Rising Youth Theatre works with youth to highlight struggles of underprivileged children

(Courtney Pedroza/DD)
Rising Youth Theatre brings underprivileged youth together in Phoenix Center for the Arts to tell the stories of real kids growing up in Phoenix and provide an outlet for the emerging actors. (Courtney Pedroza/DD)

A downtown theater group tells dynamic stories about the struggles growing up in Phoenix with help from the voices who know it best — underprivileged youth.

Rising Youth Theatre aims for all of its productions to create “riveting art based on people’s stories,” said Rising Youth Theatre co-founder Xanthia Walker. The hope is for all of Rising Youth Theatre’s productions to be based off what real kids in Phoenix are experiencing every day, Walker said.

“We want to be a part of the conversation and our work to be in response to the needs of our community,” co-founder Sarah Sullivan said.

Sullivan and Walker met at ASU while pursuing their Master of Fine Arts degrees in theater for youth and had the idea for a theater that “builds a certain kind of advocacy,” Sullivan said.

After looking at different large cities around the country such as Chicago, they noticed Phoenix didn’t have anything like the theater they had in mind. They saw the artistic potential in the downtown area and Phoenix as an “emerging city,” Walker said.

They both graduated from ASU in 2011 and started Rising Youth Theater soon afterward in a rehearsal room at the Phoenix Center for the Arts.

Rising Youth Theatre rehearsals are held in a small room cluttered with chairs and enthusiastic, focused kids who seem to enjoy acting. As they interact with their peers and learn from the professional artists, other performance groups bustle around them, practicing their own art. There’s a group learning show tunes next door, Phoenix Children’s Chorus down the hall and a youth hip-hop group downstairs.

Sullivan, Walker and their managing director, Ashley Hare, all have full-time jobs. But they make time to work with the kids for hours in rehearsal to ensure they’re getting a creative outlet and putting on quality productions.

Sullivan and Walker created partnerships with many organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, local group homes, churches, schools and after-school programs. They use their partnerships to find kids who understand the struggles of growing up without the privileges of a stable home.

After an audition process, the kids write stories for each production, work with local professional artists and produce a show in about four to six weeks.

Rising Youth Theatre is a nonprofit organization that relies on ticket sales, partnerships and individual donations. A large grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts will help with the production of their upcoming shows.

Rising Youth Theater will chronicle transit experiences in downtown Phoenix with their upcoming production of “Light Rail Plays,” a series of five-minute plays to be performed along the light rail.

Each short is written and acted by one professional artist and one child actor at various points on the light rail from June 6-8. The Light Rail Plays will be Rising Youth Theatre’s eighth production.

Patience Briggs, who is 18 years old, first started at the theater as an actor in their recent play “Shipwrecked,” which is about children caught in the foster-care system. Briggs said she was able to relate to the struggles portrayed in the play because of her experience with Child Protective Services, group homes and foster care.

Briggs is now working on becoming a teaching artist for Rising Youth Theatre, or “an artist that works alongside (the kids) in their artistic development,” Sullivan said.

Rising Youth Theatre separates itself from other youth theaters because of the kids’ constant interaction with professional artists, Sullivan said. They guide the kids in their own artistic journeys and have the opportunity to act as mentors.

Liz Polen studied theater in college and has done plenty of local work. Now she dedicates much of her time to Rising Youth Theatre as a professional who helps the kids write and produce.

“I’ve been able to see some of my own visions be told and to have an idea, then work with other people,” Polen said.

Contact the reporter at mariah.hurst@asu.edu.