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Fairbanks play sheds light on the lives of homeless, at-risk youths

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Posted: Sunday, May 9, 2010 4:40 am | Updated: 1:24 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — In “Alice in the Underground,” actors portray teens who have struggled with life on the streets. But most of the play’s stars won’t be pretending.

Homeless and at-risk youths make up about half of the cast of “Alice,” which opened with a free show Thursday evening at the Empress Theatre.

The play’s lead star and narrator, Brittany Ivey and Brandon “Pinstripe” Houger, were locked out of their apartment a month ago and never allowed to retrieve their possessions.

Desiree “Snickers” Krei, who plays Frog, is raising a 2-year-old daughter on a bare-bones budget while trying to move to a stable living situation in Anderson.

Michael Carter, known on stage as Burrito and Tweedle Dee, once lived in a tiny efficiency with 16 roommates.

They play fictional characters, but “Alice,” written by Americorps worker Cassidy Phillips, hits close to home.

“Cassidy pretty much nailed it,” Houger said. “He hung out with us a long time and heard all of our stories.”

There are 7:30 p.m. showings of “Alice” May 14 and 15. Tickets are $20. Student, military and senior discounts are $15, and anyone under 18 gets free admission.

The proceeds go to the Street Outreach and Advocacy Program, a division of Fairbanks Counseling and Adoption.

SOAP operates a downtown center where at-risk youths can hang out, grab a meal or get help finding a job or counseling.

Director Sarah Finnell, who works at SOAP, said “Alice” will serve as more than just a fundraiser.

“It’s more about telling their stories than about raising the money,” Finnell said. “... It’s amazing to see some of the teens, upon hearing other teens’ stories, will say, ‘Hey, that happened to me’ and ‘I can relate to that.’”

“Alice” is a surreal take on a real subject. Jabbering dialogue about numbers and physics is contrasted by domestic abuse, suicide, drug use and profanity. The play is rated PG-16, which means it might not be suitable for anyone younger than 16.

It follows 16-year-old Alice as she runs away from an abusive stepfather and ends up at a rave, at an eccentric drug dealer’s house and under arrest, among other misadventures.

Ivey previously had been in a school play, but that’s about it. “It’s nerve-wracking,” she said a week ago of playing the lead. She echoed that sentiment after a performance Friday night but was excited for the next performance.

Houger, Ivey’s beau, slipped into the role of Raven after the original actor stopped showing up. It’s actually a natural fit for him: Raven woos Alice in the play, so Houger flirts with his real-life girlfriend.

He also was anxious Friday night, chugging five bottles of water as he waited to spring from a Dumpster and deliver monologues.

Phillips, 26, has never written a play — he’s dabbled in poetry and short stories — but felt it was the best way to raise money.

“I thought that it would be more fun to do a play than a concert or something,” he said.

“Alice” has several monologues derived from actual testimony by homeless youths. Some include graphic descriptions of violence and drug use.

Finnell recalled when an at-risk student carried a seen-it-all attitude, and in response, she read him some of the testimonials that inspired the monologues. He was floored, she said.

“They might feel alone because they weren’t able to talk about their experiences with anybody or they never felt like anybody would listen to them,” Finnell said, “but now they’re hearing other people’s stories come out, and that’s making them want to tell their stories. It’s really therapeutic.”

Volunteers from across the Fairbanks arts community have filled in the rest of the roles and technical jobs. They helped the at-risk youths get a crash course in community theater, as the inexperienced actors had to learn their roles while dealing with an often-chaotic lifestyle.

Despite the at-risk youths’ lack of experience on stage, Tyler McClendon said they bring a dose of reality that can’t be matched by anyone who hasn’t been in their shoes.

“These are their stories, and they just bring their everything into the show, much more than I can as an actor,” he said.

McClendon, a 16-year-old who has acted since he was in third grade, said the experience has changed his perception of Fairbanks’ homeless youths.

“I’ve always had this image of the homeless kid as the troublemaker, someone to stay away from,” McClendon said. “But these kids are not any different from me.”

Contact staff writer Joshua Armstrong at 459-7523.

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