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Actress Melissa Peterman, Unusual Suspects Youth Alumni Anthony Avalos, and Actress Tess Paras. Photo by Sean Berger

See a play, change a life

by Tess Paras

The glamour of the Cicada Club in Downtown Los Angeles is a signature locale for the entertainment industry. You’d recognize its art-deco interior – the vintage oak columns, glowing chandeliers, and glitzy cocktail bar – in films such as Pretty Woman, The Artist, and the hit television show, Mad Men.

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Actor Bruce Greenwood with Unusual Suspects Founder, Laura Leigh Hughes. Photo by Michelle Pederson

So, it was only fitting that many members of the entertainment industry, including Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Flight), Emmy and Tony award-winner Hector Elizondo, and host, Melissa Peterman (ABC’s Bet On Your Baby and Reba) gathered recently at the Cicada to celebrate another cultural institution that you may not as easily recognize, but has been influencing the city of Los Angeles for the past two decades – The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company.

Of all the stars in Hollywood, little compares to the shining work of the people who make up this organization and the lives they touch. The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company is a non-profit that, since its inception in the wake of the Los Angeles riots, has been improving the lives of at-risk and incarcerated youth through the performing arts. The staff and volunteers go to low-income communities of L.A. to help kids who don’t normally have access to a strong arts education. They go to the high-crime areas where children grow up without anyone to look up to or where the only mentors they know are gang members. They bring the arts to juvenile detention centers to help youth learn how to overcome their differences and express themselves without violence.

The impact of their work has been gaining attention as of late. The L.A. Department of Mental Health supports this program as part of their gang prevention strategy and The Unusual Suspects has just been awarded the prestigious Otto Award for Political Theatre. The gathering was not only a 20th Anniversary celebration, but it was a call on the community to help continue this growth and support the work of The Unusual Suspects.

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Actor Hector Elizondo, Guest Host for The Unusual Suspects 20th Anniversary Gala. Photo by Michelle Pederson

“I’ve seen first-hand how young people respond to this program,” said Hector Elizondo as he shared the stage with Francisco Argueta, an alumnus. Argueta, a former gang-member, participated in the program during his sentence at Central Juvenile Hall and is now studying for his license to become a registered nurse. Argueta shared his personal story of transformation with the hundreds of attendees in the room and it was one of the most memorable moments of the night.

Actress Melissa Peterman, emcee for the evening and one of the organization’s strongest supporters, had mist in her eyes as youth alumni shared their stories. “We need help to keep reaching these young people, making sure we listen, nurture and support them” she said as she charmed attendees into donating, “You know budget cuts have devastated services for underserved populations in our state.”

When we hear that arts education is diminishing across the country, it strikes a chord within those of us who know the impact that the arts have had on our own lives. My personal journey took me from school plays in affluent, suburban Southern California to studying acting in New York, then performing across the country in musicals, and back to Los Angeles as a television actor. No matter the gig, performing always reveals the same lessons — each experience reiterates those universal values about teamwork, respect, and challenging yourself to live up to something great. The Unusual Suspects fosters those important values with the youth of Los Angeles who were raised with different circumstances. These kids grew up exposed to limited choices, in an environment of poverty and crime yet have the same joyful dedication to putting up a play that I did as a kid.

About a month ago, I attended a performance of The Unusual Suspects at Camp David Gonzalez, a juvenile detention center tucked within the hills of Calabasas, California. After the show, I spoke with a few of the participants and was struck by how they were just like me as a teen, overwhelmed by the magical power of the performing arts. They were thrilled to see their work come to life, grateful to their directors for helping them untap their talents, in awe of themselves for reaching their potential, and craving another opportunity to reach higher.

Take a moment to remember what it was like when you did a play as a kid: the teachers who helped you learn your lines and painting sets alongside other kids. Recall that happy feeling of accomplishment when you posed for pictures after the final curtain call. Looking back to those moments helps us understand that young people flourish when recognized for their special voices and benefit from caring mentors who help them make positive choices in life. This is what The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company does every day.

Watching a show put on by The Unusual Suspects may not be as glamorous as attending a fancy gala, but it taught me that seeing kids do a play supports them in their journey to create and enrich their lives when they may not have the means — and that’s a lot more important to the community than we might think.

Tess Paras

About Tess Paras

Tess Paras is an actress who has appeared on hit shows such as “Weeds,” “White Collar,” and “The Good Wife.” She can be seen on the upcoming season of “Wilfred" on F/X and currently performs in L.A. with the improv comedy team, CONRAD. As a writer, Tess has had a series of articles about relationships published on SheKnows.com and is a frequent dating expert guest on Huffington Post Live. You can follow Tess at: Twitter - @tessparas Facebook, www.tessparas.com, and IMDB.

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