Young homeless people perform alongside Broadway stars

Our contributor Cathy Englade – artistic director at Covenant House International, and an alumna of Royal Central – tells the story of a unique project making a real impact on the lives of its participants.

The Crossing Bridges Project brings the homeless youth of Covenant House and the world’s leading theatre artists together to tell a new story. This past March, 15 young people attended four weeks of Master Classes facilitated by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winners and nominees, before producing new works in a 24 hour play festival. Crossing Bridges was created in partnership with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama for Covenant House International, a NGO that shelters and aides over 57,000 homeless and trafficked youth annually. All names of participants in this story have been changed to protect their identities. 

Almost every young person I have encountered at Covenant House speaks longingly of being an artist, but few believed in the possibility of making those dreams a reality. While they typically do not expound on their disbelief, I would suggest it is the toxic result of an abusive past and a societal narrative that says all they can ever be in this world is abandoned, homeless, broken and lost.

My goal was to design a programme that would empower the youth to give breath to the parts of them that still, despite all odds, know they are so much more than homeless. By providing the young people an artistic platform in which they have the freedom to not only choose what narrative to tell but also their place in the narrative, I hoped they would begin to imagine a new place in the world and, perhaps for the first time, see the world as a place of infinite possibility.

In seeking out ways to accomplish such lofty goals, I stumbled upon a wonderful case study by The Wallace Foundation entitled Something to Say: Success Principles for After School Arts Program by Urban Youth and Other Experts. Using a handful of the principles outlined in the study, I created the framework for Crossing Bridges.

We began with open auditions in the shelter. By introducing Crossing Bridges as something that must be attained or earned, we made entering the programme an accomplishment in itself. Furthermore, the groundwork was laid so that the facilitators viewed the young people not as some homeless kids needing another lesson in teamwork, but as artists, with veritable skills. We were then able to continuously foster that atmosphere by bringing in professional guest artists to teach the Master Classes and collaborate with the youth during the play festival. Covenant House is in a unique position, already having a strong support system from the Broadway community, which is actively seeking ways to engage and uplift our youth. I was able to recruit guest artists who were both highly accomplished in their respective fields and who had previous experience working with vulnerable populations.

There are two places in which to run activities at Covenant House, the gym and the chapel, both of which come with extraordinary emotional baggage. I wanted to give participants a physical space away from the incessant reminders of their heartbreaking circumstances. A generous donation from a Covenant House supporter allowed for all Master Classes to take place in a Broadway rehearsal studio, reinforcing participants’ identity as talented young people. The Helen Mills Theatre became an official sponsor, graciously opening their doors for the youth to have their final performance on a professional stage.

For four weeks the youth met in the studio and studied techniques in writing, acting, directing, voice and movement with a lineup of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winners and nominees. We purposefully, under advisement from the onsite psychologist, avoided any activities that would require participants to disclose their painful stories. It was a delicate balance to maintain — avoiding re-traumatizing the youth while still welcoming whatever heartache they carried with them each day.

At the end of four weeks, we put the youth into small groups with the Guest Artists. Each group received a synopsis of a fairy tale and images of how that fairy tale was portrayed throughout different cultures. They then had 24 hours to write, produce and rehearse original 10-minute plays setting the fairy tale in modern day NYC before performing in front of a live audience.

The most wondrous thing happened that night at The Helen Mills. The audience saw the youth transform before their eyes. Nathaniel, who could barely speak, silenced the audience with his poem about the “wolf” that haunts him. Anthony, who spends his days afraid to be noticed, fearlessly danced around the stage, singing about being in love. Reagan, who used to whisper every conversation, commanded the stage with such authority the audience thought he was a professional actor. I could go on and on. The youth had found their voices and told us that they are, indeed, so much more than homeless.


Follow the Crossing Bridges project on Twitter @CBridgesProject