Once a week, Excelsior girls are given the opportunity to less loose and express themselves in an “Actor’s Workshop” hosted by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA). Jessica Austgen, a teaching artist with the DCPA, leads weekly improv classes at Excelsior to increase self-esteem and improve self-expression. These individual benefits that our girls realize from these workshops are invaluable and the collective benefits are inspiring as our girls learn teamwork and acceptance.
Jessica Austgen has been leading these classes at Excelsior for five years now! We are all so grateful for her dedication and commitment as a volunteer and the girls can’t get enough of her. They look forward to their time with her every week and participating is a privilege that motivates the girls to work hard on their treatment and have good behaviors so they can attend class that week.
From an outsider’s perspective, the Actor’s Workshop classes may look silly and a bit immature as teenage girls shout out questions at one another like ‘do unicorns poo glitter?’ and ‘is Hello Kitty a devil cat?’. An outsider would likely wonder why girls are speaking gibberish to one another while another translates in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. More than anything, they probably wonder how these acting games and improv exercises benefit the treatment and well-being of Excelsior’s girls.
Well any Excelsior ‘insider’ can see the benefits immediately. Simply witnessing our girls smile and laugh unreservedly is a huge accomplishment in itself, but the benefits reach much deeper than that. For Excelsior’s girls, this workshop is an important outlet through which they can express themselves, process their emotions and experiences and most importantly be themselves. Austgen describes it as “a space where they’re not judged, where they’re just encouraged to speak. They’re able to just share their day with their peers and their teachers.” This is huge for our girls’ self-confidence and self-esteem, two things that almost every one of our girls lack. Furthermore, the non-judgment and freedom of expression helps our girls accept themselves and honor one another’s differences.
Each exercise and game serves a specific purpose when it comes to supporting the recovery of our girls. A game called ‘translator’, where a student posing as a foreign expert translates the gibberish of her peers, encourages students to listen intently to words and body language, enhancing communication skills and confidence in speaking. Another game called ‘driving’ encourages students to listen to one another and make big character choices. Other games simply allow the girls to be kids again, as they crack themselves up over jokes about pooping unicorns and run around pretending to be jellyfish. The creative outlet these games afford our girls can be easily underestimated, but they are invaluable to our girls – girls who have experienced unspeakable trauma and faced a wide range of emotional and mental issues in their short lives.
Laughter doesn’t come easily to our young girls, so bringing it out is a huge success in itself. Austgen remembers sitting in a circle with a group of girls, wrapping up class for the day: “This one girl was like, ‘I smiled today’. The fact that our class gave the girl her only smile she had all day, that means we accomplished something. That is the cornerstone of my experience here.”
Photos courtesy of: Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel