September 11, 2007

Staging ‘Secrets’: Blue Apple Players use drama to take on child sexual abuse

No More Secrets: In the Blue Apples Players’ “No More Secrets,” Sparky (Fran Whitaker) makes Jenny (Susan Schroeder) uncomfortable by touching her and asking her to sit on his lap.“No More Secrets,” an original work created by the Blue Apple Players more than 20 years ago, has many of the hallmarks of a kids’ production. It teaches a lesson. It has peppy tunes, even dance numbers. Taken together, it all feels like one of those ABC After-School Specials from the ’80s. But because of the subject matter, and because that subject matter is presented with the urgency that accompanies live theater, the powerful production, which is again touring Jefferson County schools through early next month, is defiantly more adult in nature.“No More Secrets,” which was first presented in area schools in 1984, concerns Jenny, a girl who finally admits to her best friend that a neighbor named Sparky, who has babysat her and helped her single mother around the house since she was a baby, has been sexually abusing her.“That was chilling,” said Brenda Jarvis, one of the 15 audience members watching final rehearsal last Saturday in a church auditorium on East Breckenridge Street. Jarvis’s daughter, Jodi, 32, has performed with Blue Apple for four years and portrays Jenny’s best friend.But for Susan Schroeder, the 25-year-old actress who plays Jenny, this is a new experience. She discovered the troupe after moving back to Louisville from Los Angeles and seeing performances while working as a substitute teacher. This production marks her first involvement with children’s theater, and she feels a huge responsibility because of the subject matter. She prepared for the role by internalizing a sense of vulnerability; it comes out in her reactions to Sparky touching her and asking her to pose for pictures. She also worked to retain, and portray, the sense of hope in the face of shame that her character feels. Striking this balance, however, was difficult.“The first time reading the script, I was really uncomfortable,” she said.Watching Saturday’s rehearsal made me uneasy as well, as Sparky asks Jenny for “special hugs” and invites her to sit on his lap when he is alone with the girl. On the flip side, there is Dee Dee, Jenny’s precocious friend, who is undaunted in getting Jenny to tell her secret and alert adults who can help her. In between, there are cheery songs that help illustrate how adults can make mistakes and, yes, how children are people, too.While you may not expect such serious subject matter to be paired with such a whiCast and crew take “No More Secret” to area schools, bringing with them portable stage and sound equipment.msical approach, Blue Apple Players executive director Paul Lenzi sees musical theater as an ideal vehicle for delving into such issues. When the actors visit schools, he said, they greet students before the show and help seat them close to the action that takes place on a transportable stage. That initial gesture, and the proximity, create mutual respect and get the children involved.“They feel like they are a part of it,” he said, adding that the action of live theater, which creates more intimacy than a film, is something many children rarely experience.Founded in 1976, the Blue Apple Players are a professional troupe of adult actors who reach an average of 70,000 children each year, mostly through performances in schools and in area theaters where school children come to see the plays on field trips. “No More Secrets” is just one of 36 children’s musicals the ensemble has originated. Geraldine Ann Snyder, the group’s co-founder and artistic director, wrote the book, music and lyrics for the musical, which Lenzi said was inspired by a real-life story. He said a friend had children who had recounted a similar story to her. Snyder, who is Lenzi’s wife, drew on that incident to create the story, even writing in lines based on things the abused girl had said to her mother.For example: “You never told me that you really would believe me.” That sort of dialogue lends a stark realism to the production.That realism, and the care with which the play addresses child sexual abuse, has prompted many children to approach trusted adults after performances. The effectiveness of “No More Secrets” is borne out by letters the Blue Apple Players received after performances during the 1980s and ’90s in Kentucky and Florida, where they toured with the production.In November 1984, a Girl Scout leader from Louisville wrote an anonymous letter after a performance: “Before we were out of the door, one of my girls was crying, saying that it was happening to her. Only after a confrontation by her parents did she tell her story. A teenage boy had told her not to tell anyone about their ‘secret.’ I wanted you to know that your play has helped at least one young girl (and boy) that day. Please keep spreading the word.” Then there’s the letter from a Louisville-area social worker after performances in 1991. “Recently, a young girl broke a long-standing family secret. She told a friend of a long history of sexual abuse of herself and her sibling. She broke the silence after seeing a performance by your players about child sexual abuse. The result was a Child Protective Services and a police investigation that led to an arrest. Now the family is recovering and moving toward wholeness.”Beyond the letters, Lenzi said, the Blue Apple Players monitor the impact on audiences by working with social service agencies. Reports of such abuse to hotlines always increase after performances, he said.Accordingly, before they visit schools to perform, the Players work with the Exploited Children’s Help Organization and alert teachers and school administrators about the play’s content and possible outcomes. ECHO also helps train the actors how to respond to children (and adults) who react as if they have had experiences similar to Jenny’s.After one performance, Lenzi met a woman who reeked of alcohol. With her three children nearby, she told him, “This happened to me.”“In an instant,” he said, “you could see what this type of abuse had done to her own life.”Earlier this year, Lenzi decided to restage the musical because he thought he could raise the necessary funds. (Each performance, he said, costs roughly $4,000.) So far, Blue Apple has raised $54,000 through donations from Humana, several non-profit groups and a handful of Metro Louisville Council members who donated from their discretionary funds.Meanwhile, the Blue Apple Players won’t stop addressing child sexual abuse when the touring production of “No More Secrets” concludes on Oct. 4. At Eastern Kentucky University’s Training Resource Center, the troupe taps drama to help train social workers in how to conduct forensic interviews. The actors have received their own training in portraying physically and sexually abused children, and in incorporating details from case studies into their role-playing. The Blue Apple Players will present a free public performance of “No More Secrets,” next Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway. The show begins at 11 a.m. For more information, call 587-7990 or visit www.blueappleplayers.org. Contact the writer at ekramer@leoweekly.com