New play highlights youth court, safe schools

Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002

"A Substantial Risk," a courtroom drama being performed this week in Kenai, blurs the line between theater and reality with its topic taken from current events, its actors who participate in a real court program and even the setting -- the courtroom in the old Kenai courthouse.

The play is presented by the Kenai Youth Court program. Many of the actors are active participants in the youth court program and the case being tried in the play is one that could be tried by a real youth court.

In the play, student body president Alex Baxter -- played by Quincy Bird, a 2001 graduate of Nikiski High School -- is concerned about the safety of his fellow high school students in the wake of school shootings across the country. He tries to implement a plan to improve the safety of his high school but his plan is rejected by the school's principal, Mr. Cline -- played by area attorney, Mark Osterman. Alex decides to take matters into his own hands and stages a phony shooting with a squirt gun to show how vulnerable his school is to an attack.

When several teachers think the squirt gun Alex uses is real, he is charged with fourth-degree assault. Because the crime is a misdemeanor, it can be tried by a youth court, consisting of a jury, defense attorney, prosecuting attorney and judge who are all students at Alex's school.

"A Substantial Risk" takes place in the courtroom. The prosecutor, played by Tom Lassen, a 2002 graduate of Nikiski High School, and the defense attorney -- double cast with Ramona Baker, a junior at Nikiski High School, and Jenny Miller, a youth court participant and 2002 graduate of Nikiski High School -- interview witnesses and Alex, introduce evidence and argue their cases. The audience is left guessing until the end as to what the verdict will be.

The play demonstrates the functions of the youth court program and brings up the important issue of school violence.

"I think (bringing it up) does more good than ignoring a problem," said Mario Bird, a film major at Notre Dame University who is a witness in the play. "I think it's not something that you can sweep under the rug."

Nikiski drama teacher, Joe Rizzo, who wrote and directed the play, said "A Substantial Risk" is more of a commentary on national school safety than it is on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and that school violence isn't the main point of the play.

"The truth is, the play is more about student empowerment in ensuring their own learning environment and opportunities than it is about school shootings," he said. "It happens to speak to the important issue of school violence but that is not its overall message."


In a rehearsal Saturday, the prosecuting attorney, left, played by Tom Lassen, and court bailiff, center, played by Nick Hite, back a surprise witness, left, played by Paul Morin, out of the court while the judge, played by Megan Kohler, attempts to maintain order in the background.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Tackling topics like school safety, student empowerment and the intricacies of the trial procedure is a lot to ask of students on summer vacation, but the students actors have done a great job with the challenge, Rizzo said.

"It has been a great cast to work with," he said. "It's great dedication when folks will come in every night for rehearsal in the middle of the summer."

Students aren't the only ones who dedicated their evenings and weekends to rehearsals.

The cast includes several guest adult actors, including Bird, Osterman, Terry Burdick, a librarian in Soldotna, and Chris and Carla Jenness, two teachers at Nikiski High School.

"It was a lot like work the first couple of nights," Osterman said, referring to rehearsing a courtroom drama when he is an attorney. "It's been fun to work with the kids. They're a very bright and talented bunch of kids. I'm real impressed with the demeanor of the students and their level of participation and level of understanding."

Rizzo aimed for as much accuracy and realism as possible in the script and performance of the play, hence the performances being held in a real courtroom. The audience will sit in the gallery while the judge, attorneys, jury, bailiff, etc. will occupy their normal positions in the courtroom.

"I think the audience will really have a fun time since they will be so close to the action of the play," Rizzo said. "It will almost be like being part of the story."

Rizzo consulted with several area lawyers and a judge in writing the script to make the courtroom action as accurate as possible, but in some cases he did depart from typical court procedures for entertainment's sake.

"We valued the entertainment of the show more than the technicalities of a real court's procedure," he said. "As long as no audience members who happen to be real attorneys stand up and yell 'objection, your honor,' no one in the audience will probably notice breaches in procedure."


In a rehearsal Saturday, the prosecuting attorney, left, payed by Tom Lassen, gestures to the defendant, played by Quincy Bird, and makes and inflammatory comment that upsets the witness, played by Tatiana Butler, while the judge, played by Breanna Butler, listens.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Osterman was good natured about the procedural discrepancies and advised Rizzo and fellow actors in a few scenes on how similar situations would be handled in a real courtroom.

"The dynamic of a courtroom is here," he said. "But a real courtroom is a bit more boring than this. (The discrepancy) does lend itself to some interesting drama."

The play runs about 50 minutes with no intermissions. It is not well suited for young children. The action and dialogue is fast-paced with plot twists and surprise testimonies that on one hand give depth and complexity to the script, but on the other hand require the attention of the audience.

"It's not escapism, this is going to require some thinking and involvement of the audience," Osterman said.

"A Substantial Risk" will be performed at 7 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday in the courtroom at the old Kenai courthouse next to the library.

Tickets are $5 and are available in advance at the Dollar Store in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna and at Charlotte's Restaurant in Kenai. A limited number of tickets will be sold at the door.

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