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Homeless find self-reliance by becoming actors

The Homeless Theatre Troupe in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, provides a creative way for people to enhance their self-esteem while performing plays based on their real life experiences on the streets. 

New Haven, Connecticut, USA
A year ago, Maria, now 21, was homeless, suffered from low self-esteem and feared expressing her feelings. All that has changed, she says, since she became involved in a theater program for the homeless that provides people with a creative outlet and helps them toward self-reliance. "I can talk to people now and express my feelings and I don’t have to be afraid of anybody trying to put me down," said Maria, who now has an apartment in New Haven. "I keep my head up and I can help other people out now."

Maria, who asked that her last name should not be used, is part of the Homeless Theatre troupe in New Haven. Its actors, homeless and formerly homeless people, create and perform plays based on their experiences and ideas.

The theater troupe evolved from the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, said Willis Diggs, the soup kitchen’s executive director. "We serve evening meals seven days a week, and we came to realize about three or four years ago that we need to do more than just feed people. We needed to do some surgery where previously we were putting Band-Aids."

One result was a coffeehouse where Diggs and his staff met weekly with their homeless guests to provide information and motivation for those working toward self-reliance. A visiting Yale University theater major approached Diggs about creating a performance troupe. "She asked if I would assist her in setting up a theater troupe so they could gain skills, learn how to express themselves and overcome the stigma attached to homeless folks who come to soup kitchens," Diggs said.

They began writing and performing skits at the coffeehouse on what life is like living in a shelter, on the street, trying to raise children on the street, getting food and "working with the powers that be," Diggs said. "It’s helped them express themselves, and also give the general public a clearer picture as to what they’re up against as they struggle for self-reliance." Some skits evolved into longer performances that were performed at Yale, area churches and at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Their audiences understand and appreciate the performers’ messages, Diggs said. "They’ve gotten standing ovations at most of their performances. It sends chills up your spine," he said, referring to the renditions of street life.

Maria had a speaking and singing part in Angel Greetings, the story of a homeless man who had a wife and a job and "how alcohol messed up his life," she said. Acting was daunting, but Maria, armed with her newfound confidence, delivered her part. "For me, it was scary at first, but then when they were telling us just relax and pretend nobody was there and just do the play, it was OK. We all just took a deep breath and just performed."

As the creativity flows, so does self-worth, Diggs said. "There are many who suffer with low self-esteem and some are withdrawn and just didn’t want to talk to others, let alone in front of groups ... I saw them blossom into wanting to actually do more of it and express themselves more in a lot of different things."

Benefits were even more far-reaching, he said. "It gave them a lot of confidence to be able to apply for jobs and go for interviews and do what they need to make it."  (Source: American News Service)

From the July/August 1999 issue of Share International

Articles about homelessness

FAQ on homelessness
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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005