Students on stageTheater as a Tool to Inspire Social Change

While working with Milwaukee's experimental Theater X (which has since closed), Marquette University instructor John Schneider was approached to help spearhead a new program that would employ theatrical arts as an anti-violence advocacy tool. This program, initiated by the Federal Attorney General’s office, was originally dubbed “Project CEASEFIRE.”

The project teamed Schneider and local students with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and sponsors CEASEFIRE (a national gun violence awareness initiative), MPS and Safe and Sound to develop original theatrical productions.

Schneider guides students from the Milwaukee community, who work collectively to create original raps, plays, scripts and scenery designs that reflect the realities of issues in their daily lives. The productions allow teens to address pervasive problems such as teen pregnancy, gang violence, sexual abuse and drug use. Together, they combine education with entertainment, presenting the completed productions throughout the community.

Project Non Violence has also worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs’ Targeted Re-Entry program (associated with the Ethan Allen Juvenile Correctional Facility) to help reintroduce young people into society after incarceration. The creative outlet helps these individuals by turning their stories into a compelling educational tool that encourages others to learn from past mistakes, and provides these teens with an opportunity to contribute their skills in a meaningful, constructive way.

Schneider and Project Non-Violence have been recognized for their valuable contributions to the community, earning grants from the Herzfeld Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the prestigious Starfish Award from the Marquette University Law School Restorative Justice Initiative.

When asked about the challenges of running the program, Schneider points to the realities of everyday life that his students face. He mentions the brushes with gangs, guns, drugs and domestic violence the teens encounter on a daily basis, but also cites the amazing resilience of his students, and their ability to transform otherwise negative experiences into positive learning tools.

"I've learned so much from doing this over the last nine years," he says. "I'd like to see the entire city embrace what these kids are doing."