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'Off the Cuff' gives homeless an acting outlet

The Preble Street Resource Center is using a new technique called "drama therapy" to help their clients deal with stress and anger, and to promote the self-confidence that can get them back on their feet.

"Off the Cuff" is a weekly improv theater group that meets with Tommy Waltz and Ashley Guild, second year students in the masters of social work program at the University of Southern Maine.

Waltz started the project as part of his research for the school, and has seen 15 or so Preble Street clients act out in an organized way each week. Off the Cuff has connected with more than 60 different people so far, and the group has come so far as to hold a public performance today at Armistad, 66 State St., at 2 p.m.

"They now have taken a lot of pride in what they are doing," Waltz said. "They are saying, 'Yes, I'm homeless, but this is what I can do' and the results are impressive."

Waltz and Guild are interns at the Preble Street Resource Center, and their youthful creativity has made the weekly sessions a big hit.

"One of the great things about having interns is that they always bring in energy, talent and new ideas," said Bill Burns, a coordinator at the center. "It's hard to have conflicts with the people you're working with."

John Wray, who has been attending the sessions since March, did a little acting in high school. "I figured I'd get myself involved, start speaking to people I wouldn't usually speak to," he said.

Off the Cuff started in November of last year, and early on, Waltz established a learning contract with the actors, making sure they had an understanding of the code of ethics, practices and methods involved.

"I was having a conversation with my supervisor, and she said, 'What about starting a group? You have your theater background,'" said Waltz, who lived in New York City for eight years. While there, he received his undergraduate degree in musical theater with a concentration in psychology from the New School, and worked extensively with regional tours off Broadway.

"I developed a strong passion for the work," he said. "It's about reaching others and providing an outlet for happiness, to help them tap into their pool of good memories, emotions, things like that."

Britney Panther has worked with group since it started. She is about to move into her own apartment.

"Tommy was my case worker so I wanted to be more involved," she said. "To me, he's not just a case worker; he's my best friend, so it's about being here to support him, as well as myself." Panther is expecting a baby boy this month.

The group has become a source for creativity, growth, and empowerment. "Every week, I try to come in with a couple new games, have a theme with my activities — character development, space relationship, identifying with the other — all rooted in some sort of approach," Waltz said.

"Everyone seems to like it and enjoy it," Wray said. "We get involved." Wray recently came into a "great financial growth" and will probably be leaving the shelter shortly.

"One thing that sparked this, too," Waltz said, "was, when interviewing here for an internship, I was told that Preble Street are the keepers of hope. And I always thought theater was about that. It gives people a voice, a chance to laugh, and that laughter helps spark movement."

A typical session starts with Waltz and Guild reminding participants that they have a voice, and always starts with their names. An example of an activity they use involved using quotations. Each member filled out a few blank slips with a song lyric or a quote from somewhere. A scene is established, and then the relationship between two people is determined. Those two people starting playing off the quotes. They keep using the quotes to keep the scene moving.

Alex Carter, a caseworker at the center visiting on her lunch break, and Wary acted out a scene. They were in Alaska, playing two scientists looking into a creature like the Loch Ness monster. Wray was playing Carter's boss.

"Do you believe in life after love?" she asks him. He doesn't know how to react but shows her a map and says, "The more I know the less I understand." Wray asks her to inspect something, which may be the creature's dung. She kneels to check it out and then says, "Luke, I am your father."

Such scenes of silliness and frivolity allow participants to let go, laugh, and enjoy taking on someone else's persona.

Waltz always end the sessions by seeing how it worked for everybody. So far, all of the improv actors seem to love using drama therapy to enhance their own lives.


Event details:

"Off the Cuff" premier public performance

Location: Amistad, 66 State Street, Portland

When: Wednesday, Sept. 11

Time: 2 p.m. (45 minute showcase)


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