An anti-gang initiative was kicked off Wednesday with a performance from a local theatre company that has made a name for itself helping youth learn the skills to avoid a gang's clutches.
Members of Street Spirits took about 200 elementary school students through a scenario in which a girl is coaxed and bullied into selling drugs and then into recruiting others to do the dealing for her.
There is also a fair amount of audience participation.
"What we do is called 'form theatre,'" said Gwen Hall, one of the actors who took to the stage at the Civic Centre. "We do our play and then we ask the audience members to come up and fix it, change it, make it right."
Although toned down slightly for the younger audiences, the performances touch on serious issues - gang violence, alcohol and drug abuse, child abuse, the sex trade.
"We build these short, one-act plays where everything is broken," said Kaiser Glaab, also an actor with the troupe.
One lesson they convey is that recruitment into a gang can come from unexpected sources and can occur in "a blink of an eye."
"You have fight with your parents, somebody know this and they're like 'oh, hey well, you can come hang out with us but we need some help with a couple of things' and you just get roped in so fast," said Hall.
Both Hall and Glaab have been approached by gang recruiters. Fortunately, both knew the signs and told them to get lost.
"Divide and conquer," Hall said when asked what tactics are used. "They want you to be alienated from your friends and your family so that they're the only ones you have so that when there's a problem you come to them and they dictate your life."
Initial contact often involves offers of supposedly free alcohol and drugs but those offers soon become debts that the target is bullied into working off through various means.
"These people are good at what they do," Glaab said. "They have been for years, that's how it works."
Not only does Street Spirits spread the message of how to stay away from the gang life but also provides something of a refuge for young people who feel a little adrift and on their own.
"It's really cool because you have somewhere to go where it's a safe space and you can talk about your problems, you can talk about whatever you want," Hall said. "Nobody's going to judge you at Street Spirits, nobody's going to laugh at you. They'll laugh with you for sure, but not at you."
Andrew Burton, who founded the troupe in 1999, said Street Spirits always welcomes new members and noted some have had the opportunity to travel. Earlier this month, four of them were in New York City for the Performing the World International Conference.
"We don't require any acting skills to begin," Burton said. "Our rehearsals are acting classes and it's all free."
Rehearsals are held every Thursday at 6 p.m. at YAP Friends, 1148-7th Ave., across from city hall. To become a member, you must attend at least four rehearsals. For more information, go to www.streetspirits.com.