The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company

How to Build Cooperative Learning in the Classroom: Addressing Social and Emotional Needs of At-Risk Youth

How to Build  Cooperative Learning in the Classroom: Addressing Social and Emotional Needs of At-Risk Youth

To collaborate with this provider, contact:

Melissa Denton
Program Director

617 S. Olive Street , Suite 812
Los Angeles, CA 90014






Web Address:

This provider also has programs for students in Programs for Students


Born out of the ashes of the 1992 LA Riots, The Unusual Suspects has grown into a model mentoring program for youth in under-served and at-risk environments using performing arts methods that are rehabilitative, real-life alternatives not provided by traditional education, the juvenile corrections, or the social welfare system. Serving foster kids, abused children, students in violence-plagued neighborhoods, gang members and juvenile offenders, The Unusual Suspects offers workshops for students, adults and administrators that employ theatre arts to mentor youth in developing self-esteem, communication and coping skills necessary to make positive life choices.

Program Objectives

Team Building Trust and Ensemble building exercises will be illustrated to strengthen pro-social behavior, team work and tolerance for the social and emotional development of youth.

Social and Emotional Development Peer Interviews, sharing personal wishes and making discoveries about others will be explored through theatre exercises.

Dealing with Issues through Theatre Arts Participants will stage scenes that give emphasis to an unresolved issue. Through theatre exercises the topic will be explored, followed by a group discussion on how to resolve the issue.

“How to Build Cooperative Learning in the Classroom: Addressing Social and Emotional Needs of At-Risk Youth”, workshop for administrators, and educators seeks to impart techniques in providing an environment of support, trust, and non-judgmental listening so that emotional and social issues involving personal, cultural, and community concerns can be expressed and eventually resolved.


The Unusual Suspects Education staff will meet with the partnering school or agency to plan and schedule workshops; aligning US objectives with the educators’ needs. The workshops can either be designed as stand alone two hour sessions or as a series to address deeper transformation. The interactive theatre workshops showcase various techniques and exercises used in our award-winning playwriting and performance programs for at-risk youth. Set up as a mock theatre class, the workshop will demonstrate positive strategies used to create an environment of trust essential for self-expression and artistic collaboration. Educators are given tools to strengthen pro-social behavior, literacy, communication skills, conflict resolution, and tolerance. Highlights of the workshop will include ensemble exercises to establish trust, improvisation techniques to illustrate conflict resolution strategies, and writing exercises to explore the link between personal, cultural, and community issues.


In 2008, US commissioned Dr. Laura Abrams, Assistant Professor at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, to design and evaluate the company’s impact and outcomes, finding that youth’s criminal and anti-social thinking declined. Eighty percent of the youth surveyed agreed that US taught them how to avoid physical confrontations. In Arts Education, 71% of youth surveyed agreed that US inspired them to work harder in school, 64% responded that their grades and test scores had improved as a result of participating in US, and a longitudinal study of 25,000 students revealed that involvement in intensive theatre programs led to higher scores in standardized tests, higher reading proficiency, and higher self-esteem regardless of socioeconomic status. RAND Corporation found that among youth who participate in arts enrichment programs in Los Angeles County detention camps compared to those who do not, the rate of re-incarceration, re-arrest, and probation violations is lower.

Participants' Experience

Participants will experience what it is like to work in a safe, supportive environment where listening and sharing are key. Through hands-on experiential theatre activities participants will share in the process of theatre art-creativity. Within the safety network built at the beginning of the workshop, and in the course of the activities, participants will share personal experiences (both social and emotional) to make cultural connections with the entire group. A “Check-In” and “Check-Out” assessment at the start and finish of the workshop allows participants to express how they feel.

Classroom Relevancy

Administrators have shared with US that managing at-risk children in the classroom often mixed with less at-risk students has proven to be challenging to most teachers. US’s approach using theatre arts ensemble building techniques and theatre games to heighten student’s self-confidence, and make each students’ voice valid places emphasis on positive verbal and non-verbal communication, coping, conflict-resolution and supportive behavioral skills giving them the tools they need to build strong character skills. Teachers can use US’s theatre arts ensemble activities to promote positive behavior. US provides teachers with a template to plan lesson objectives that include a physical and vocal warm-up, an ensemble building activity that builds focus and concentration skills, and a core activity. Through story development and theatre games teachers learn how to guide students’ exploration of cultural similarities and differences to build empathy in the classroom. Teachers learn techniques in redirecting and diffusing negative behavior through creative activities and stress releasing exercises. Vocabulary terms from the California Standards in Visual and Performing Arts are identified and an inquiry to deepen student’s learning in the arts and in life skill development is defined.

Classroom Management

Managing at-risk youth in the classroom can be overwhelming for teachers of all levels of experience. Using theatre arts activities can help conquer distracting behavior and uncontrolled energy and bring order into the classroom. Among many tools and strategies teachers are given to manage class behavior are a behavior contract for students with an outlined think-sheet. Other strategies include knowing the lesson plan/agenda and keeping it posted so that it is easy to check-in; transitioning seamlessly from one activity to another; Call and response, echo clapping, countdown, circle-up, iceman, freeze, and silence.

Cooperative Learning

Teachers learn ensemble building and team support techniques that they can model for their students. They experience improvisational theatre games which promote healthy group work and learn the process of sharing out to the group, activities that have been explored within small groups. Teachers learn how to define a common language within the group; model supportive behavior; and find ways to incorporate everyone in each activity.

Effective Teaching Strategies

Teachers follow a theatre-arts model to investigate a number of teaching strategies that may be used to help students build confidence, increase focus and concentration skills, work willingly with others and build creative thinking skills. Teachers learn to instruct using hands-on experiential activities, model an activity and reflect with students the lessons explored. Teachers learn to teach by inquiry; scaffold exercises to successfully meet workshop objectives; keep the expectations high enough that all participants must reach for success; and have fun, allow room for laughter and silliness.

Social and Emotional Learning

The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company reaches out to students with anti-social tendencies, negativity, and delinquency. The company employs theatrical story development, script writing, improvisation techniques, onstage performance and audience interaction to help youth develop self-esteem, respect and tolerance of others as well as the communication, coping and behavioral skills necessary to make such positive life choices as staying in school, choosing resolutions over violence, avoiding gang involvement and overcoming difficulties at home.

Special Populations

The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company has grown into a model mentoring program using theatre arts to reach youth in underserved and at-risk environments including foster kids, abused children, students in violence-plagued neighborhoods, gang members and juvenile offenders.

VAPA Standards

The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company curriculum incorporates CA State Standards for Theatre and English Language Writing, and includes playwriting, improvisation, and acting. The goal is to give participants the opportunity to discover their unique creative voice, nurture a love for literacy and learning, build individual self-respect and respect for others. VAPA standards are utilized to create lessons that increase participant’s aural and visual perception, deepen their inquiries, and teach theatre vocabulary while building self-confidence.