Coming out of one's shell to change lives

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

That opening sentence from "David Copperfield" could be a touchstone for a new, U-District theater troupe working with homeless youth.

To view our own lives as a hero's journey, as Dickens knew, can be healthy for our well being. For kids on the street that view may be a necessary survival strategy.

The Turtle Theatre Collective, a band of nine actors, educators, artists and drama therapists is undertaking a journey in which they will explore the world of metaphors and symbols with homeless youth in a storytelling, workshop format. About a dozen youth are expected to participate.

The collective, buoyed by a $4,000 matching grant from the city, will encourage the kids to step back, look at their lives, and shape and share their experiences. In a sense, the collective is on a quest powered by a question: What would happen if street youth were allowed to cast their personal stories using the construct of a folk tale or classic children's story? What would it be like to show homeless teens that they are the heroes on their own journey? The process begins Dec. 3 and will run on Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. through Jan. 7 at the Sanctuary Arts Center at University Lutheran Church. The workshops will culminate with a public performance sometime in February.

The effort is Susan Alotrico's brainchild.

Alotrico, 47, a Ballard resident, is a risk taker with a social conscience.

Born in Ripon, Wis. In 1958, "I was the daughter who danced on her father's toes," she recalls.

In high school Alotrico performed in school plays but was so shy she found it difficult to stand up and accept an acting award as herself. For such youthful shyness, which can be marginalizing, acting was an antidote.

"I got to be somebody I wasn't," Alotrico says.

If life at home wasn't idyllic - there were divorce and alcoholism - "I never ran away but I struggled," she recalls.

After graduating from Ripon College in sociology and anthropology Alotrico went into radio, which brought her to Seattle. In the 1990s Alotrico worked for various government agencies, including the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

It wasn't enough.

"I woke up one day. What am I doing?" she asked herself. "This is not me."

Alotrico acted on her doubts. She decided to pursue the theater. At the same time her walks along the Ave caused her to think, "Someone should create a safe environment for these kids."

"But would that be enough?" a friend asked her.

And so the Turtle Theatre Collective was born. "I've always wanted to bridge storytelling and theater," she says.

Alotrico does part time work to pursue her passion.

She knows Turtle Theatre's mission will be, in the best and most difficult senses of the word - interesting.

"We're not going in with a curriculum," she says. "We're very aware of the need to create relationships. Our most important thing is to develop trust. They (homeless youth) don't have healthy adult role models in their lives."

Alotrico notes that the street kids are living a more intense version of the human condition. "A homeless person carries their wounds on the outside," she says. "We carry ours on the inside."

She believes in the transforming power of art.

"You tap into your heart," she states. "It's when our souls get to express themselves without having to be censored. It's freeing."

And where did the Turtle Theatre get its name? she's asked.

Alotrico says a homeless girl told her, "We have hard shells on the outside. We're soft on the inside."

"They need their shell," Alotrico notes. "It's survival. But come along and play with us. "It's a heroes journey were all on."

To make a donation or volunteer to help with the Turtle Theatre Collective project call Leslie Bourgoin at Sanctuary Arts Center: 206-522-6526. Or email: Cash donations, business discounts or gift certificates for food, clothing and essential toiletries for youth are encouraged.[[In-content Ad]]