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"Why do we have our struggles?" A teenage boy raps the lyric as his peers watch. He stands beside a gleaming grand piano in the center of the rehearsal room.
Mario Lescot, a theater instructor and the guest speaker for the afternoon, interrupts. "Have you ever watched someone you love struggle?" he asks the crowd of high school students. Heads nod. "I have," he continues. "I watched my brother go through drug addiction and die in the streets." He turns to the boy. "Now look at me. Ask me like I have the answer."
"Why do we have our struggles?" the teen raps.
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Lescot looks unfazed. "I don't care," he says.
"Why do we have our struggles?" the boy asks again.
"I don't care."
The teen opens his arms and begins again, his voice suddenly booming with passion. "Why do we have our struggles!?"
Lescot smiles and gives the young performer a hug. Cheers erupt.
"The more you feel, the more you grow," Lescot explains.
Wearing black, logo-emblazoned T-shirts and sneakers, the 40 young men and women are part of Summer At the Center (SATC), an intensive two-week musical theater program designed for at-risk high school students. Now in its 21st year, the program is presented by Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, where the teens are preparing to perform a Broadway revue-style show on Saturday. In sessions led by local arts professionals, they learn acting and vocal techniques, songwriting skills, and dance styles ranging from ballet to hip-hop to disco.
The students come from broken pasts—many were plucked from continuation high schools, foster care and juvenile detention centers. In an interview process, the teens spoke about their hardships, which include drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, abandonment, violence, learning disabilities and struggles with sexual identity. Organizers whittled down the applicant pool from 100, selecting those whom they believed needed the program the most.
On the day of orientation, artistic director Bill Brawley explained to the students that they are safe here. "We told them, 'We don't know about your past, but we are here with you in the present and the future. What matters is today.'"
Some were a bit guarded at first. "Growing up, I never really had a father," says Jorge, a 17-year-old from Costa Mesa. "I had some trusting issues. But I knew that people here have had hardships, too. They understand."
They practice their choreographed dances in small groups. "Kick! Step-step-step. Kick! Step-step-step," a teacher calls out. A student twirls a young woman into his arms.
The goal of the program is to help students learn how to take "healthy risks," says Talena Mara, head of the education department at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. "It's funny how they're willing to use drugs or steal but they're afraid to get up and dance," Mara says. "I heard a couple of kids say, 'I really have to learn how to have fun where no drugs are involved. I need to figure out how people do that.'" For many students, she says, performing onstage can be euphoric. "It's a different type of high," she says.
SATC, funded by private donations and corporate sponsors, is a collaboration between the Orange County Department of Education and its Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services (ACCESS) division.
For the teens, ready to emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight, the program is like therapy.
Standing near the piano, one young man raps, "I'm gonna take my dreams to so many places. I'm gonna rap my dreams to so many faces."
"Where did that hurt?" Lescot asks.
"My chest, my heart, my soul," the boy replies.
Lescot nods in approval. "You have to feel it," he says.
This article appeared in print as "Once More, With Feeling: Summer at the Center introduces at-risk youth to musical theater."