Good Neighbors Campaign program hopes to promote therapy through theater

Nestled within Lincoln Park on Los Angeles’ Eastside and providing a picturesque backdrop to the USC Health Sciences Campus is Plaza de la Raza, a vibrant community center for music, arts and culture. It is also the home to Plaza’s Theater for Social Justice and its new program, the Salud Pa Ti Youth Theater Project, a USC Good Neighbors Campaign grant recipient.

Founded by Plaza de la Raza Director of Development Tomas Benitez, Salud Pa Ti is poised to help teenagers process trauma and translate hardships into performance art. It’s a place where young artists can feel comfortable expressing their pain and are encouraged to write, perform and sing about their traumatic experiences.

“Gang violence and drugs are always present in our neighborhoods. Kids come here to get away from that,” said Benitez. “We are using theater with the purpose of therapy, to help youth process hardships around them.”

In addition to the funding from the USC Good Neighbors Campaign, the project will benefit from hands-on training and the expertise of Master of Fine Arts candidates from the USC School of Dramatic Arts. Two USC master’s students will train the teenagers in the many facets of theater, including creative writing, acting, set design and set building. The project will introduce many of them to the expansive college and career pathways that the dramatic arts can provide.

“We want our students to be excellent artists, but we also want them to think about what they do to give back, to help others, to work with youth,” said Emily Roxworthy, dean of the School of Dramatic Arts. “There are so many young people in our society who don’t think they could ever go into the dramatic arts.”

The collaboration with Plaza de la Raza is part of the USC School of Dramatic Arts and its Institute for Theatre & Social Change. The institute actively works with local playhouses such as 24th Street Theatre, CASA 0101 and Plaza de la Raza on programming and to recruit more neighborhood youth to expose them to the dramatic arts.

“Theater and the dramatic arts are a really powerful vehicle for being able to express themselves, and feeling like expressing themselves will create some change in this world,” said Roxworthy. The collaboration empowers young people to explore tough issues like mental health, suicide and drug use — the sort of core health issues that frequently affect young people in L.A., she said.

USC Good Neighbors Campaign project: impact on students and the community

Benitez and Roxworthy are excited about Salud Pa Ti’s possibilities and the impact it will have on the students and the community. The project’s first performance will debut in the spring.

“These kids that come here, they have talent. All they need is a chance,” said Benitez. “It’s wonderful to see them believe in themselves, to get them to do something they didn’t think they could do and enjoy it.”

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