Greetings from Newtok, Alaska!

We arrived yesterday morning around 9:00 thanks to a weather window and met Principal Lisa Kwoka, our excellent and accommodating host.

We have one classroom for sleeping and stuff storage, one classroom part time for art projects, and another one after school for rehearsals. The gym is our performance space.

Art projects are starting today with Kindergarten and first graders using water color to paint salmon that we will use for the show. We have a schedule for the week to work with every grade level - art projects are in the morning.

In the afternoon we went into the high school classes introducing ourselves and encouraging the students to come to rehearsal. Eight students came, six girls and two boys. One boy left after the snack break. The energy from the group was great and they were very excited to participate in the show. After playing some theater games and doing some exercises, we did a read-through with the students switching off parts.

We have auditions today and plan to cast the play.



Wrestling with our Stories by Amber Naylor

In February, I was honored to have the opportunity to give the sermon at Lake Street Church of Evanston on AOA's work in Panama. Acting Out Awareness is a secular organization, but we are committed to helping people tell their whole stories- which means we cannot ignore the religious identities and faith traditions we live and work in. Our spirituality and beliefs influence our stories. Below is the message I shared that morning, speaking about our work in Panama and how it relates to my own personal Christian identity:

I am excited to be in worship with you this morning and to have the opportunity to share a little about my life and work beyond Lake Street. I founded the organization Acting Out Awareness, and our mission is to empower individuals and communities to make change through performance. We make storytellers. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Psychologists rank human needs as follows: first, food & water, second, shelter, and third, someone to listen to our stories. If you would like to know more about AOA after my sermon today please find me during coffee hour or pick up a flyer with our website on it-

We know storytelling is an integral part of who we are. It is a uniquely human need to tell our stories and be understood. The most important moments of my Peace Corps service in Panama happened in hammock, telling stories around a bowl of rice and a glass of kool-aid.

For an AOA camp, we train our facilitators to focus on listening to the stories of our participants. We hope they learn how to treat their drinking water with chlorine and use protection to prevent HIV, but more importantly, we hope they learn how to find their voice. You can’t advocate for a community water project from a prejudiced government unless you can speak out about racism. You can’t set boundaries in an intimate relationship unless you have the confidence to say no. You can’t build trusting relationships and unite communities unless you can find the place where our individual stories intersect. Over the course of 5 long days, we provide a safe space for teens to reflect on their personal goals and values and wrestle with community issues, cumulating in a community meal and night of performance. It is inspiring, frustrating, exciting, and exhausting work.

AOA hosted two of these camps this past January on the Ngäbe-Bugle reservation in Panama. Preparation for these specific camps started last April. After months of networking and interviewing, AOA found 9 Chicago playwrights. We partnered each playwright with an indigenous community to develop a ten-minute play about either handwashing or HIV prevention in culturally relevant ways.

I was rather concerned about one playwright, Tim, at the playwright orientation when he suggested including an interpretative dance with silk ribbons in his play. Not wanting to stifle creative expression, I didn’t say anything, but I was pretty sure that was just not going to translate across cultures.

As November came, playwrights and volunteers made revisions and edits to their final plays, and I was nervous. There were several scripts I hadn’t seen yet. It felt like the cultural chasm between Chicago and the Ngäbes- a rural indigenous population in a tropical country- just couldn’t be bigger. We had never done cross-cultural playwrighting before, I wasn’t sure it would work.

Tim’s final script was good, even though the silk ribbons didn’t make the final cut. He took the name of the town, La Gloria, and made it into a prophetic character, somewhere between an apparition and an oracle. She sweeps into town in the midst of a water crisis. The water systems of the town are in disrepair and are producing less water than in the past. It doesn’t seem to be raining as much as it used to. The older generation is dismissive and critical of the younger generation, motivating them to disengage and move away. La Gloria arrives as a stranger, a foreign figure to this community. She encourages them to heed her advice and protect their water sources, to promote conservation, and to organize themselves as an intergenerational community to maintain the system. As she leaves, they ask her who she is. She replies, am I not you? Are these not your ideas? The final picture is a newly formed water committee setting out to plan a work day.

It’s a good plot, but I was still not convinced this oracle character was going to make any sense to my Ngäbe audience.

Fast forward to the final day of the second camp. This is the 9th day wrangling 40 teenagers. Friday, January 20th. The youth had been awake and rowdy the night before, full of excited energy about the community performance that was now upon us. 6am, with sunrise, cooking chores, and a hike to the river to bathe came way too early. Fortified for the day with fry bread and sugary coffee, final rehearsals started at 8am. While the acting troupes played warm up games and made decorative posters, the rest of the facilitators and I hung stage curtains made of bedsheets, taped up the hand painted backdrop, and raided neighboring homes for props- mostly pots, pans, and five gallon buckets.

Our stage was the main hallway of the school, filling the basketball court with wooden benches from the church and old fashioned wooden desks for the audience. It would be the perfect location by sunset for the performance, but at 10am the uncovered basketball court showed no mercy from the sun. I struggled through tech rehearsal, trying to convey the concept of scene changes and curtain calls while holding a banana leaf over my head in an effort to minimize sunburn. I roasted.

By the afternoon dress rehearsal, the facilitators learned the hard way the paradox that the more tired kids get the more squirrely they are. Everyone was relieved to make it to break time.

By 5, community members had begun to arrive for the performance, bowls and spoons in hand, expectantly awaiting the rice and soup. If you have never made rice for 200 people before, the first thing you need to know is that you need at least a couple giant pailas- an aluminum pot big enough to bathe a toddler in. They easily cook 30 pounds of rice at once. With the rice was a hearty, hot soup of root vegetables and chicken. Perfect for a hot, humid day.

After bathing and eating dinner, we gathered up all of the solar powered lights and lamps we could muster to illuminate our stage. The audience grew to nearly 70 people, more than half of the town. By 7pm, our actors were in places and we were ready to start the show under a blanket of cloudless, starry sky.

Among the many plays, skits, songs, dances, and poetry, La Gloria stole the show. The actors took ownership of the script, adding in cultural phrases and their own indigenous language. Most importantly, they had a blast presenting it. The audience was enthralled, laughing and clapping throughout.

The next morning, when I asked a community member why La Gloria was obviously the audience favorite, she told me, “Because it’s about who we are. We’re Ngäbe. Our land and our water is our culture. It is our home. The town is named after its water source. La Gloria is the name of our fuente de agua- our spring. The actors were playing our people. We know them. And they are right. We have to take ownership of our own water and community.”

Turns out, connecting the script to an identity is far more engaging, meaningful, and enjoyable than any slapstick bit would be. La Gloria was successful not because of any theatrical conventions, but because it simply reflected back to its audience the very essence of who they are and what they care about.

Our stories matter when they point us to our values. During camp, we spent a lot of time encouraging the youth to talk about the various facets of their identity. Like any other indigenous group in the Americas, the Ngäbes face many stereotypes and prejudices. Many of these stereotypes have been internalized- alcoholism, teen pregnancy, lack of education. They seem to blur the line between stereotype and cultural norm. When poverty came up, one boy said, “To be Ngäbe is to be poor. All Ngäbes are poor; if I was rich I am not sure I would be a Ngäbe anymore.”

586 BCE is the assumed date of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire. The northern kingdom had been raided and destroyed years earlier, now the southern kingdom was assaulted, crushing buildings, looting the wealth and resources, and carrying off all but the very poor to serve as slaves elsewhere in the empire. Up to this point, the Israelite identity was defined by their one God, who bestowed upon them a king to rule the Promised land, to worship in one grand temple. One God, one king, one temple. But when the king and temple proved to be fallible, when 2/3 of their cultural identity was lost in a violent siege and genocide, what’s left? Who are you? Who is your God? What do you do with that story?

This was the faith crisis of the writers and editors when it is believed that the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was being assembled. They wrote down their oral traditions, they compared scrolls between the northern and southern kingdoms, they literally copy and pasted things together. Faced with chaos, confusion, and trauma, they sought to find meaning by rewriting their story. 482 times in the Old Testament we find the phrase “your God”. I decided to spare you and chose just 2 of the 480 to share this morning. "I will take you as my people and I will be your God." (Exodus 6:5-7) "On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to them saying, I will be your God." (Ezekiel 20:5) The first thing they teach you in seminary is that if someone in the Bible is stressing how true something is, it probably means a lot of people in that time period were saying it wasn’t.

Storytelling is what the ancient Israelites used to keep their culture and faith alive during Babylonian exile, and it is how they rebuilt their identity upon return to their city. We can’t prove many of the stories ever happened, but historicity wasn’t their purpose. Our stories ground us in an identity and community. The gives us boundaries to hold us together and values to aspire to. They are tangible, physical manifestations of abstract forces like faith, hope, and love.

But stories themselves are not inherently good, it is the values we imbed in them that carry power. For the Ngäbe, limiting an identity to poverty instead of humility can be deadly, when poverty means lack of health care. Building an identity around being the chosen people of God can lead to terrible decisions when that story is told without love and compassion. Today is the Day of Remembrance. It is the 75th anniversary of the passing of executive order 9066 creating the Japanese internment camps of World War 2. FDR signed it, hundreds of government officials carried it out and thousands of US citizens let it happen.

We can’t ignore the ugly parts of our stories; we have to face them and engage with them. Social science researcher Dr. Brené Brown explains, “When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” Challenging our stories is how we learn and grow.

One of my goals not just for Acting Out Awareness but for me personally is to seek out the stories that are not being told, and hand over the stage. My undergraduate degrees taught me how to produce theatre, but my life experience has taught me sometimes I am most powerful sitting in the audience listening.

Recently, it seems like we are living in a scary story and I do not like the plot devices. It is exhausting to keep up with all the news and acts of resistance happening in our country right now. Activism has a reputation for being tough, gritty, angry, and exhausting. Yes, there is tough, gritty, angry, and exhausting work to be done, and many of us are steeped in it all day long. But it’s not the only work. At no point on January 20th 2017 did the news events of my home country cross my mind. I didn’t think, hear, or talk about it. I didn’t have time; I was too busy listening to other people’s stories. Art, listening, compassion- even self-compassion- are equally valid and vital forms of social justice.

To close, I just have two questions for us to consider as we move forward to a new chapter in the life of Lake Street, in our country, and in our world.

What stories among us affirm our identity as beloved and resilient people of God?

What stories do we need to be hearing to challenge us to be better role models of divine compassion, justice, and grace?

Getting to Know You, Reflection by Sean

With the monster of pena locked behind bars, the kids arose at the crack of dawn to stretch their arms to the heavens and then sink to the ground during the first morning of yoga. Many showered before and after the unusual morning exercises and then filed into the kitchen for sweet black water (diluted coffee) and breakfast prepped by the volunteers. They broke off into their respective small groups and the plays began to evolve from read lines to acted scenes and characters were born in the hearts of the actors. Some groups picked up their parts quickly, while others struggled to give form to the stories. They then broke into project groups, a backdrop of mountains and rivers and suns and centros de salud was born. Kids danced and laughed to the song Soy Yo and analyzed and wrote poems.

Two HIV Charlas passed the afternoon, one by an eloquent MINSA rep, who explained the essentials and the second by the Wizard Dario, who put the kids into a trance of participation and critical thinking. Dario's talk was accompanied by the fascination, interest, respect and silence that an amazing professor can inspire in his students. They talked about the psychological effects of learning one has HIV and resources for HIV patients.

A full moon rose as the kids presented a sneak preview of Saturday's presentation, many already having memorized their lines! The 5 min volunteer review at the end of the day lasted 16 minutes- because it was such a full day. The volunteers were so exhausted that (most) fell asleep quickly even with the building nightly shenanigans of the chiquios.

The participants from the communities of Cerro Pita and Palma Gira had mutual interest in getting to know each other from day one. Their interactions were awkward- introductions with false names and auto-presentations and in general they seemed to be struggling with breaking the ice. However, after two days of awkwardness, they decided to dance jegi together for Saturday's presentation.

Sean Schrag-Toso

Youth participants rehearse their scene. The student on the left is portraying a germ named "Valentino Matasanos". Translated, this name means "Valentino Health Killer"!

Youth participants rehearse their scene. The student on the left is portraying a germ named "Valentino Matasanos". Translated, this name means "Valentino Health Killer"!

An Introduction to Banishing Fear and Shame, Reflection from Ben

On the morning of January 11, 2017 the participants of Acting Out Awareness camp arrived at the campus of the mission Jesus Obrero in the town of Tolé. Thirty eight youth from seven communities accompanied by 10 Peace Corps guides and facilitators began the trip hours, or even days earlier from their communities located in the mountainous region, a panorama of patchwork agriculture, grassy savanna and tropical vegetation amidst rugged geography. From varying degrees of isolation the participants in this camp walked  from their houses on labyrinth footpaths leading onto dirt roads and finally stemming out to the national highway that runs by the indigenous reservation in the central pacific mountains; called the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé for the two tribes that inhabit its territory.  With spacious facilities and beautiful grounds shaded by mango trees, the mission in Tolé likened a resort hotel for the kids who rarely travel into modern areas. After looking around and picking their bunks they gathered shyly with the friends and volunteer they'd come with, quietly assessing the group of youth between 10 and 16 years old; a mix of Latin and Ngäbe cultures and languages; and life conditions ranging from extreme poverty to  relative wealth, and education level from middle school dropout  to college bound high school seniors. 

They all cowered equally before the outrageous foreigners (gringos)  whose exaggerated personalities and silly ice breaker games were the antidote for keeping unwilling attitudes from creeping into camp. The theatre training began off the bat by naming the monster emotions of fear and shame and how to slay them with positive and open self expression. The whole group practiced the song and dance routine for the rendition of Enrique Iglesias "Lavando" and then broke up into their theatre groups to read the plays they would work on during the week. Thus, little by little the initial battle of the hero's journey began on the first day of camp. Each hero awakening to their individual potential and the empowering voices in the group that say: "we see you", "we like what we see" and "we will not turn away but rather uplift any part of you that you allow to come out this week."

Ben Garrison

Gearing up for the final performance of camp in Tolé. 

Gearing up for the final performance of camp in Tolé. 

Drigari Camp Reflections from other Facilitators

"Our students that have come from the remote communities surrounding Drigari are pretty awesome. They have been both active and receptive to our wonderful sessions. These sessions have focused on topics such as being a change agent as well as how to dance and act in a short drama. The really wonderful thing is that the majority of people in this little community are gone so we've had our camp space to ourselves free of distractions. Considering how much progress the kids have made, I have a lot of hope for the camp." -Zack

"The rehearsals and the dance performance were my favorite parts of the week.  I got to be silly, animated and fully concentrated on song and dance (two of my favorite things in the world).  Not only that, I got to help creatively convey important information on how/when/why to wash one’s hands to prevent the spread of gastrointestinal illnesses.  And I got to do all of this through an activity that made the kids smile, laugh, and enjoy themselves.  For years now I have wondered how the things I enjoyed most (adventure, performance art and health work) could possibly overlap into one brilliant, joyous, meaningful job.  This week I finally found out.  I’m so thankful Amber thought of it and made it happen.  And AOA is really, truly happening.  I can’t wait to see how it progresses and how many more amazing camps she ends up doing in the future!  I hope this isn’t the last time I get to work with her and help a camp happen, because it was a joy and a privilege.   Until next time!" -Claire




A New Generation of Health Educators in Kuite, by Katherina

My name is Katherina Barguil, and I was fortunate enough to be a facilitator for the 2016 Acting Out Awareness Camp held in Drigari.

I should perhaps begin at the point where everything I’d been planning with my group of kids went down the drain.

 Kuite had emptied out.

During the weeks preceding the AOA Camp in Drigari the community of Kuite had experienced a mass exodus of teenagers; all the kids I’d started to talk to about the camp were leaving, heading out and taking temporary jobs just before the start of the new academic year.

There were some kids who were still around, albeit mildly interested in attending a camp only twenty-five minutes downriver and concerning topics like potable water and handwashing that have characterized the community’s eight-year relationship with Peace Corps. Revealing that HIV would also be addressed throughout the camp roused the most interest among the Kuite kids, who were largely composed of a more conservative demographic; it also became a major contention point with a couple of parents who felt that talking about HIV meant exposing their children to inappropriate material.

While these conversations were difficult to have at times, I believe that having gone through this process with parents and children strengthened my relationship with these families; it was an opportunity to grow as a volunteer and into a person community members could trust with their children.

I waited two hours for all the kids who had signed up for the pre-camp charla portion. The three girls in the group waited with me, and while I was disappointed it allowed me the opportunity to discuss with them how they felt talking about HIV around the boys who would be attending; it made the actual charlas, which occurred the third time around, more inclusive and more comfortable for all those present.

Kuite was without water during this time, so the potable water charla allowed us to disinfect a bucket of water from the river. It allowed for kids to reflect on water storage practices in their households, and gave them an opportunity to self-evaluate. For the hand-washing charla we played with glitter and talked about disease transmission; overall it was very entertaining and reinforced a lot of information that had been passed on to them over the years.

The third charla on HIV/AIDS was entirely new ground for the group, and initially everyone was quiet. Each kid was nervous to be seen as someone who knew too much about the topic; among the girls there was a fear that knowledge about the topic implied sexual promiscuity. Some boys with a religious association were nervous for similar reasons. The interactive activities in this charla were key in dispelling this tension; first showing how HIV/AIDS affects the body’s antibodies and defensive mechanisms through a game helped the kids understand the difference between HIV and AIDS and got them thinking about the personal health implications. Afterwards we played a guessing game about HIV transmission and this helped to dispel a lot of erroneous information.

Camp itself was full of surprises. Throughout it I saw so many of the Kuite kids excited to realize how much they knew; their acting was superb, and as a facilitator and director I had a fantastic time seeing them perform without restraint, progressively more and more shame-free throughout the week.

All they want to do is present their dance and their plays to the community (performance coming soon!), and at least once a week I can hear “Bailando” playing from a phone underneath my house, urging me to go wash my hands, reminding me that in these kids there is so much potential for community education. I’m truly excited to see what these teenage health educators have in store for all of Kuite!

Katherina Barguil 

Why Theatre Matters to Odobate, by MC

“Not one student showed up!  I don’t know where I went wrong!”  I half shouted to my mom.  I was sitting in the tree on top of the hill where cell signal is strong enough to call the States.

“Honey, did you use the word ‘theater’?”

Ahh, of course. 

My name is M. C. Moritz and I was lucky enough to be a facilitator at the 2016 Acting Out Awareness camp in Drigari.  Odobate’s spirited troupe of eight teenagers recently rocked our little mountain town with three performances.  But the journey from shy muchachos to confident young adults was long (…and so incredibly muddy).

Despite visiting every home, putting a sign-up sheet on my door, and blowing the conch shell with all my might, nobody showed up to my first information meeting.  In hindsight, this wasn’t surprising.  I had told my community that we would talk about potable water, hand washing, and HIV.  I tried to sweeten the deal by promising “theater”.  I may as well have said “let’s discuss uncomfortable taboos in a way that makes everyone incredibly vulnerable”.  After the phone call to my mom, I changed my tactics.  “Fire and candy.  School yard.  20 minutes”.  Twenty students showed up.

During that first charla we used the fire to heat a ½” metal pipe which we then used to melt a hole in a plastic 5-gallon bucket.  We then attached a faucet to this hole, essentially making a little water cooler.  We admired our handiwork and went on to learn about safe water storage and treatment.  I had a pocket full of 5 cent hard candies from the local tienda to reward participation.  The kids were stoked!

The next day I presented the second charla on handwashing.  Despite the lack of fire and candy I still had about 15 students attend.  We played several rounds of “Crocodile”, a local game of hand slapping-type play, before digging into the nitty, gritty facts about microbios, diseases, and the awesome power of soap. 

I was most nervous for the final charla addressing HIV and AIDS.  This topic is fraught with more rumors, disinformation, fear, and shame than any of the previous sessions.  As I taped up the large poster papers my mind was racing.  What would their parents think if I tried to teach them about condoms?  What will I do if the conversation turns towards homosexuality?  How can I make them vigilant and not terrified?  When I turned around to face the classroom I found Maestro Milton’s smiling face.  “Want some help today?”  he asked.  Milton is from the big city, but moved to Odobate four years ago and married a local woman.  He currently teaches 7th grade and is one of the most popular teachers at our school.  “Yes, yes I think I need your help very much today!”

The eight students who attended the final charla went on to participate in Drigari.  They had a blast and we hadn’t even completed the soggy walk back home when they started asking “when can we perform? We wanna perform!”.  We ended up have a show in each of Odobate’s 3 neighborhoods.  The women cooked rice and lentils, the men mixed up some chicha to drink, and the students proceeded to drop knowledge bombs on their family and friends.  The most powerful part for me was to see the older community members sit up and take notice.  We did our entire presentation in Spanish and Ngӧberi to make sure Odobate understood that we all have the power and responsibility to protect the health of our community. 

I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity.  I know my students learned a ton and there has even been talk about future performances when school is in session this March.  The Acting Out Awareness seminar has made a difference in Odobate and I can’t wait to see the effect blossom in the coming months.

M.C. Moritz

Bringing AOA to my Town, Reflection from Aaron

Facilitator Training:
Still up to the day before training I was a little nervous about how this event would unfold, but all those anxieties were settled after I was able to gain more insight into the overall goal of this project as well as logistics. I had been busy giving the participants from my community charlas (lectures), finding cooks for the week as well as confirming host families for the kids coming from other communities. The training consisted of numerous ice breakers that were theater related. They got us thinking about how others see us as well as how we present ourselves to those around us. There were three sessions that consisted of elements of theater such as directing, how to stage a scene and how to bring it all together. I’m extremely excited about this project, because not only will the kids be learning about the importance of water safety, disease transmission and sexual health, but they will also be learning about the principals of theater. Being involved with theater in high school taught me some important life skills, like public speaking, working as a team and building confidence. I’m also interested in how the participants will react to the concept of theater since they have had no experience with this idea.

I can confidently say that the first day of camp was a success, although a little awkward. One of the facilitators gave me the analogy of camp to popcorn. The first day is like throwing the kernels into the hot oil. The next days are the kernels heating up and the last day is the kernels popping and having delicious goodness to enjoy. I can’t wait for these teenagers to break through their shells and show the world what their made of. Camp has twenty two participants with age ranges from twelve to eighteen. So for the first sessions we did some ice breakers of learning names as well as an introduction to camp, such as their expectations and what we hope to accomplish. We also had a couple sessions on values and identity as well as a jeopardy hour where we asked questions about what they had learned at the previous lectures required for them to take before camp started. At the end they were matched up with their host families, which was also a new concept for them. Even though I could tell they were nervous and afraid to participate in the camp activities my hope is that they will be able to overcome this obstacle and let loose. Keep that shame monster locked away!

Day 2 of camp started off with a breathing exercise. We began with short rapid breaths, which got our hearts moving. Next we took slow, deep breaths that slowed our hearts and relaxed our bodies. This activity instilled mindfulness, which demonstrated that we are in control our of actions even though we cannot control our surroundings. For the next activities we touched more on being an agent of change as well as health promotion. We discussed the different health organizations in Panama and also what they can do in their communities to encourage behavior change. Finally we announced roles in the plays and read the scripts. Following lunch we added movement to the dialogue, otherwise known as blocking. I will admit that the youth from my community had a hard time accomplishing this, but I think that is mostly associated to them being so young (included in my group were three twelve year olds). Our final session promoted building confidence. We gave them a recipe for success; one cup of positive attitude, one cup of honesty, two cups of respect, one cup of responsibility, and a teaspoon of smiles. Mix these ingredients together, let rest and enjoy! We also invited them to come up with their own scenes, or mini skits, that we assigned for homework which we will be hosting tryouts for.

Definitely the most interesting day of camp. Even though the morning started off with a torrential downpour which caused the river to rise and flooded the entire town of Drigari, we still made the most of it. We began with exploring and acting out different human emotions then led into learning an entire choreography of the song Bailando with a Peace Corps twist. Bailando became Lavando, a song about the importance of hand washing. While we were practicing in the community center the water continued to rise and flooded the entire building. Without skipping a beat we moved into a nearby house and I was surprised by everyone’s flexibility. After practicing our dance we then went into further rehearsals for our skits. Due to the flood and fear of our water system breaking, a few of the other facilitators and I set up a rain water catchment system. I was very thankful to have engineers in our group to help with this unexpected project. After we were finished we returned to our rehearsals and I was blown away by how far my kids had progressed on their skit. They had lines memorized as well as choreography and utilization of props down. Without the help of my colleagues I would have never thought they would be capable of this amount of progress in such a short timespan. After lunch we decided to cancel the afternoon sessions, due to the continuation of rain and the safety of the participants. Instead we came up with an alternative plan for the following day’s activities. Since plans throughout the day were constantly changing we figured we were probably somewhere near plan S at this point. We also came up with a backup plan for our backup plan, henceforth labeled plan T. These evolved into Plan Super (rain stops) and Plan Terrible (more flooding). In Peace Corps as well as life in general it’s always a good rule of thumb to be flexible and to be ready to change plans in a moments notice. If Plan Terrible has to be implemented we will have a shortened version of the last day of camp, but if the rain gods favor us we will be implementing Plan Super. The continued rain in the evening canceled the community movie, but we still had our own movie night with my host family. In all I’m glad it gave us all a chance to spend time with them and increase our bonds. I’d also like to point out how upbeat and positive everyone was today, especially our camp leader Amber.

The final day of camp began with more flooding so at 7 o’clock we decided to engage Plan T. All the participants and facilitators met in the school at ten. We had the youth write thank you notes to donors from the States who made this camp possible. We were also able to run through all of our skits a couple more times before we premiered our debut in front of our peers. There were skits ranging from scenes of improper hand washing to the importance of using a condom for all sexual encounters as well as HIV education. Even though our preparation time had been cut down quite significantly I was welcomed with the amount of enthusiasm and creativity the participants were able to put into their skits. A couple of the groups even had their lines memorized! After the performance we all met in the casa communal where we handed out certificates and lanyards designating them as community health promoters. We were also able to preform our rendition of Lavando in front of some of the members of the community. After spirit awards and lunch we decided to have the participants return to their designated communities via boat. After cleanup and a feedback of the facilitators a much needed afternoon of relaxation was bestowed upon us. With all the challenges that we faced during camp, I felt that it made the experience even more memorable. I had an enormous amount of fun throughout the entire process and learned much more about myself, my community and what the motivation and positive attitudes of others can do than I ever thought was possible. I’m extremely grateful for this experience and am so thankful that I was able to be a part of it. I wish all the best for Acting Out Awareness in the future and I hope that I will be able to work with this organization again soon in the near future!

A little rain never stopped anyone...right?

A little rain never stopped anyone...right?

Regardless, the show goes on!

Regardless, the show goes on!

The Second Camp

I finished my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in August 2015 and spent several months backpacking Central America. By the time I reached the US in December, Leigh and several other PCVs were calling me back. 

Word about the first theatre camp spread, and more communities wanted to try it out. By February 2016 I found myself back in Panama, easily slipping back into my relaxed campo Spanish mixed with indigenous phrases. 

This time, we tackled the Carribbean coastline. The town of Drigari opened its homes to the facilitators and youth from neighboring Kuite and Odobate. I cannot express how welcoming and supportive these families were- especially on day three when we got hit with a flash flood. Within two hours, the community was under three to four feet of water from the overflowing river. There's a reason all homes and buildings in town are on stilts 6 feet in the air.

We managed to keep everyone safe and dry until transportation could be arranged to send everyone home. The final performance didn't get to happen in Drigari, which was incredibly disappointing, but local performances happened later. Lessons were learned, friendships were formed, and meaningful memories were made by everyone. But don't take my word for it. In the proceeding blog posts, I'll let the participating Volunteers share their stories themselves...



Rehearsal in Drigari 

Rehearsal in Drigari 

Alto Caballero Camp Summary & Results

We partnered with the Environmental Health Program of Peace Corps Panamá and the Panamanian Ministry of Health to train 30 indigenous youth as community health promoters on the topics of hand washing, household water treatment, and HIV/AIDS. Each participating teen went through a training program with their local Peace Corps Volunteer on these health issues and interviewed their community health promoter.

Seven acting troupes from five different communities attended a weeklong camp to learn basic acting and directing from theatre professionals. They took classes on self-esteem, character development, Viewpoints movement work, plot structure, monologue writing, and hours of scene rehearsal. Each troupe made their props and costumes as well.

The week culminated in a night of performances. Each troupe performed a short play centered on a health theme, along with songs and dances representing their indigenous cultures. Over 100 community members attended their first-ever live theatre that night.

In the following months, the acting troupes returned to their local communities where they presented their plays and gave health trainings to parents, students, and community leaders. In total, the plays reached an audience of over 500 people in the most underserved regions of the country.

One community member said, “Rich people pay lots of money to travel to cities to see art like this. We’ve been blessed tonight to have it come to us and my only regret is that the rest of the town isn’t here to see it. They really missed out on something beautiful. I am so impressed with the work these teenagers have done in such a short amount of time. They are so talented and intelligent and I am proud to welcome them into my community.”

Fidel, the 12 year old who sang a patriotic song to start the evening told us after the show, "I wasn't listening to my shame monster because if I did I wouldn't have been able to get up and sing in front of everybody."

Youth and Peace Corps Volunteers discuss notes after rehearsal

Youth and Peace Corps Volunteers discuss notes after rehearsal

Turning on the lights was a magic moment!

Turning on the lights was a magic moment!

Standing room only performance for the local community in Cerro Ceniza!

Standing room only performance for the local community in Cerro Ceniza!

The Performance

In a two-hour blur, all of the week’s hard work came to life. Each performance had more energy, excitement, and comedic timing than I’d ever seen of them in rehearsal and the audience loved every minute. As PCVs, hosting a meeting of 10 people is common, and an audience of 30 is a great success. While we started with a crowd just shy of 100, by the night’s peak there were over 130 in attendance from babies to grandparents. Dozens of people walking down the street stopped in the middle of the road to watch- incoming cars had to honk to get the bystanders to move they were so enthralled. 

The show started with a song by 13 year old Fidel “I Want to be an Adventurer” about the rugged Panamanian life with a flag cape, backup drummers, and dramatic gestures. The first play, Tres Hijos, was an adaptation of the three little pigs. Instead of a wolf blowing down the house, a parasite comes and attacks those who do not properly wash their hands! Made up of teens from Alto Caballero, their parents and families loved seeing their kids in the limelight.

We continued with a play written, directed, and acted out by the teens from Bahia Azul in Bocas del Toro about a little orphan boy who had an elaborate costume made out of an old rice sack! Bochinche was the next play, also of teens from Alto Caballero. In Spanish bochinche means gossip, and the play was about how gossip and little lies, particularly regarding HIV and sexual activity, can have severe negative consequences on one’s health, reputation, and relationships. The energy and sass the teens brought to this performance really amped up the comedy.

The Ngäbe-Bugle audience went wild for the cultural dances of the visiting Emberá and Wounaan participants. The group from the Darien was younger than the rest by a few years, had an exhausting 3-day journey to get to camp, and were a minority among minorities. It was so amazing to see the support one indigenous group showed for another as they cheered the tiny dancers on. While they had been quiet throughout the week, they came to life with the support of an enthusiastic audience. At the end of the night Yadilma, a 14 year old Wounaan girl, rushed up to the microphone to express her gratitude towards the community for receiving her and her friends so warmly and graciously.

The next play, of teens from nearby Cerro Ceniza, was Vamos al Rio. In rural Panama, “going to the river” with someone means more than just washing up. In this play a teenager and his girlfriend go to the river in the middle of the night- only to get caught by his parents already there! A hilariously awkward discussion of the birds, bees, HIV, and relationships followed. Heliodoro, who played the father, stole the show and the audience was rolling out of their seats laughing. The cast ran offstage to a standing ovation and tackled me in hugs, giggles, and giddy chatter. I can’t wait to visit Ceniza to see them perform it for their own community!

Abraham and Astry, both of Alto Caballero got lots of cheers for their Bachata dance while the group from Bahia Azul prepared their play, Sueños de Agua. An adaptation of Dicken’s Christmas Carol, a lazy water committee president drinks a little too much homemade corn brew in the fields and has 3 strange dreams that lead him to have a change of heart and overhaul the town water system. The community members laughed at all the colloquialisms and empathized greatly with the struggles of having an effective committee. Still in a lighthearted mood from the previous play, the sudden revelation the little girl had died in a cholera epidemic was an unexpected and dramatic twist of events stunning everyone into silence. It was the most poignant moment of the evening.

Bella, a 15 year old girl from Ceniza sang ‘La Mil Rosa’ acapella beautifully before the Darien group returned with their play Sistema de Defensa. When the worm monster attacks, look to Rambo Cloro to disinfect, boil, or use UV rays for protection! It was a very physical play with great costumes and again, I was blown away by the unprecedented energy the actors put into it. While Sistema cleared, Jose Pablo, the muchacho of muchachos, sang ‘Esperanza’, a crowd favorite. What he may lack in vocal training he more than makes up for in commitment and passion!

Margarita Cochinita was the play presented by the teens from Quebrada Pastor. A little girl with lots of cochina (dirty) habits gets sick from not washing her hands and the health promoter and doctor help explain how invisible bacteria affects us and is defeated by hand soap! Just one day prior, not one person in this 13 minute play was memorized (it wasn’t required due to short rehearsal time) but come show time, there wasn’t a single script onstage!

Abraham performed again, doing an impressively self choreographed hip hop dance to ‘Somebody’ that had everyone on their feet and recording on their phones. The final play of the evening was once again local Alto Caballero teens. Amigos Nuevos tackled the stigmas and prejudices that HIV-positive individuals face on a daily basis. In the end it was decided that everyone could be friends; it would just take some education, effective communication, and time to adjust.

Heliodoro returned to recite a patriotic poem, “Land of Panama” while the rest of us lined up and prepared to come on for the finale. We adapted the popular Enqrique Iglesias song ‘Bailando’ to be ‘Lavando’ about handwashing, complete with lyrics about diarrhea and flatulence, dance moves like the Carlton and grapevine, and a lot of freestyle. 

The evening ended by presenting certificates to all the participants and with various people rushing onstage to thank us for bringing this camp to Alto Caballero. One man said, “Rich people pay lots of money to travel to cities to see art like this. We’ve been blessed tonight to have it come to us and my only regret is that the rest of the town isn’t here to see it. They really missed out on something beautiful. I am so impressed with the work these teenagers have done in such a short amount of time. They are so talented and intelligent and I am proud to welcome them into my community.”

The post-show adrenaline rush provoked an epic onstage dance party while the older people went back for more food. In a flurry of dance moves, high fives, hugs, and handshakes it was suddenly over. 

To say it was a dream come true would be an understatement.

Day 4: Countdown to Show Time

The countdown to a 7 o’clock GO.


13 hours (6am): The facilitator alarm goes off at the school. One person rolls over and turns it off. All continue sleeping.

12 hours (7am): Sleepy teens start arriving for the day’s activities. Barely moving facilitators stumble off towards coffee and breakfast.

11 hours (8am): Only 30 minutes behind schedule, morning warm ups begin led by Justin and Katy. They focus on voice work because with an outdoor space, projection is vital. The teens duke it out in a tongue twister competition, then stand on one side of the basketball court and recite their lines to the facilitator’s on the other side loud enough for us to hear. 

10 hours (9am): Leigh, Justin, Andrea, and I judge individual talent auditions and the youth pull out all the stops to get their songs, dances, poetry recitations, and skits into the night of performance. Meanwhile the other facilitators hold final scene rehearsals with their actors- many surprising us by being off book! 

8.5 hours (10:30am): Tech rehearsal goes exactly how every other tech rehearsal goes- a lot of sitting around and waiting between one flurry of activity and the next. We plan out how to get on and offstage with the furniture/props in the dark without running into each other or falling off the stage. Ben, Matt, Hennessy, and Meredith go to great lengths to get a full set of speakers and microphones to work- a seemingly straightforward task that proves to be quite complex, involving lots of cables, three different sound systems, and a variety of music-producing devices.

7 hours (12pm): The actors break for lunch and the facilitators eat while simultaneously trying to make the sound system work, making props, and taping down cords.

6 hours (1pm): Everyone rehearses the Hand Washing Dance- it is miraculously better when everyone can hear the music!

5 hours (2pm): The one and only dress rehearsal begins. And it starts pouring rain.

What's outdoor theatre without a couple rainstorms?

What's outdoor theatre without a couple rainstorms?

3 hours (4pm): Dress rehearsal finishes with the show time being just under 2 hours (perfect!) We do an ensemble-building activity and share our individual talents we bring to the team. The actors go on break until 5:30PM call time.

2 hours (5pm): Some facilitators start setting up the arroz con pollo and potato salad for dinner, others finish making props, writing positive notes to their actors, getting travel reimbursements, and signing certificates. Alex creates a program and runs around town to get as many copies printed as possible before the printer runs out of ink. Community members begin to arrive for the show!

1 hour (6pm): Peak chaos. With bellies full of rice and chicken, the actors get into costume and makeup while Panamanian party music blares from the sound system. Dozens of community members mill about eating, talking, and glancing curiously at the stage, not sure what is about to happen. Facilitators set out more and more chairs as the audience continues to grow.

15 minutes (6:45pm): All of the actors, captains, and facilitators gather in the ‘green room’ for warm ups and a good luck pep talk. The energy in the room is electric and the teens can barely contain their excitement. Outside the audience has swelled to over 75 people and the last rays of sunset dip below the horizon.

0 minutes (7:00pm): We’re at ‘places’ for the start of the show. Meredith and I walk onstage in the dark and Ben sets up the microphone for us to do the introduction. Hennessy turns on the lights and the audience lets out an audible gasp and ‘Woooow!’

It was as if in that moment, we knew all something magical was about to happen.

Day 3: Music, Monologues, and Monsoons

Today was an exciting day! We started by playing trust games led by Leigh. The kids enjoyed them and started to build ensemble within their groups. After trust games, I taught everyone the choreography for the dance we will be performing on Thursday night. All the kids learned it really quickly, and four of them volunteered to sing the song while the rest of us dance at the performance. 

After lunch, Hennessy taught the kids how to tell their own story. They spilt into partners and told each other about their happiest day. Then they told the stories to the whole group. Fidel, who won one of the spirit awards, told a story about when he gave a presentation for his class and he was scared at first, but then he did well and realized that presenting wasn’t scary. 

Then Justin and I taught the group how to audition and give positive and constructive feedback. Four kids signed up for the auditions tomorrow and they are going to perform a variety of acts including poems or songs. If they do well at their audition, they will perform their act during the performance on Thursday. 

At the end of the day we rehearsed the choreography on the stage, and then we moved into the classroom to play a rousing game of Cat and Mouse. After the game, we all sat down on the floor but suddenly a few of the kids in the corner stood up with a yelp. The room was flooding from the monsoon happening outside. We moved the kids into another room for the spirit awards and the facilitators cleaned up the flood. 

Tomorrow is the last day of camp and the performance! We are all very excited!!


Day 2: Becoming Actors!

Hey Everyone! Justin and Leigh here with an update from the first full day of camp. At this point we’ve been awake for about 18 hours of pure fgdddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd… sorry just briefly fell asleep. 

To start off the day, you might say we rocked our bodies with an hour of introduction to warm ups, theatre yoga, and movement exercises, in an effort to become more familiar with how we use our bodies as we move about the stage. You might also say that we spent an hour imitating monkeys and jaguars. After a drink of water, we moved on to take a first look at our individual scripts. Participants were introduced to the table work process as each play completed a read-through by the actors. Local health promoters made an appearance to shed light on the idea that monetary resources can be replaced by creativity in promoting practices that lead to healthier communities, such as improving water collection, treatment, and storage. 

We then enjoyed a hearty lunch to prepare us for a collective four hours of intensive rehearsals. For the most part these young actors had never before participated in any rehearsal, much less multiple steps of the rehearsal process, crammed into a single day. Despite the staggering amount of work that was set before them, we were somewhat surprised to see just how well they could handle the pressure, follow stage directions, and even contribute intuitive suggestions of their own that we “professionals” hadn’t considered. We also made sure to include physically stimulating games (dragon tag), and other activities directed at reinforcing team building exercises, stage movements, and general healthy practices such as hand washing. 

The long day was concluded with spirit awards for those three most animated actors and words of reflection about the day’s lessons. And so to leave you, for now, on a nice little note, here’s a few translated quotes from some of our participants during the “what did you learn?” exercise.

“Today I learned about respect and how it’s important to understand other people in order to work together for a healthier community.” – Jose Pablo

“I learned that my character has HIV, but that doesn’t define him as a person.” - Fidel

“I learned that my female character can be intense.” -Astry      

-Justin & Leigh


Amber rocks a nagua (the indigenous dress) while updating the blog!

Amber rocks a nagua (the indigenous dress) while updating the blog!

Team Building: Human knot...this took awhile to get sorted out!

Team Building: Human knot...this took awhile to get sorted out!

Dragon Tag! Watch your tail...

Dragon Tag! Watch your tail...

More human knots!

More human knots!

Day 1: Camp Arrival and Welcome

Today was the first day of camp, and it was a success! All the kids made the trip to Alto Caballero safe and sound – a big relief. We started out with an introduction of the facilitators and some games, and got to know everyone. The “Shame Monster” made an appearance and showed how we lose confidence by listening to the voice inside our head that makes us embarrassed to try something new. All the participants wrote down things their shame monster tells them and locked them away in the “jail,” so they wouldn’t have to worry about it during the week. A review competition of disease prevention information they had learned before the camp showed that they are really on top of things – smart kids. Andrea and Katy shared in Spanish (they’re learning quick!) with everyone about why theater and story telling is important to them. At the end of the day everyone was sent home with their host families around the community. For many of us the day started at 4am, so now we’re getting rested up for another day tomorrow!



Amber talks to everyone about the mean 'Shame Monster'!

Amber talks to everyone about the mean 'Shame Monster'!

Training of the Trainers


48 hours until camp launch! While the team captains answered the last minute questions from uncertain parents and double checked the packed bags for the 30 excited kids in site, the facilitators spent an informative day in San Felix, where “the engineers were turned into theatre people and the theatre people were turned into Peace Corps Volunteers.”  After a brief introduction on Ngäbe and Emberá culture for Katy and Andrea, the facilitators practiced effective techniques for running a children’s camp, learned a brief overview of theatre history, and collaborated in small groups to finalize the week’s engaging presentations and activities.  Accomplishments of the day include the completion of an environmental health themed Jeopardy, everyone learning to say “downstage” in Spanish, and finalizing the pounds of rice required to properly feed 40 hungry children and volunteers- 92!


Theatre Camp Facilitators!

Theatre Camp Facilitators!



It’s the final countdown!!! We kicked off the day with a group morning workout followed by a pancake breakfast. In the morning we practiced presenting the tricky parts of the sessions, learned some choreography, and gave everyone a chance to practice being a director. We tried to keep everything really laid back and easy in order to conserve our energy for the crazy days ahead. My neighbor made us tamales for lunch and because avocados are in season, our family dinner is fajitas with a big bowl of guacamole. 

Matt texted me this evening, he and his kids have arrived in Tole, a town 20 minutes from camp. They started their journey Friday morning taking a boat across the ocean, spent Saturday on a bus to Panama City, and another 8 hours on the bus today. It’s a relief to hear that they are still happy and healthy after such a journey.

We’re all set. All that’s left to do is get a good night’s rest. Let’s do this!


3 Days to Go!

Buenos Dias!

This is Andrea and Katy, writing from San Felix in Panama. We both arrived on Thursday and spent the entirety of this day traveling by bus from Panama City. We had quite the journey. What was supposed to be a six hour trip turned into nine hours when the bus broke down and we were stranded for a while. We had a fine the time though, especially at lunch. Katy ordered a dish she described as ‘tasting like chicken’ but unbeknownst to her was actually cow stomach. Both of us were incredibly excited for what was to come. The night before, we had stayed up late talking about our plans for the camp and our goals in the next week. Both of us utilize theatre as a means for social justice back in the states, and when we heard about Amber’s camp, wanted to help in any way we could. 

Currently the rain is coming down here in San Felix. We are staying at Amber’s house tonight, and she has been kind enough to treat us to a spaghetti dinner. Tomorrow we meet the Peace Corps Volunteers and get to begin the first of our theatre training sessions. We hope to make it a fun experience for the Volunteers, and have many games planned. 

Thank you so much for your support! 

-Andrea and Katy

9 Days and Counting!!!

Those exclamation points are mixture of joy and fear at the moment. Fear because no matter what you do, at this point in the game it seems like there is never enough time. However, I slept really well last night knowing that the "TO DO" list is officially shorter than the "DONE" list.

After the grant was filled, there was a delay in Washington. The funds finally arrived in Panama on the 20th, so camp t-shirts have been designed and ordered, materials and prop lists have been compiled, and we have reservations for kids at hostels from one side of the country to another.

Matt is bringing 5 teens from just outside the Sambu Reservation of the Embera-Wounaan in the Darien. It is a three-hour boat ride to his community, and his kids have never left. They will start their journey Saturday the 30th at 4am to make it to camp by Monday, but Matt can’t wait to show them the Panama Canal, mountains, and you know, cars.

On the other side of the country in Bocas, near Costa Rica, Alex has too many kids in her town that want to come to camp. The ones who complete all the preparatory trainings and homework get to go, so we’ll see early next week who the final teens are.

On the nearby Kusapin peninsula in the Caribbean, Dylan’s 4 teens are the envy of the school. Thursday they have a meeting with the head of the local medical center to talk about community health issues and the role of a health promoter.

In the Ngobe-Bugle reservation, just a couple mountains over from where camp will be, Katie is busy building a new water system with her community while holding the training sessions with her teens on Sundays. They finished their prep work last week and are eagerly counting down for the end of the trimester and camp!

A few weeks ago Meredith, Ben, and I held the trainings for the 10 Alto Caballero kids. Their favorite part of the sessions? The skits of course! They couldn’t stop giggling long enough to read their part most times, but were very excited about learning more about theatre!

Meanwhile, Hennessy and Meredith are arranging the food and preparing host families for their short-term adopted sons and daughters. Ben, Justin, and Leigh are preparing their sessions and mentally preparing themselves for a week of high-energy silliness.

Katy graduated from SLU with her degree in acting last week, and Andrea is working on a few different shows in Chicago. Both of them fly to Panama next week Thursday where I will meet them in the City and bring them west to prepare for camp. We had a great skype date yesterday full of questions about packing, water, creepy crawlies, and culture.

Finally, I’m compiling all the session materials, scripts, props, and trying to find all the last minute i’s and t’s to dot or cross. Mostly it feels like my job is to fight with Microsoft Word over formatting. It’s not my favorite part of the process, but it’s almost over. 

Thus far we have a lot of great activities planned, we’re under budget, and we have such a great team of caring leaders that no matter what, the kids are going to have an amazing, once in a lifetime experience. That’s where the joy comes in.



Alex and her team discuss bacteria and hand washing!

Alex and her team discuss bacteria and hand washing!