Playing for laughs

Gunn theater group engages, inspires youth in need

On any given Wednesday evening, children living at the Haven Family House in Menlo Park mill into the classroom that many of them frequent after school to finish up homework or create art. Some take a seat on the multicolored beanbags haphazardly arranged in front of an impromptu stage; others take the moment of unstructured time as an opportunity to peer curiously into the bubbling fish tank or claim a favorite toy as their own.

Within minutes, however, everyone in the room is on their feet, shaking out their arms, wriggling their toes and making "crazy faces." This is all part of the warm-up routine organized by Laughing Matters, an improv theater club from Gunn High School that performs for and facilitates interactive skits and theater games with children living in family shelters and kids undergoing hospital treatment throughout the Palo Alto area. By encouraging youth to express themselves through performance, Laughing Matters seeks to empower kids to break out of their shells and express their creativity freely and without restrictions.

Before last summer, Gunn High School senior and Laughing Matters' president Julia Axelrod had no plans to create an improv theater club, let alone one whose main goal was to serve at-risk youth in the community. But while at a summer camp for performing arts, she met a peer who found solace in the performing arts during her battle with cancer. This story of survival made Axelrod determined to create something similar in her own community, something "that was fun but could still help kids who are struggling to overcome challenging times," she said.

After recruiting friends from her theater class at Gunn, Axelrod set up shows at the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford and through LifeMoves, formerly the InnVision Shelter Network, both of which were a success.

"The shelter loved having us, the kids loved the performances and there's a need for (performances) for the children. So that's what I've been doing ever since," she said.

Henry Alper, a sophomore at Gunn and an officer for Laughing Matters, learned about the club through his involvement in Gunn's theater program, where he also met Axelrod. Membership has expanded to about 55 students since its founding last summer.

Engaging children from 5 to 15 years old could seem like a difficult challenge but Alper said that's simply not true.

"On one hand, they're kids, but on the other hand, people don't really give them enough credit. They're able to connect. It's easier for them to resonate (with the plays) than people think," he said.

Laughing Matters' performances are mostly fantasy and science-fiction related, making them adaptable and relevant to audiences that range from elementary to middle schoolers. Axelrod explained that she finds ideas for plays online or in theater books, recruits students for parts and casts the show depending on students' availability or desire for a part. Performance casts average about five actors and currently take place once a month, though Axelrod thinks this number will increase as the club becomes more established.

"Every show is dependent on student volunteers," Axelrod said. "We have a lot of students who are interested to perform at every show, come to club meetings and practice improv. It's all a student-run organization."

At a recent Haven House performance, Laughing Matters took its audience of eight kids on a mission to Mars to collect "smart rocks" (Hershey's Kisses) to transport back to planet Earth. Along the way, the audience assisted the brave-but-blundering captains of the ship navigate to and from Mars, evade the treacherous Professor Meanfellow and make friends with aliens.

By shouting out to the actors when danger was near or warning them about actions that took place in another scene, the audience played along with Laughing Matters for the duration of the play, further engaging with the material. After each person collected (and devoured) a few smart rocks of their own, the audience and actors set the course for home with a resounding "three, two, one ... blast off!" that could be heard from outside the classroom.

For Alper and many of the other students involved in Laughing Matters, performing on stage for a big audience is nothing new. He said that these performances, although mostly improvised and without the help of carefully created stage props and elaborate costumes, are gratifying because the impact can be seen and felt at the end of each workshop.

"Performing for (the kids) and then tangibly seeing and feeling their enjoyment and energy ... has been rewarding." Alper said. "Just being able to have fun with the kids, it feels like you're actually doing something."

For founder Axelrod, Laughing Matters' progress thus far is only the start. Though she graduates this spring, she said there are plans to keep the club running and expand to as many venues as possible after her departure.

"I think if Laughing Matters continues to be a success, it could expand to other schools and become more of a community thing," she said.

The impression Laughing Matters has made on the community is not only evident in the enthusiasm of high schoolers to become involved but also on a personal level for the kids for whom the group performs.

"There was an older student who said to me, 'Thanks for making me feel like a kid again.' It's really special to see them open up like that and leave their shells," she said. "A lot of times, the kids feel like they have to act cool, like, 'Who are these kids performing?' And by the end, they're all eager to participate."

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