To a clapping, stamping, tambourine clashing version of "For Your Love I Would Do Anything," 20 Ballou High School students run into a small stage area in back of the Arena Stage theater in Southwest. They start singing and join five professional actors who are pouring out the song in full voice, jumping, tumbling and playing maracas, wooden sticks and an electric piano.
"We are going to be what we could never have been with each other before," says Rebecca Rice, the leader of The Troupe.
"Improvise, make up words, each one of you," Rice continues over the sound of the singers, "and if I point to you make up words, anything about love, it doesn't have to rhyme, and then we'll all sing the chorus, 'For Your Love . . .'"
And in a few minutes a half-dozen students have made up and forgotten lyrics, some silly, some moving, some pure nonsense. Then they proceed to creating living "body sculptures," touching each other to form an artwork of connecting bodies that reveals "Anger" in one flash and "Happiness" in the next. They go on to act out improvised scenes of drama about a woman fighting to keep her lover; to portray gods and goddesses; to battle monsters; to imagine a light blub as a drop of sweat.
The professionals are members of Arena Stage's Living Theater which performs eight times a week with groups of high school students, handicapped persons, Lorton inmates. Senior citizens and pre-schoolers throughout the Washington area.
The group's aim is to "make people realize how wonderful and important they are . . . to turn them on to themselves, the issues and tensions affecting them, to the creative energies that enable them to make daring decisions about their lives if they are in touch with themselves," said Robert Alexander, director of Living Stage.
The "Living Stage," show is performed free under the auspices of two National Endowment for the Arts grants totaling $65,000 and a $5,000 D.C. Arts Commission grant.
The troupe recently received an $82,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to do a year-long project for handicapped children in Fairfax County.
"We're reaching the people who usually are bored by the theather," said Alexander, the director. "We've found that the high school students, and many others aren't excited by structured plays that put them in their seats and actors on stage. We want to get them directly involved and excited. We want them to get their bodies and minds in it; to play their body like an instrument so that they know that whay they feel is right."
The Ballou students have worked with the Living Stage since November. Each session advances the students' ability to express their feeling and their awareness of other people's feelings according to group leader Rice.
"Their imaginations were very stunted when they started in November," she said. "They had a very limiting understanding of what they could express and their ability to express was almost non-existent. Now they are able to create scenes, imagine imaginary objects, create stories and use their bodies softly, with agility.
"Whatever group we're working with," said Rice, "we force them to the barrier at which they click off their creativity and then we try to help them go beyond it, to transfer their hidden feelings to things that are on the outside."
The Ballou students, who went through an earthquake, took a trip to Jamaica and offered differing resolutions to a troubled love affair ("I want a love story ending where they get back together," and "Kill that baby,") were unanimous in giving the Living Stage a four-star rating.
"This is a very good place to get into people and let yourself out, experience emotions," said Eric Jacks, an 18-year-old junior. "They help you to get in touch with other people's feelings more easily so your own emotions won't block out reality."
"It starts my imagination running to things that go on in life," said Illainia Baylor, 16. "I've been learning to let my creativity go."
"They have a way of bringing out the way I feel," said Rene Miller, an 18-year-old senior. "When I came in here today it was, you know, just an average day. All Friday's are the same. Now I'm going. I feel free inside.
"No, believe me, it's not just a day off of school," he added.
The students' English teacher, Jean Pierotti, who started taking Ballou classes to the Living Stage two years ago, is just as enthusiastic as the students about the Living Stage's half-drama training, half-psychological therapy session.
In a letter praising the group she called the Living Stage a "freeing, creative and enlivening experience," adding that it helped the students to improve "their sense of themselves their self-confidence and (helped them to get) in touch with their potential."