Stories Of The Foster Care System On Stage
A new play creates theatre from the life experiences of youth in and out of the foster care system. It was written by San Diego playwright Lisa Kirazian and produced by the Playwright's Project, a local program that supports the art of playwrighting in schools and communities.
Lisa Kirazian is a playwright and former Playwright's Project winner. Her play "Switch" is about the foster care system.
Cecelia Kouma is the executvie director of the Playwright's Project.
Olivia Espinosa is a San Diego actor. She is performing in the Playwright's Project production of "Switch."
Elzie Billops is also a San Diego actor. He is performing in "Switch."
The Plays By Young Writers festival takes place at the Lyceum Theatre, April 1-10, 2011. "Switch" opens on April 3 and runs through the following weekend at the Lyceum Theatre.
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Most people know that kids in the foster care program face a lot of challenge, but knowing it, and seeing it portrayed are two different things. The the respected San Diego playwrights project, plays by young writers festival is changing things up a bit this year, by including the full production of a play by an adult playwright about the foster care system. The may is called Switch. Leer to talk about the may, the playwright's project, and perform a scene from switch are my guests, Cecilia Kouma is the executive director of the playwrights project. Cecilia, welcome.
KOUMA: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Playwright Lisa Karazian is author of the switch, and Lisa, good morning.
KARAZIAN: Thanks for having us.
CAVANAUGH: And our two actors who'll be performing that scene, Olivia Espinoza, good morning.
ESPINZOA: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And L. Z billips, good morning.
BILLIPS: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Celia, how did the idea come about to work with the foster care program. ?
KOUMA: Well, it came about because we teach play writing in the schools throughout San Diego County with all types of learners, and one of the schools we had been working at, San Pasqual academy serves foster youth. And we had been teaching them to write plays, and we kept challenging them to submit their plays to the contest for a possible production, and they were reluctant until one writer, James Monroe, won a full production, and the audience of filled with foster youth, and at risk youth, watching his play, who gave him a standing ovation, and we knew that we just had to find a way to get those plays out to the public, and not just in the classroom.
CAVANAUGH: Lisa, your play, switch, is based on different experiences within the foster youth program. How did you research this play. ?
KARAZIAN: Well, I received some of the scenes and sort plays that were written as a result of the residences that the playwrights project does with foster youth, very raw and compelling material, as you can imagine. So that was the spring board that I started from. And then did my own research, and interviewing people in the system, and studied the system in California, and in other states, and before long, the ideas just starred erupting.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the play, switch, has a very sort of interesting and different format. It's structured hike a game show. Tell us about that.
KARAZIAN: Yes, well, I wanted to show, sort of, the craziness of this foster care system, as I've come to learn about it, and the game show seemed like the sort of absurdist world that would fit pretty well, where you don't know what's behind door number one or door number two, just as these foster kids don't be what they're gonna get when they're placed in a family. So that was sort of the context, and many stories are told through the play by that's four amazing actors who play multiple roles from small foster kids to foster patients, birth patients, social workers issue senators, and they run the gamut in the performance.
CAVANAUGH: Cecilia, that's very important because you wanted a number of different themes issue a number of different stories that sort of explained foster care system from different angles.
CAVANAUGH: And one of them, I know, is the way foster care parents are portrayed in the media. What did you want -- what did you want the audience to hear about that?
KOUMA: Well, I think that when we -- when there are stories in the media about foster parents issue it's usually bad ones of it's that they're in it for the min, that something has gone wrong, and they're in the news. And foster care parents go in for the right reasons, they go in because they want to make a change, and they want to help these kids. So yes, there are some people who make bad choices, and there are some who are not with the best of intentions, but I just want -- we wanted to be able to show all perspectives, and that that's not the big picture.
CAVANAUGH: And also, Lisa, there are also -- not only are there stereotype it is about foster patients but there are also stereotypes about foster kids themselves. Talk about how you addressed this in this play, switch.
KARAZIAN: Yes, well, you know, we had some foster teens see the play in reading during rehearsal, and their concern too was that they would be depicted that it's all their fault or they're the wad ones or they're the ones who have sort of brought this upon themselves. Which is not necessarily the case at all. How can a three-year-old child thrust into foster care is taken out of the arms of their parents be blamed for what they're doing? So I tried to be as balanced as I could, and that was the challenge of this play, was to show foster kids in all of the hardship and dists that I face, as well as the very inspiring that you knowings that many of them do too. So to balance the hope and hardship was the challenge, but also I think what was rewarding with writing it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I think too, one of the stereotypes that foster kids have to face is the idea that because of all these challenges they go through, they're basically gonna be messed up for life. And I wonder if you address that in your care as well.
KARAZIAN: Yes, yes. There are some kids who you would consider your worst nightmare, and then there are kids who go on and do fine things, whether it's graduating from college or law school or pursuing a professional life. And so we really show in between as well. Kids relating to each other, making fun of each other, as well as kids and the relationship with their foster parents, and try to make a new life for themselves.
CAVANAUGH: I think we should hear a scene from switch now. And I wonder if -- I want to reintroduce my actors here, Olivia Espinoza and, L. J. Billips, they are gonna be performing a scene from the play, switch. And L. Z, can you set up the scene for us?
BILLIPS: Sure -- this is a scene between Marcus and his social worker, McKenna, and they have a -- well, actually they have it out on Marcus is -- you know, upset that McKenna has given him the opportunity and the responsibility to just kind of grow up. To kind of take charge of his life. He's 18 now, and he needs to, you know, take charge of his life.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hear that scene, then. This is a scene from the play switch.
BILLIPS: Is that how it goes then?
KARAZIAN: Is what how it goes, mark?
BILLIPS: I turn 18 and you never call me again, or check on me or anything.
KARAZIAN: Oh, come on. I don't have time for crybabies.
BILLIPS: McKenna, I thought we were -- you know.
BILLIPS: Friends, okay? I thought you cared about me.
KARAZIAN: I do care about you.
BILLIPS: What if I dropped off the face of the earth? Or got back into the game? You'd never know because you don't return my messages or particulars, or you don't call or e-mail or do jack. My real mom hasn't either.
KARAZIAN: Have you tried calling her?
BILLIPS: Why not? I'm 18.
KARAZIAN: Yeah, well, good luck reaching her.
BILLIPS: Hey, shut up, now heart how she treated me, I'll always love her, even I never see her again.
KARAZIAN: I know, Marcus, I know.
BILLIPS: You don't know. You don't even care. You don't even know where live now or what I do or nothing.
KARAZIAN: I know, you live in those apartments by lake Murray that the church rents out. And you didn't get into that private college you wanted because of that spot on your record from ninth grade.
BILLIPS: How did you know all that?
ESPINOZA: Dena told me. And I know you're gonna be fine, even if things didn't work out the way planned.
BILLIPS: You're the one who keep pounding the stats into my head so I wouldn't go astray. 20000 kids --
KARAZIAN: 20000 kids age out every year. Yes, yes.
KARAZIAN: [CHECK] I know what you're capable of now, and I know that you're gonna be okay. Terror a lot of other kids out there who aren't gonna be okay.
CAVANAUGH: That's a scene from the play switch performed by actors in our studio, L. J. Billips, and Olivia Espinoza. And thank you both so much for that, it's a play, I must say, by Lisa Karazian, she is the author of switch. Olivia, I'm wondering, what have you learned by getting so deeply involved in this play? There must be thing it's -- you must have come to this play with some stereotypes in your mind as well.
ESPINOZA: Oh, absolutely. And actually, as a teaching artist, I've taught a lot of these students. And it's like Lisa said earlier, and Celia as well, these are stories that people need to hear. [CHECK] lucky all the way around that -- that hopefully their some social workers out there taking care of these kids, and also the families that are out there doing this, it makes you feel really lucky that there are people like that to take care of these kids.
CAVANAUGH: Lisa, this scene, that we just heard was specifically about that time when kids are aged out of the foster care system. And they're basically -- find themselves pretty much on theiron, of course there's a support system that we heard of, but pretty much on their own at a time when every kid is having problems [CHECK] what specifically made you focus on this?
KOUMA: Well, Marcus, the character that L. J portrays, as he kidnaps [CHECK] ages out, and then as he mentions earlier in the play, if are years, everything is figured out for him, what school you're gonna go to, what family you're gonna go to, and then all of a sudden, there's nothing. And that's just some more support for [CHECK] and they don't really know how to do that, because they evaporate had to.
CAVANAUGH: Not only in this scene we heard not only L. Z portraying this guy who wants to start out on his own, you be, and make his own start in life, but also the social worker, and the social worker and very prominent in this play. And I'm wondering why that is, why you wanted to also have a focus on social workers, Cecilia.
KARAZIAN: Well, because the social workers too are also put in a bad light it is some. The kids will sometimes blame the people in the system. [CHECK]. And we really wanted to show that the social workers too are overwhelmed. They have such large case loads, we mention that they have 50 on their case load, in some cases, which is absolutely -- unbelievable. It doesn't allow them to do any social work with the youth to really help them, they have to just get through the day. Get through.
CAVANAUGH: Would you say that this is an emotional may for you, leasa?
KARAZIAN: [CHECK] my own two young daughters in these situations, my husband Steve, and I have two girls, and it just tore me up when I was writing it, to imagine what tell be be like for them, if they were ripped from my arms or they were all of a sudden on the other side of town, at someone's house, not knowing what to do so it was emotional writing [CHECK] even if they haven't been in foster care, that they would feel, like, okay, I get this world now, I get what these kids are dealing with, and the parents and the social works.
CAVANAUGH: L. J. I'm wondering how much ask this take out of you in terms of emotion, when you're doing this play.
BILLIPS It's very emotional for me, I actually -- I was a foster kid, I was adopted at thee years old, and this has been very emotional because of the fact that I was very fortunate, I'm realizing now, how fortunate that I was being adopted at three, and a lot of these kids don't have that, you know, opportunity to be adopted at such a young age?
BILLIPS: So I'm one of the fortunate ones.
CAVANAUGH: I want to speak in the last minutes that we have, Cecilia, about the fact that this is being produced as part of the larger festival, the festival of plays by young writers. This is the 26th annual, tell us about this.
KOUMA: [CHECK] and this play was written by Lisa Karazian, who is an adult playwright. She was a former winner of the contest, which is nice to have that kind of full circle. [CHECK] autopsy times they just see the plays that are done, and think that is the cream of the crop of writers, and they're fantastic writers but there are so many kids that have things to say. And in our school programs they write plays about things that they are passionate about, so this is a nice way to sort of showcase some of those stories where they don't necessarily have the confidence on work on the [CHECK].
CAVANAUGH: What do you think it is about writing a play like as opposed to writing a short story or an essay or something hike that that really sort of fetes into kids' emotions?
KOUMA: Well, one they get to mic up whatever they want, but they have to go with the structure, and they have to show it to us. They're not telling us the story, but actors are gonna come in, they're gonna act it out, so they have to communicate clearly what they want those actors to convey to the audience. So it's hard work but it's really rewarding [CHECK].
CAVANAUGH: And Lisa, as a former playwright project winner, I'm wondering how did this influence your career?
KARAZIAN: They really changed the course of my life. [CHECK] by the time I was in college, they produced the first one, when I was -- by the time I was a freshman at Stanford, and just what I was starting toing iffut on, what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do, and when I saw my work produced I thought, well, maybe I could keep writing, maybe I could make a- of this. [CHECK] playwrights project as a volunteer and a board member, and this is my fourth commission, play commission for the ocean.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I have a lot of things that I have to tell people at the end. So let me start wrapping up by thanking all of you [CHECK] thanks for that scene too. That was really very nice. The 26th annual plays by young writers festival takes place at the Lyceum theatre, April�21st true the tenth. Switch opens on April�3rd, and it runs through the following weekend at the Lyceum theatre. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days.