IlluminArt Uses Theater to Make a Social Impact

BY: Jessica Jones-Gorman. Arlene Sorkin has been utilizing theater to illuminate critical social issues in public schools for more than a decade, but even after years of hosting groundbreaking productions, she is still pleasantly amazed with her troupe’s ability to create positive conversation and change.

“We recently did a presentation on substance abuse, and the school’s liaison disclosed that at least 10 to 20 students came looking for additional help after our play,” Sorkin said. “These are middle and high school students — kids who are worried about family members who are drinking or taking drugs. I have great faith in our mission and complete belief in our process, but when I see firsthand from these disclosures that our performances start a conversation and sometimes keep the kids talking, I know we’re making an impact.”

Sorkin, a social worker, serves as president and CEO of IlluminArt, which hosts shows at various Staten Island schools about bullying, excessive drinking, domestic violence and grief. She started the program with an actor friend while living in Michigan.

“We thought it was a good way to bring social issues to light,” Sorkin said. “We wrote several plays about bullying and violence and had much success in the Michigan school system.”

When she moved to New York in 2010, she continued the program here.

“Together with my artistic director, Randy Topper, we wrote new plays about underage drinking and the dangers of prescription drugs and heroin,” Sorkin said. “Eventually we started working with Camp Good Grief to open a dialogue about death and loss, and we added a second dimension to our program conducting school residencies on play writing. The motivation of all of our programs is to start a conversation and encourage kids to look for and accept help.”

Sorkin calls the success of IlluminArt nothing short of miraculous.

“We did our very first school program at IS 7 and it sort of just snowballed from there,” she said. “We were invited to Petrides and then PS 19; other schools began calling just based on word of mouth reviews. Today, we are typically performing in two schools each week, and we’ve done roughly about 65 performances this school year.”

There are more than a dozen actors in the IlluminArt troupe, and, in addition to bullying and drug abuse, the organization also covers hot-button topics like immigration. As is the case with most nonprofits, funding is an issue: Sorkin says they operate off city-funded grants and other budgetary money but a lack of financial support for the arts causes limitations.

“Schools are barely given enough money for an art teacher so there is literally zero dollars earmarked for a program like this,” Sorkin said. “But our city council members and the department of cultural affairs has recognized what we’re doing and have been wonderfully supportive.”

And the impact of the program has grown exponentially over the past eight years.

“Not everyone understands what we do until they see us in action,” Sorkin concluded. “But when you hear the discussions, see the reactions, you get it. The lessons are transformative, the playwriting gives students a voice. We have grown so much since this program started. Our goal is simply to continue that growth in the future.”