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April 13, 2014

Original plays bring to life topics that can be all too real to teens

PITTSBURG, Kan. — The first line of Pittsburg High School’s coming theater production asks: “Do you ever take time to look around you? To truly see?”

The answer, at least for students who have been in Greg Shaw’s theater classes for the past seven years, is “yes.”

Their annual original social awareness plays have opened not only their eyes but the eyes of others, and in doing so have earned them a statewide award and national recognition.

Widely known for perfectly executed theater and musical productions at PHS, Shaw has pushed the envelope on including at least one play each season in which a prince doesn’t ride off into the sunset with a princess. Rather, the play focuses on a topic that can be uncomfortable — a topic that can be all too real to the students themselves.

“He is an outspoken advocate for protecting the rights of others,” said high school counselor Rhonda White, who nominated Shaw for a Kansas National Education Association Human and Civil Rights Award. “He has produced plays with themes that represent the raw reality that faces our youth every day.”

The KNEA ultimately chose Shaw for the award, which was presented last week at a ceremony in Topeka. Last fall, Shaw was given the Character Education Partnership’s National Award for Promising Practices.

Shaw began social awareness plays in 2008 with “Phat Girls,” a play about eating disorders. Every year since, his students have conducted research and worked with California playwright Debbie Lamedman to create original scripts that have focused on topics including bullying, global warming, dating violence and prescription drug use.

They have performed the plays for not only the Pittsburg district’s 2,500 students, White said, but also for nearly 13,000 students from schools throughout Southeast Kansas.

“The programs involve more than just a performance,” White said. “Students involved in the productions conduct semester-long research in preparation for the plays. They conduct surveys of students, staff, parents and community. Agencies are contacted and participate in the planning, preparation and talk-back sessions that take place after the performances.”

During the talk-back sessions, multiple microphones are made available so that audience members may participate. White said questions often are serious and thought-provoking for both the audience and the cast members.

“They challenge each (participant) to think about their own behaviors and perceptions,” she said.

Licensed mental health care experts are on hand after the plays to provide support as needed.

Shaw said his cast members make a point to get across to audiences that they aren’t experts — they’ve just become knowledgeable.

“We’re starting a conversation,” he said. “That’s the whole objective of the entire thing. We just want to elicit a response.”

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