SEATTLE – An unprecedented (both in Seattle and nationally) partnership between the Seattle Police Department and The 5th Avenue Theatre launches an innovative approach to youth gang violence prevention. Seattle Police Deputy Chief John Diaz, 5th Avenue Theatre Associate Artistic Director Bill Berry, Seattle Police Foundation Board President Michael Malone and 5th Avenue Board member Anna Laszlo announced the West Side Story Project – a community-wide project designed to engage middle and high school students as well as Seattle’s adult community in a series of events focusing on youth gang violence prevention.
Marking its 50th anniversary in 2007, West Side Story is the classic American musical of two rival youth gangs in New York City (Jets and Sharks) whose battle for turf and superiority provides the backdrop to an exploration of youth gangs, police relationships, prejudice and the romance of two young people caught in a violent cross-cultural struggle. The electrifying music of Leonard Bernstein and the prophetic lyrics of Stephen Sondheim hauntingly paint a picture as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.
Taking advantage of The 5th Avenue’s upcoming production of this quintessential musical, the West Side Story Project utilizes the popular musical as a backdrop for an ongoing community dialogue about the lure of gang membership, relationships between police and youth and the harsh realities of youth violence. In an effort to facilitate and broaden this conversation, several events have been planned, each with a different target audience. The project culminates with participating youth creating and performing a modern version of the classic musical as well as being provided an opportunity to attend The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production.
“Musical theatre has a long-standing history of confronting social problems head-on,” stated West Side Story Director Bill Berry. “We at The 5th are excited by the opportunity to participate in this unique collaboration and to help facilitate a community dialogue about these important issues.”
“We are constantly searching for ways to be innovative in crime prevention and intervention,” noted Deputy Chief John Diaz. “The community benefit is heightened awareness of a problem plaguing cities across the United States: gang violence.”
“The breadth and depth of this project is very exciting and truly represents a community-wide effort with the collaboration of Town Hall Seattle which will host our public policy dialogue, Seattle’s middle and high schools, Seattle Parks and Recreation, the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County and King County Parks,” added Anna Laszlo.
“One of the primary reasons behind the creation the Seattle Police Foundation (SPF) was to support unique and innovative programs that result in a safer community,” expressed Michael Malone. “SPF is proud to be a part of this ambitious partnership.”
The following list is a synopsis of events that encompass the West Side Story Project.
Teen Advisory Council Meetings
An advisory council of 33 students from Ballard, Roosevelt, Garfield and Chief Sealth high schools has been working directly with SPD officers and 5th Avenue staff for the past 4 months to frame the themes and discussions for the two West Side Story Project Youth Summits.
West Side Story Project Youth Summits – March 30th and April 17th
The summits will explore the issues of gang involvement, police relations and valuing differences using West Side Story as a springboard for the dialogue. One summit will be held for high school students and another for middle school students. The summits will be 5 hours in length with 120 attendees expected at each. Four workshops based upon particular scenes and songs from West Side Story will be co-facilitated by SPD officers, youth program specialists and the Teen Advisory Council members. The high school Youth Summit will be held on March 30th and the middle school Youth Summit will be held on April 17th. Both events will take place at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center from 8:30 AM until 1:45 PM.
Creating the 21st Century Story – May 14th
Small groups from Ballard, Garfield, Roosevelt and Chief Sealth high schools will work with a team of teaching artists from The 5th Avenue Theatre to create their own modern version of West Side Story. Just as West Side Story was a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, these students will update West Side Story and present their own 21st century version on stage to members of the Seattle Police Department, 5th Avenue Theatre staff and family and friends of the performers. This special performance will be held at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center on May 14th. The time of the performance has yet to be announced.
Back Stage at The 5th Avenue Theatre
Any youth who attends the summits, participates on the Teen Advisory Council or the 21st Century Story Groups is encouraged to participate in the following opportunities at The 5th Avenue Theatre: rehearsals of West Side Story; meet and engage in “talk-backs” with the actors portraying the youth in West Side Story, thus providing insight for the actors and allowing youth to see how “characters” are developed in a show; and a backstage pass at the theatre, in which students get an inside look at how the show is staged.
West Side Story Project presented at National Policing Conference – April 25th through April 28th
The Annual Meeting of the Police Executive Research Forum (one of the nation’s premier law enforcement organizations dedicated to innovation in policing) will showcase the project during a 90-minute presentation focusing on this unique collaborative effort. Discussants at the panel, entitled “Responding to Gang Violence – Prevention on a New Stage,” will include: David Armstrong, Producing Artistic Director, 5th Avenue Theatre; Clark Kimerer, Deputy Chief of Police, Seattle Police Department, Kim Bogucki, Seattle Police Detective, Community Outreach Program, two youth from the Teen Advisory Council; Anna Laszlo, Circle Solutions, Inc. and West Side Story Project concept originator. Dr. Ellen Scrivner, John Jay College of criminal justice and nationally recognized community policing expert will moderate. The presentation will take place in Chicago during the Police Executive Research Forum’s Annual Meeting April 25th through April 28th.
Exploring “Officer Krupke” at Town Hall – May 22nd
An adult community dialogue will be hosted at Town Hall Seattle. The evening will begin with the cast of West Side Story performing the song “Officer Krupke” live. In this song, the Jets recount their experience of being arrested by Officer Krupke, who sends them to a judge, who decides they need to see a psychiatrist, who sends them to a social worker, who says they’re “no good” and just need to go to jail. The performance will be followed by a facilitated discussion with key Seattle policymakers, the counterparts to the characters in “Officer Krupke” (law enforcement, juvenile court, youth social services and child psychiatry), who will explore the systems’ response to at-risk youth in the Seattle community. This event will take place on May 22nd at 7 PM.
West Side Story at The 5th Avenue Theatre – May 26th - June 17th
Any youth who participated in any of the programs that were a part of the West Side Story Project will be eligible to see The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of West Side Story. 200 tickets have been made available. The show runs at The 5th Avenue Theatre May 26th – June 17th.
West Side Story Project By The Numbers
The year William Shakespeare penned Romeo and Juliet: 1581
The year West Side Story debuted on Broadway: 1957
The number of Seattle youth participating in the West Side Story Project Teen Advisory Council: 33
The number of Seattle youth registered for the two West Side Story Project Youth Summits: 300
The number of police executives expected to attend the Police Executive Research Forum April 25th – April 28th in Chicago: 300
The number of cast members in The 5th Avenue Theatre production of West Side Story: 40
The number of Seattle youth involved in firearm assaults (as assailants, victims or both): 53 (2005 Crime Data)
The percentage of Seattle firearm assaults involving youth (as assailants, victims or both): 25% (2005 Crime Data)
The number of public schools in the Seattle School District: 97
The approximate number of street gangs in Seattle: 200