By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager
Tiana Johnson and Jeffery Moffitt are pressed for time. Rehearsals begin momentarily for The Island of Lost Souls, the 2016 culminating performance for students of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions summer program at Southern Methodist University. So Johnson and Moffitt, the artistic force behind this year’s stage musical, have just a few minutes to chat.
Their passion, however, is timeless. This is Johnson’s second year as choreographer, a role perfectly suited for a talented actress and dancer who recently completed a month-plus run as an ensemble cast member of Dallas Theater Center’s production of Dreamgirls. SMU is home turf for this recent graduate who completed her Master of Fine Arts in theatre this past spring.
Moffitt’s Creative Solutions history dates to 2009 when as an SMU freshman he served as assistant scene designer. He was scene designer from 2010-2013 and became artistic director in 2015. Moffitt earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre during spring 2013. He also has a Bachelor of Arts in English.
Together they drive the always-anticipated Creative Solutions culminating performance, the crowning achievement that caps seven weeks of work with teen students on probation after being convicted of a crime. Since 1994 Creative Solutions has been giving second chances to teen probates by teaching them life skills through performing and visual arts.
“Because they have had so many walls placed in front of them, they don’t realize they have a voice worth being heard that needs to be heard,” says Moffitt. “So when they realize that they do have a voice among their peers and community members, they take that realization with them into the world. Knowing you have a voice worth being heard makes you walk into the world differently. They have been silenced so long that this program is about them finding their voice, breaking that silence. To be a productive citizen you need to understand that you have a voice. Society improves when we all share our voices and our stories.”
The students are doing just that during The Island of Lost Souls, the Creative Solutions original musical that premieres Thursday, July 28, at 1 pm at the Greer Garson Theatre inside SMU’s Owen Arts Center, which is part of the Meadows School of the Arts. Subsequent Island performances are at 7 pm July 28 and 1 pm July 29.
The Island of Lost Souls tells the story of three kids who journey into an unknown adventure to rescue their friend Freddy who has disappeared into the mysterious “island.” But when it comes time for all the kids to return to the “land of the living,” Freddy must make his choice: Stay on the island or return to earth and face his problems.
The new musical serves as a companion piece for last year’s Club Generation, which dealt with the topical subject of police overuse of lethal force. The Island of Lost Souls takes that issue into bigger picture territory and presents a story the addresses the divide between kids and adults fueled by stereotypes. Adults don’t believe kids solely because they see them in a certain light, because they can’t identify with them.
It’s all about validation. The idea that I exist and you can’t silence me just because you have some preconceived notion of me. Validation is paramount for Creative Solutions, and Johnson sees it regularly while working with the students.
“It’s important even before the culminating performance,” says Johnson, the former Miss South Dallas who is part of Dallas Theater Center’s resident acting company for 2016-2017.
“When the program starts we find out what everyone else wants to do, even that is already validation. It’s important to have balance, to make them work hard so that the validation is deserved at the end for the work they have done. We keep a record of what they do well and what they need to work on so knowing what they do well validates them. We give them job skills. The applause is that big bow-wrapped gift as validation at the end of the performance.”
There is a complete transformation during those seven weeks, a transformation that manifests itself in that culminating performance. The students are fortified by artistic skills (music, acting, drumming, dancing, writing, singing), life skills, job skills, story sessions, brainstorming ideas, open expression, script work, choreographing, and stage blocking. Johnson, who received rave reviews for her performance in DTC’s The Mountaintop last year, sees the very unvarnished side of that metamorphosis.
“Sometimes you can see a lot of fear,” says Johnson. “Fear is a very human thing when you are stepping up to the plate to do something you have never done. I’m afraid but I’m going to go forth and do this. The joy and confidence that comes out of that is amazing to see. Building community, working as a unit, and that every piece of the puzzle matters. I help you. You help me. We are all a part of this bigger idea. They see a bigger picture and they see how they fit into it. Understanding my world as a human being in life, how I influence the movement.”
For Moffitt and Johnson, watching dreams materialize in disenfranchised students that never thought they’d have the voice to make their innermost wishes come through, much less the wherewithal, is an immensely rewarding experience.
“I want to see these kids realize their potential,” says Moffitt. “Just because they came from this neighborhood doesn’t mean they have to turn out this way. I love hearing their stories when they are speaking on stage in front of hundreds of people. I love being in a room with people from different backgrounds, communities. Their stories excite me.”
Johnson sees a little bit of herself in these students. She sees the passionate desire to be creative. She sees their raw need to live the dream.
“These are people who don’t understand the potential that they have, or they do see the potential but the circumstances don’t allow that potential to grow,” says Johnson. “I can see myself in that. I am living my dream, so I know that it is possible. It’s isn’t an abstract idea. It isn’t unattainable. I can look at someone and see that it is possible.”
Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, Sammons Enterprises, Inc., The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.