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Somerville: High School Actors Tackle Tough Social Issues to Benefit Their Peers

STOP - Students Tackling Ordinary Problems - will perform at Somerville High School Tuesday, May 23 at 7 pm. Credits: Courtesy STOP
STOP - Students Rackling Ordinary Problems - will perform at Somerville High School Tuesday, May 23 at 7 p.m. Credits: Courtesy STOP
STOP - Students Rackling Ordinary Problems - will perform at Somerville High School Tuesday, May 23 at 7 p.m. Credits: Courtesy STOP
STOP - Students Rackling Ordinary Problems - will perform at Somerville High School Tuesday, May 23 at 7 p.m. Credits: Courtesy STOP

SOMERVILLE, NJ – Life is often tough and troubled for middle and high school students. Day-to-day routine in middle and high school classrooms and hallways is anything but.

Start with peer pressure.

Conflicts, crises, confrontation pop up like images in a slide show. Problems, incubate and fester; too often, young minds are ill-equipped for logic; instead, they are driven by emotion, leading to knee-jerk reactions and poor choices.

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The pressure for some is enormous, torn between homework and heroin; geometry and gender identity; chemistry and cyber bullying; baseball and binge drinking; marching band or marijuana.

An incisive troupe of young actors and actresses who perform regularly throughout New Jersey are dealing with those issues and others with tough talk and genuine solutions.

STOP – Students Tackling Ordinary Problems - will return to the stage at Somerville High School Tuesday at 7 p.m. May 23 for a street-smart, in-your-face production that deals with a myriad of social issues that confront teens.

The performance, recommended for students 11 and older, as well as parents and families, is presented by Somerset County Youth Services, the Branchburg Recreation Department, the Igloo Collective and AT&T   Admission is free.

A question-and-answer session will follow the one-hour performance.

STOP meets a minimum of three hours per week to craft their scripts so that they are fresh, relevant and appeal to the peers in their audiences. Most of the actors have spent five years in the Branchburg Recreation Department theater program, explains founder and director Deena Meene.

Meene, an actress who graduated college with a theater degree, directed several traditional Broadway shows with the students in that program and responded to their desire to continue acting.

The STOP group formed in 2007 and has continued non-stop, with an infusion of new talent each year to replace those who graduate high school and move on to college or careers.

“We are an educational, traveling theater company that tours to high schools, middle schools and other community and religious organizations to raise awareness about current, social issues our youth faces,” Meene said.

No sugar coating, unfiltered, it’s as real as it gets.

There are no elaborate sets or staging to distract from the message being delivered by the young actors.

Mary Beth Ferris, director of the Branchburg Recreation Department, has seen the show more than a few times and likens the experience to “getting punched in the gut.”

Meene said that is a typical reaction.

“The Montville recreation director told me it was like ‘getting shot between the eyes,’ ‘’ Meene said.

“A friend of mine, a school counselor and psychologist at Voorhees High School says every time we go there, a handful of kids that are made aware through the show that they are in crisis come forward and speak to him; they might have slipped under the radar otherwise.”

Other anecdotes include that of a troubled high school senior, a girl with a bad reputation, often in trouble, cynical, involved in everything and anything that was not good, who sat through the show, and afterwards, in class, stood up and told her classmates:

“Iif I had seen that show when I was a freshmen I would have made a lot of different choices,” Meene said. “It’s good the kids on stage to hear their efforts are not for naught.”

Some of the issues tackled on stage by STOP are anecdotal, based on the experiences of the young actors, according to Meene.

Everything is well-researched; realism is a top priority.

“Our approach is very honest in the way we present each of these scenes. We do not shy away from the hard cold facts, and with that, often times comes more "colorful" language. Audience responses are consistently the same though - lots of praise, gratitude and awareness being raised which is our ultimate goal,” Meene said.

The one-hour drama draws on a list of several scenarios:

Suicide and depression; self-harm heroin & opiates; sexual assault; body Image and eating disorders; binge drinking; drinking & driving; distracted driving; bullying & cyber-bullying; inappropriate picture messaging; teen pregnancy; sex; sexuality and gender identity; school-related violence.

“The script is a constant work in progress as our goal is to keep it as current as possible,” Meene said.

She estimates the troupe has presented the show to audiences throughout the state 100 times over the past ten years. The issues haven’t changed much, but their immediacy does.

Currently at the forefront are issues dealing with heroin and bullying, according to the founder and director.

“The really big thing right now is heroin, it’s all over the place; it’s always existed, but it’s a real epidemic and it’s on the rise,” she said. “People weren’t talking about it the way they are now.”

The way kids bully each other, with technology and the social media, it’s become so dangerous.”

 Somerville High School is at 222 Davenport St. The entrance to the auditorium is off Orchard Street.

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