Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

The West Side Story Project

by Molly Fortin

Earlier this year, in an unprecedented partnership, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre launched The West Side Story Project, an innovative approach to youth gang violence prevention. The project was designed to engage middle and high school students as well as Seattle's adult community in a series of events.

Taking advantage of The 5th Avenue's production of West Side Story, the project utilized the musical as a backdrop for an ongoing community dialogue about the lure of gang membership, relationships between police and youth and the harsh realities of youth violence. In an effort to facilitate and broaden this conversation, several events took place, each with a different target audience. The project — a three month long series of workshops, forums and performances by Seattle high school students, youth program specialists, and law enforcement — sought to use theater as a catalyst for talking about steps the Seattle community could take to protect future generations from gang violence. The project culminated with paticipating youth creating and performing a modern version of the classic musical as well as being provided an opportunity to attend The 5th Avenue Theatre's production.

A Teen Advisory Council of 33 students was formed from area high schools and worked directly with Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers and 5th Avenue staff for many months to frame the themes and discussions for the two West Side Story Project Youth Summits.

There were two West Side Story Project Youth Summits: one for middle school students and one for high school students. The summits explored the issues of gang involvement, police relations and valuing differences using West Side Story as a springboard for the dialogue. SPD officers, youth program specialists and the Teen Advisory Council members co-facilitated four workshops based upon particular scenes and songs from West Side Story.

Additionally the project hosted an adult community dialogue in Town Hall Seattle. The evening began with the cast of West Side Story performing the song "Officer Krupke" live. In this song, the Jets recount their experience of being arrested by Officer Krupke, who sends them to a judge, who decides they need to see a psychiatrist, who sends them to a social worker, who says they're "no good" and just need to go to jail. The performance was followed by a facilitated discussion with key Seattle policymakers, the counterparts to the characters in "Officer Krupke" (law enforcement, juvenile court, youth social services and child psychiatry), who explored the systems' response to at-risk youth in the Seattle community.

Later small groups from area high schools worked with a team of teaching artists from The 5th Avenue Theatre and created their own modern version of West Side Story. Just as West Side Story was a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, these students updated West Side Story and presented their own 21st century version on stage to members of the Seattle Police Department, 5th Avenue Theatre staff and family and friends of the performers.

All the participants in these activities were encouraged to participate in opportunities at The 5th Avenue Theatre's rehearsals of West Side Story; to meet and engage in "talk-backs" with the actors portraying the youth in West Side Story, and with a backstage pass at the theatre, to give students an inside look at how the show was staged.

Excitement about The West Side Story Project has spread across the US and the United Kingdom. In Chicago at The Annual Meeting of the Police Executive Research Forum (one of the nation's premier law enforcement organizations dedicated to innovation), a 90-minute presentation focused on this unique collaborative effort.

West Side Story tells the tragic truth about gang violence, but it's animated by a spirit of hope for the future, a spirit that all involved in The West Side Story project shared.

Molly Fortin is the Public Relations Manager for The 5th Avenue Theatre.

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