Teen play explores the creative force of flash mobs

Teen actors with the Shadow Company rehearse "Flash!," a Philly Fringe production, on the concourse at Dilworth Plaza. They are (clockwise from left) Thomas Jackson, Emma Harris, Demitre Rodriguez, and Hannah Poremba.
Teen actors with the Shadow Company rehearse "Flash!," a Philly Fringe production, on the concourse at Dilworth Plaza. They are (clockwise from left) Thomas Jackson, Emma Harris, Demitre Rodriguez, and Hannah Poremba.
Posted: September 04, 2010

To the soaring, campy sound of Queen's iconic "Flash," a dynamic group of teenagers - students, actors, and artists, most from the inner city - bursts running and laughing onto the scene like, well, a mob.

Once they have established their stage - in this case, the subway concourse beside City Hall - they answer their cell phones in unison and say, "Tonight? Yeah, I'll be there."

So begins the student-written, publicly staged performance-art piece Flash!, inspired by flash mobs, the large gatherings of teenagers that turned violent several times this year on Philadelphia's streets. It is meant as a meditation on the phenomenon as well as a reclamation of its roots in art, dance, and performance.

The actors also hope to redeem the reputations of their peers, tarnished by the assaults, property damage, and arrests that resulted from flash mobs in Center City and on South Street.

"One of the things we started off talking about . . . was creativity vs. destruction," said Colleen Hughes, the codirector. "We wanted to bring the same force, the same momentum, the same energy into the space and have it be a creative force, not a destructive one."

The play is produced by the theater group Shadow Company, part of Yes! And..., an arts-education nonprofit that runs summer camps for city children. It will be staged as part of the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe, and is the first time Shadow Company has taken part in the festival.

"We're hoping it's something that puts our company - at least our high schoolers - on the map as artists who are willing to take risks," said Michael Brix, Shadow Company's director.

Flash! is more performance art than scripted play, mixing the spoken word and choreographed dance numbers, and encouraging audience participation. As with real flash mobs, all eight performances will be staged in public.

Flash mobs are driven in part by social media, with word of the gatherings spreading through text messages and websites. Echoing that technological aspect, ticket-holders to Flash! will learn the location of their show through an e-mail or text before the performance.

Friday's opening show for family and friends was scheduled for a stretch of South Street that had seen some of the worst of flash mobs.

Throughout the piece, which the students rehearsed this week in the concourse, many themes of their lives emerge - from peer pressure, boredom, and sexual confusion to drugs, violence, and absentee parents.

"The thing that we take from flash mobs is violence," said Derrick Gregory, who rushed to rehearsal Thursday from football practice. "In our play, we show that violence is not only physical but emotional."

Interpretations from other students were as varied as their lives.

"We're trying to say that everyone goes through struggles in life," said Tanaisha Coleman, a junior at Mercy Vocational, a Catholic school in Nicetown. "We're trying to say they're not alone."

At the same time, said Emma Moreno, there is the loneliness of being seen as part of a monolithic crowd (or mob) of teenagers.

"We each have an individual story. We're struggling to be heard," said Moreno, an Abington Friends School sophomore. "We're feeling lonely because everyone sees us as uniform."

Or, said Daysha Gregory, teens are seen as uniformly bad - especially in large groups. Flash mobs, several actors noted, began as performance art, and even Philadelphia's more notorious gatherings were driven in part by informal neighborhood dance troupes that perform in public.

"The cops think that flash mobs are bad, but they're really not - some of them," said Daysha Gregory, a Kensington Business School freshman.

Emma Harris, a Central High School freshman, described the play as "a voice for the teens." In that spirit, Flash! opens with the actors reading their own "Dear Philadelphia" letters, a take on the tourism campaign.

Derrick Gregory, a Randolph Career Academy student who plays football for Dobbins Technical High School, begins with a missive that could speak for thousands of the city's teenagers:

Sorry, I'm not here to tell you how many people die on these streets each year or to tell you I really hate your environment and the city streets you have developed for our teens right now. But to ask you why must these streets be like this and why must we watch a close friend or relative die because of something stupid? Why must we sit and not do anything? Why, Philadelphia?

Weather permitting, performances are scheduled for Saturday, Sunday, Friday, next Saturday, and Sept. 12, 17, and 18. Tickets are $10, available at the festival box office, 215-413-1318; www.livearts-fringe.org; or www.yesandcamp.org

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com.