A 20th anniversary is a notable milestone for any theater company, but it's especially remarkable for Real Life Players, which according to artistic director Valli Baldwin is the only theater group in the country owned and operated by its teen members.
The group was founded 20 years ago this month, and the 11 original members mounted their first production in 1995 — We're All in This Together, a revue that provided a rough template for the more ambitious shows that would follow. Real Life Players' full-length scripted works — written and performed by company members representing a wide range of area schools from Hendersonville to Franklin — strive to address an array of issues faced by young and old alike.
"Originally, RLP was a project to raise money," says Baldwin, who has overseen the troupe's yearly productions since its inception, and is the only adult involved. "That's how the first production came about. The kids did a show and donated the money to charity."
Within five years, as the annual productions kept coming, the troupe, which features students in grades 7 through 12, began to define itself more clearly as a community theater run by teens, with an informal administrative structure but also a firm commitment to realistic programming and charitable giving.
"Every edition of the company does it all on their own," says Baldwin. "There have been no adult organizations — no church, no school, no business — supervising or sponsoring their efforts. The kids mount the show out of their own resources — then every dollar they take in goes to a designated charity."
For a sense of historical perspective, consider that the young people participating in the current show weren't even alive when the company first launched. The legacy has passed to a new generation.
Involvement in Real Life Players is generally a word-of-mouth thing, though the group occasionally has held auditions. Seniority has its privileges when it comes to writing and performing, and the process of building the show begins with script ideas in August. Typically, a mostly complete draft is ready by December. Then weekly rehearsals begin.
"We go all out for this — this is something we're really passionate about," says Reuben Hoyos, a senior at Pope John Paul II High School.
This year's play, Back in the Day, is set in the late 1950s and early '60s. A neighborhood barbecue provides the occasion to observe the world of Walter Cronkite, Ozzie and Harriet, Marilyn Monroe and Sputnik, and to consider the vast changes in American culture, language and society since that time. No spoilers here, but the eventful story tackles a few serious issues while maintaining a PG-13 sensibility.
"The underlying theme is choice," Baldwin says. "That each of us, regardless of age, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or economics, decides how our lives will ultimately turn out — by our choices, not by our circumstances."
Over 20 years, Real Life Players has raised almost $45,000, all of it donated to diverse institutions and organizations such as the pediatric HIV/AIDS clinic at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, Walden's Puddle, Thistle Farms and Project Healing Waters.
"We can't imagine how many lives our donations have affected through the years," says Father Ryan freshman Hannah May. "That's actually my favorite thing about being a part of the company."
"How we decide on which charities we will target is an interesting process," adds Griffin Dobson, a senior at Franklin High School. "We all sit down and vote democratically."
This year's selected charities are the Oasis Crisis Service and Street Outreach Program; the Salama Institute; and the Jason Foundation, an organization dedicated to the prevention of youth suicide.
Baldwin says some people have suggested that Real Life Players could develop its program through more sophisticated business modeling. "There was a single attempt once to establish RLP as a nonprofit," she says. "Frankly, we were stymied by the expense of simply applying for 501(c) 3 status. And I can't stress enough that the kids give away all the money they take in."
Other members of this year's company include Rainey Hull, Phillip Baker, Tanvi Gokhale, Cameron Wright, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay, Quinten Green, Jake O'Rear and Allie Douthat, plus company alum Conor Beath, on board as assistant director.
To learn more about Real Life Players, check out their Facebook page.