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Students turn anger into art at Paramount presentation

Farzad Mashhood

Just a few weeks ago, Sydney Anthony and her co-workers were discussing personal stories of how state budget cuts to schools affected them.

Sydney, 14, talked about her autistic brother, Dalton. Seeking better care, their family moved from Dallas to Pflugerville five years ago for the district's strong special education program, Sydney said. This year, budget cuts could affect that program .

Anthony's co-workers are 16 other Austin-area high school and college students. They were paid by the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department to write and star in a performance at the Paramount Theatre, which was attended by nearly 200 people Saturday.

The Paramount has been partnering with the department for the past three years to recruit students from Title I schools — schools that receive special federal funding because of the number of low-income students they serve — and give these students a minimum-wage summer job as part of the Work-based Learning Program, said Nat Miller, the theater's education and outreach director.

"We're usually going to get the theater kids. But we also get kids that normally would've worked at a fast-food restaurant or a retail store who get to do something artistic," Miller said.

"Here, they're actually getting paid to do art," he said.

Saturday's hourlong performance was a series of often cynical skits, songs and movement pieces created entirely by the students.

Miller and the students decided on the theme of budget cuts on education, and from there, the students interviewed people for stories on which to base the skits. The performance had several sharp critiques of school administrators and politicians for making cuts to the arts.

"Hopefully, it makes (school administrators) think we care, even though we're teenagers," Sydney said.

After the performance, Miller and the teens answered questions from the audience. An audience member proposed showing the performance — which was recorded on DVD — to school administrators. Miller said in an interview later that he hadn't thought of it and is considering how to make the program's impact be felt beyond the theater's walls.

The students had much more control over the script and the show's content than they would in a school performance, said Nikki Guckian, a theater teacher at Lanier High School who has had many students take part in the program but is not affiliated with it.

She said the students have almost complete control over the performance, allowing the show to be presented from their point of view.

The cynical outlook was not stamped out by Miller or the other two co-directors; it was just the students' way of venting their anger about the cuts to education, Miller said.

The fact that students were paid, Miller said to the audience, shows the value that should be put on the arts.

And for working the extra day Saturday, they got a $50 bonus.

fmashhood@statesman.com; 445-3972