'Runaways': Teen students take it to the streets

'Runaways.' Photo by John Moore
‘Runaways.’ Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

DCPA Education students didn’t just perform Runaways last month. They took it to the streets. Specifically, they took it to the public alley between Arapahoe and Champa streets just off the 16th Street Mall.

The daring conceit was the result of a collaboration between DCPA Education and the Denver Theatre District, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes downtown businesses through cultural promotions and investment in public art.
Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski DCPA Education recently wrapped a full summer catalog of classes for students of all ages. The specific objective of the summer production class for high-schoolers was to stage an adaptation of Elizabeth Swados’ iconic, fact-based 1978 musical about the lives of children who run away from home and live on the city streets. The script was based on interviews with kids who were abused, came from broken families or lived in orphanages.

One of the reasons Runaways was such a sensation when it landed on Broadway 35 years ago was that many of the 28 original cast members were actual runaways.

DCPA Education Curriculum Manager Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski adapted Runaways into a non-musical play for his summer students. When he and Education Director Allison Watrous were approached by the Denver Theatre District about forming some kind of a partnership, Elkins-Zeglarski thought taking Runaways outside of a theatre and into a public alley was a perfect way to put his high-school students – none of whom are actually homeless – inside the world of the play.

Photos by John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter. To download any photo for free in a variety of sizes, just click “View original Flickr image.’

About two dozen people walking down the 16th Street Mall near the Rialto Cafe stopped to take in all or part of the outdoor performance on Aug. 7. (There was also one public indoor performance in the DCPA’s Conservatory Theatre.) The young actors told their characters’ stories and acted out their hardships through a series of monologues, poems and short scenes. As might be expected, most people passing by on the mall kept walking without breaking stride.

“I think that showed the students what it is like to be not seen,” said Elkins-Zeglarski, who talked with his students at length about the concept of “otherness” in the weeks leading up to the performance. “People passed them by in that same way we so often pass by people who are homeless or street-bound.”


He said his students came to appreciate the frustration the homeless must feel for being perceived as a visibly invisible human blight. “One of my students told me afterward, ‘I can see now why people on the street are aggressive sometimes,’ ” Elkins-Zeglarski said. “Maybe that’s the only way to be noticed.”

Audience members, a mix of curious strangers alongside the actors’ proud family and friends, had a variety of responses to the work. “One woman who was a foster mother was quite moved by the production because she saw the lives of the children she fosters on the stage,” Elkins-Zeglarski said. “But she also felt (the script) failed to tell the story of people like her who are trying to provide a safe haven for children in that situation.”

Runaways. Photo by John Moore.
Runaways. Photo by John Moore.

Elkins-Zeglarski, who was a member of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s acting ensemble in 2013, called his environmental staging of Runaways an example Runaways. Photo by John Moore. of important educational theatre that will have a lasting effect on his budding thespians – on and off-stage. 

“I think their greatest takeaway was the power of hard work,” he said. “It showed them that strong acting choices and a strong rehearsal process can produce impactful theatre outside of a standard production venue, without all the lights, the set pieces and the sound cues. That’s what blew them away.”

Enrollment has begun for fall classes beginning Oct. 3.  Click here for information on child and teen classes, and click here for information on adult classes. For more, call 303-446-4892.

Runaways. Photo by John Moore. Runaways. Photo by John Moore.

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