Archive for Thursday, May 4, 2006

Theater presentation spreads word about HIV

May 4, 2006

David Ruis doesn't have HIV, but sometimes he acts like he does.

By acting, Ruis brings himself and those around him a little closer to understanding what it is really like to have the virus. It's a strategy that's cautioned tens of thousands of teenagers about the dangers of AIDS and HIV. Last month, about 160 Lansing High School students heard the message, too.

For Ruis, 25, it is a matter of life or death.

"Everybody's life is valuable," Ruis said. "I want them to know that their lives are valuable, too."

The performances that Ruis helps bring to teens in and around Kansas City are part of the Dramatic AIDS Education Project, a 13-year-old program that teams young actors with medical school students to help spread the word about the dangers of HIV.

The program is a free service sponsored by The Coterie Theatre of Kansas City, Mo., and the schools of medicine at the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Through its young actors, the program aims to establish rapport with high school students who may be reluctant to ask questions about sex and sexually transmitted illnesses to teachers or parents. And by pairing medical students with professional actors, the presentation packs scientific legitimacy into a dramatic punch.

LHS sophomore Alex Tremble said she liked the presentation, which consisted of two performed scripts followed by a question-and-answer session when students could ask Ruis and medical school student Elizabeth Taglauer, 26, questions about the disease and "risk behaviors" that may lead to contraction.

Tremble thought the presentation was a good way to get her peers' attention, though not all of them responded seriously.

"They probably don't think about (HIV)," Tremble said. "They just want to have a good time. : Some of the kids are asking some pretty outrageous questions."

Joette Pelster is executive director of The Coterie Theatre, sponsor of the AIDS education program. She knows that it is hard for high school students to take the issue to heart, she said, which is why the format was created to reach them.

"It does address teenagers' sense of invincibility," Pelster said. "I think it reduces a huge amount of misinformation."

Though the auditorium was filled with nervous silence for several moments when the Q&A session started, Ruis and Taglauer soon were responding to a torrent of questions as hands shot up.

The opportunity is just what Melissa Cappel, LHS health and physical education teacher, hoped to offer her students.

"I was a little bit nervous at how they would respond, but they were great once they got going," Cappel said.

Fourth quarter is when the LHS health classes discuss reproduction and sexually transmitted illnesses, and such an important topic required taking a little time out of the day.

"It's really important to use outside resources," Cappel said. "It helps bring greater knowledge to the kids."

Cappel said she hopes to have the program back next year. By that time, it will likely take its message to its 100,000th teenager.

But for Ruis, the life of that milestone teen will be just as valuable as the first.

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