mentor for the new generation of students, a growing trend for the project's alumni.
"I had no idea that it would turn into something like this. I now realize this can be something like a career; drama therapy," Vyska said. "It's a place that gives kids the courage to be real and teaches you to act responsibly."
Performances of the 2013 Playwright Mentoring Project groups of Pittsfield and North Adams, April 9-13. The PMP groups will perform original plays developed during weekly sessions over the past six months. The scenes are based on issues and stories from the participants' lives and include topics such as family stress, foster care, drug/alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and peer pressure. The public performance schedule is as follows:
Barrington Stage Company's 2013 Playwright Mentoring Project public performance schedule:
April 9: "Limping Through Reality," featuring the Tuesday Evening Pittsfield Group, St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, 7 p.m.
April 10: "The Robbery," featuring the Wednesday Evening Pittsfield Group, St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, 7 p.m.
April 11: "You'll Get Through This," featuring the Tuesday Afternoon North Adams Group, MCLA Murdock Hall Room, 375 Church St. North Adams, 8 p.m.
April 12: "We Got This," featuring the Thursday Evening North Adams Group, MCLA Murdock Hall Room, 375 Church St., North Adams 7 p.m. "What I Think About," featuring the Wednesday Evening North Adams Group, will follow in the same space at 8 p.m.
April 13: All five groups will perform on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, 2 p.m.
These performances are 30 to 35 minutes in length and are followed by a 10 to 15-minute question and answer period. These events are intended for mature audiences.
To find out more about the Playwright Mentoring Project, contact Frank La Frazia
at 413-997-6117 or visit barringtonstageco.org/education.