RESEDA — Cool, charming Eli struts the hallways of his high school with some heavy questions on his mind: Does he have a sexually transmitted disease? And if so, should he tell his girlfriend?
“Dude, you got to get to a clinic,” Eli’s friend Herman warns him.
Eli’s situation is all too common in high schools across the nation, according to the latest health statistics. But what’s less common is the way Eli’s story is played out, live in front of a teenage audience.
Enter Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre.
For 25 years, the health care system has raised the curtain on sensitive, timely issues such as how chlamydia is spread, the changes that come with puberty, how to prevent obesity, and the psychological
Rather than rattle off a bunch of statistics, the actors, who also are health educators, travel around to local high schools to show, rather than tell about the emotional turmoils that come with such issues as contracting chlamydia.
“We’re one of the largest theatrical organizations that do this public-based, public health theater,” said Gerry Farrell, director of Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s Educational Theatre.
“This is such a better way of presenting information about health, especially for this age group.”
One play, called “What Goes Around,” has a little to do with karma, but it’s mostly about how chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, human papilloma virus and HIV can be contracted through unprotected sex.
In the production, Eli and Alicia, played by Ray Auxais and Jennifer Kuhlman, are dating. But Eli cheats on Alicia with an old girlfriend. Eli thinks that just because she’s on birth control, he can’t catch a disease.
Later on, he’s surprised she’s left him a “downtown souvenir.”
Urged to go to a clinic by his friend, Eli learns he’s got chlamydia and HPV.
The rest of the play shows him wrestling with a delicate moral question: How does he tell Alicia?
Auxais said the challenge he and his fellow actors face behind presenting such a play is knowing the competition. Information off the Internet, shows such as “Glee” and exchanges from Twitter and Facebook bring on a whole host of questions about different types of sexual behavior, and misconceptions behind household cures, such as using lemon juice or bleach to cure an STD.
After a recent performance for continuing students at John Wooden High School in Reseda, the actors led a question-and-answer session.
“They have some of the same questions I had when I was in high school,” Auxais said. “The only difference now is technology. We’re constantly having to evolve the show.”
And information. Lately, the actors have been asked about an infection called a “blue waffle,” a grotesque disease that affects women. There’s no such thing, Auxais said, but there’s a rumor going around on the Internet about it.
“We sometimes shadow students,” Auxais said. “We have to know everything. Because of budget cuts, sometimes our show is the only sex education they’ll have.”
The set is designed with murals and large screen monitors so that the audience can see what one character is texting to another. Everything, from their clothes and accessories to music, has to be relatable to teenagers, Auxais said.
Through dialogue and texting, the actors let information trickle into the performance.
The teens learn that 1 in 4 of them will contract an STD in their lifetime if they have unprotected sex, and that while some diseases are treatable with antibiotics, others, such as HPV, HIV and herpes, carry no cures.
After the show, some of the students said they liked the performance because it reached them emotionally.
“I thought it provided good information. It felt like real life,” said 16-year-old Tatiana Pena, who has a year-old daughter. She said the play should have featured more about birth control options, but she found the information helpful too.
“Many teens don’t know a lot about what they were talking about,” she said.
“I thought it was good,” said Josue Garcia, 18. “Unfortunately, what they were talking about does happen in high school. But they did it in a way that wasn’t talking down to us.”