Lead actor Ben Levi Ross (center) and the touring company of “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Photo/Matthew Murphy)
Lead actor Ben Levi Ross (center) and the touring company of “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Photo/Matthew Murphy)

As ‘Evan Hansen’ arrives in S.F., lessons in teen social media literacy

The goal of the JCC of San Francisco’s Teen Arts Immersion Program is to have life imitate art.

TAIP brings teens to a musical twice a semester and uses that experience as a springboard to discuss issues such as empathy and inclusion. About 60 teens in the program went to the traveling Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” last week, participating in a pre-show discussion about social media and compassion as well as a talkback with some of the show’s stars after the performance.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is the story of a socially awkward teenage boy who creates a fictional email relationship with a classmate who has committed suicide.

“A lot of things about social media got Evan into this problem, so we wanted to highlight what social media can do for social activism, but also about how reaching out with a human hand is important,” said Jane Davis, who is the JCC’s teen outreach coordinator and runs TAIP.

Other shows the teens have attended have included “The Color Purple,” with a pre-show talk about teenage dating presented by Shalom Bayit, and “Still at Risk,” preceded by a talk about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

TAIP’s “Dear Evan Hansen” program began with a talk at the JCC facilitated by About-Face, an S.F.-based group that provides teens with media literacy tools.

“The things that we talked about in the About-Face program were completely what ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ was about, which was cool,” said Tessa Holtzman, 16, a student at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.

Ben Levi Ross plays the lead in touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Photo/Matthew Murphy)
Ben Levi Ross plays the lead in touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Photo/Matthew Murphy)

The group then headed to the Curran, where “Dear Evan Hansen” — which won the 2017 Tony Award for best musical — will be playing through Dec. 30.

“In my family, we’ve always been taught to really listen to each other and care what each other has to say, and definitely that was reinforced by the show and by what we felt at the JCC talking to each other about social media awareness and about the media,” said Sarah Mitrani, 17, a schoolmate of Holtzman’s at SOTA.

TAIP began a year ago and is part of the Innovation Accelerator cohort of the national Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, a project of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, in partnership with the East Bay’s Federation and Community Foundation, and with significant support from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

The teens who attended the “Dear Evan Hansen” production were accompanied by 25 local youth professionals and 12 representatives of the funding agencies. “It was an amazing opportunity for us to hear the teens’ voices,” said Debra Sagan Massey, senior consultant at Jewish LearningWorks, which helped to coordinate the large group outing. “‘Evan Hansen’ touched all of our hearts, as we saw just how hard it is for teens to navigate the world today.”

Davis, a former stage manager for national touring productions of shows including “Rent” and “Mamma Mia,” plans to form a TAIP youth advisory board that, starting in January, will meet several times a semester to help choose which shows TAIP groups attend and what themes are highlighted in related programming. The board of teens, she said, “will greatly influence the direction our programming will take and will create a really youth-specific and youth-centered program.”

On Jan. 27, TAIP will host a viewing of a live TV broadcast of “Rent,” and the group’s next excursion will be to “Falsettos” this spring. That show centers on an eccentric and dysfunctional Jewish family in New York in the late 1970s, and Davis said that the new advisory board will be responsible for coming up with a programming theme.

“I love that this program can take so many iterations,” she said. “At the root of any theatrical production is a theme they want you to come away with, and we’ll figure out how to come away with that. It comes first from looking at the show and seeing what themes are apparent and are in their lives already.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.