A stage to take on homeless problem

Published June 21, 2007

The heated discussion about homelessness, free of political correctness, began at 10 a.m. and carried through to the 12:30 p.m. lunch break

It roiled on after lunch, with some expressing concern and others speaking of fear.

The debate wavered between hard-luck stories and hard-edged opinions. Are they unlucky folks battling poverty or depression, or just lazy people sitting in lawn chairs all day? The discussion proved fertile. The conversation turned into a stage production about tolerance, compassion and the value of human life.

Meet the Patel Conservatory's Summerplay Theater Ensemble, a group of mostly Hillsborough teens and preteens who had little trouble putting their arms around one of the day's most divisive topics.

The result: a captivating coming-of-age love story titled Tent? The cast stages shows at the conservatory's theater at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday at 2 p.m. If for no other reason, it merits attention because these youthful thespians display a remarkable grasp of the subject after only three weeks.

"The most important part of our discussion was not quite so much that we had people on opposite sides, " explained cast member Michelle Glickman, 15. "It was the fact that we were no longer indifferent to the subject.

"Since truly the opposite of love is indifference, if we do clear some of this up and make it possible for others to have the same kind of conversation, at least there will be some knowledge out there and at least people will feel moved to do something about this problem."

Written by the teens themselves, the production incorporates elements of St. Petersburg's real-life tent city controversy along with other critical factors involving homelessness and foster care.

Madison Scott, 14, and Sean Ricciardi, 17, play the star-crossed lovers Isabella and Antonio. Isabella lives with her stepmother and father, a callous politician who plans to eliminate homelessness by eliminating homeless people. Her stepmother expresses more concern about fashion than family.

Antonio, on the other hand, lives in a foster home with his siblings. His father resorted to a tent city existence after falling into depression over the death of his wife, Antonio's mother. Yet he possesses greater compassion than Isabella's more affluent parents.

"Most people think of homeless people as having no home, " said Abby Schafer, 11, who portrays Antonio's younger sister Lucy. "But I think another point we're trying to get across is that Isabella also is homeless because she does not have a loving home."

"Even though Antonio does not have a designated home that is his own, he has more of a family than she does."

The enlightenment displayed by the kids fuels the drive of project director and professional actor and singer Jean Calandra. For 16 years, her Summerplay effort has gathered teens, without the aid of auditions, and helped them become an acting troupe.

"So much of my interest in the theater is about how we make sense out of our lives, " Calandra said. "When you're around kids, you notice that's what they're doing all the time, trying to make sense out of things."

In the case of Tent?, I think they have made sense of something many of us are still struggling to understand.

That's all I'm saying.