Successfully Letting the Weird Out: An Interview with Downtown High School Student Joseph Givens

Posted by Selena Chau, Web Development Fellow

Joseph Givens graduates from Downtown High School at the end of May.
Since the fall of 2011, as part of its ACTsmart arts education programs, A.C.T. has hosted an intensive Downtown Continuation High School (DHS), a project-based learning school that serves San Francisco youth who have not experienced success in conventional public schools. Participants in DHS’s Acting for Critical Thought project attend weekly acting classes in A.C.T.’s studios, are encouraged to attend all A.C.T. mainstage and conservatory productions, and write their own original monologues and short plays, which they perform in exhibitions for their school and families in A.C.T.’s Hastings Studio Theater each December and May. (This spring’s exhibition—entitled Borderline Freedom—will take place on Thursday, May 23.) The Mission-based 826 Valencia literacy initiative provides tutors to guide students in their writing and last June published their dramatic work in the anthology Arrive, Breathe, and Be Still.
year-long residency program with

Over the past year, 19-year-old Joseph Givens has been a dedicated student in the Acting for Critical Thought project, extending his theatrical classroom training into weekends and summers by also taking courses in A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory. He has experienced incredible growth and success in his theatrical ventures. One of his monologues (“Big Problems in Small Packages”) won a literary award last spring; it was published, along with one of his short plays, in Arrive, Breathe, and Be Still. He performed his original monologue “Kids These Days” on The Geary stage for a special event this past January; more recently he was honored with a Dramatic Scripts Literary Award at the SFUSD 2013 Arts Festival.

Through A.C.T.’s educational programs, Givens has received instruction in acting and writing, but it is his unique perspective on the world and his wealth of natural talent that fuels his work. Recently I interviewed Givens and learned about his love for the dramatic craft.

Givens in an ACTsmart workshop.
Were you active in theater before your first encounter with A.C.T.’s education programs?
Not in anything that I could feel good about. Before I came to Downtown, I took an acting seminar, but I didn’t really get a lot out of it. However, I had a lot of fun in that class and I wanted to pursue acting.

In our A.C.T. class, the M.F.A. students helped us interpret our monologues and showed us ways to adjust a performance to make it better. And they didn’t just show us—they taught us so we could do it for ourselves. Playing with it, messing up . . . it always leads to something good. I learned to get outside my comfort zone.

What was your first experience as a performer?
I didn’t really perform in front of an actual audience until our exhibition [Arrive, Breathe, and Be Still at A.C.T.’s Hastings Theater in May 2012]. I loved it. It’s something that nobody could bring down. It’s really amazing to perform.

You’ve also had the opportunity to see a lot of plays at A.C.T. When you see other people perform, do you incorporate what you learn from those performances into your own work?
I find it really fascinating. I’ve started to consider myself an actor, and I pay attention to what people do. The way these actors perform, it’s really encouraging. They could play the most abstract character, like someone completely opposite from who they are, but still make it look so believable that you actually think that’s them. Sometimes I get jealous when I see a performance with a character I wish I could play!

And I really like comedy. Even if it’s not comedy comedy, I somehow find something funny about what I see. That’s the way for me to enjoy a play—I find something funny about it. It’s something that makes you ready for the harsh scenes.

Does comedy come out naturally in your writing?
Yes, because I’m always thinking weird thoughts. It’s my own type of comedy, but people somehow still laugh at it. That’s what my monologue “Kids These Days” was really about: letting your inner nerd out.

Which do you like more: the acting or the writing?
I like the spotlight, but not all the time, so I’m usually more excited about the scripts. I like to write stories a lot. I like to let the weird out, and writing is the best way to be weird. Once you’re exposed to theater, you’re in or you’re out—there’s no being on the fence about it. For me, it’s really deep.

You’re graduating this year. Congratulations! Will you continue acting?
I want to take theater classes at City College. I feel like I’m prepared because I have a lot of connections through A.C.T. A lot of people say they’re proud of me. I’m actually proud of myself, too!

Givens graduates from Downtown High School at the end of May. A.C.T. could not be prouder of his successand the successes of all the DHS students who have participated in the Acting for Critical Thought project.

To find out more about A.C.T.’s ACTsmart education programs, check out this video.

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