By Marissa Nelson
The 10 people in the basement of a downtown Dundas Street building in London all come from different backgrounds.
Some have arts training, some used to be homeless, one is 16 and another 30.
But their determination has brought them together: They want to put on the best show they can and they've got less than six weeks to get ready.
TheatreWORKS is a 26-week program to make at-risk youth more employable, with funding from Human Resources Development Canada.
It began as a quirky brainchild of John White, executive director of the Arts Project. He had an idea for an unconventional employment program to harness the creative energy of street and at-risk youth and get them to produce something positive -- a play written, directed and produced by themselves.
"The creative ones are on the fringe, they don't fit into the traditional high school pattern," White said.
"I wanted a program that tapped into their creativity, but taught them other, soft skills quietly along the way."
The 10 people chosen get paid minimum wage and have to treat the project like a job.
Arrive late three days and you lose a day's pay.
Finish the program and you get a bonus.
The program includes 20 weeks of workshops with professionals who teach everything from creative writing to lighting design and audition preparation.
White hoped eight of the 10 youth would finish the program, but so far no one has dropped out. The three people who were homeless when the program started are now in apartments. Most have had a boost in self-esteem.
"They're on their feet and they're proud of themselves," White said. "I've seen a change even in the way they walk."
At the beginning, White said, they'd be out the door at the stroke of 3 p.m. and were always anxious for the paycheque. But now they hang around after quitting time and have invested themselves in the show, called Writer's Block.
"The other (employment) programs are meant to find you a job. This is learning the day-to-day skills you need to be a good employee," said Chantell Kisslinger, who is directing the play they've written.
She said the program has taught her task management, problem-solving and team work.
"It's more hands-on. If you can do it, you're learning along the way," she added.
Jason Allen, one of four high school dropouts in the group, was living in a shelter when he started the program. If there'd been such a project in his high school, it might have made a difference, he said.
"I think I've learned more here in these weeks than (in) the three years I spent in high school," he said.
"Everyone has personal struggles. You can't help but bring it to work, but there are so many positive people here, it gives me a positive spin on life. I came here and made 10 friends. If I did it here, I could probably do it somewhere else."
Marisa Harrison, who used to live in a shelter, said the program has boosted her confidence -- something she needs for job interviews.
"If you have the confidence to perform in front of an audience, you can perform as yourself for a job interview. Without this, I'd probably be one of the most shy people around," she said.
But Harrison, like many in the group, thinks about May, when the paycheque stops.
"It's something that worries me. I don't want to go back to the shelter."
Writer's Block, the play that will be the culmination of the project, will be performed at the Arts Project Theatre, 203 Dundas St., from April 14 to 17 and April 20 to 24.
-- Marissa Nelson is The London Free Press education reporter
Big brother is watching you
Jumping on the 'brand' wagon
UP & RUNNING- Build a better business than your boss
HEALTH CONNECTION- U of T hosts ALS chair
YOUTH FORCE- No Grade 12 diploma not an obstacle
Think work is boring?
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- A world of opportunities
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- A world of knowledge awaits job seekers
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- Put your best foot forward
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- Maximize your prospects