At Youth Speaks, we are continuing to move forward and make new discoveries around our dynamic initiative to reignite our Performance program and form a new performance company. The beginning of this initiative was marked by an open call in December through our local and national networks for applicants to our 3-year paid Fellowship program. We are on the cusp of selecting the three initial Fellows, who will join the Youth Speaks staff starting this spring.
We feel very excited for all the work we have done and for what lies ahead. Most exciting is the scope and ambition and possibility of it all – truly trying to seed and imagine the beginnings of a new performance aesthetic with a group of younger artists leading that work, while collaborating and building on previous performance models and bodies of work. Just the idea of carving out a whole new group is thrilling – but also in its ambition – challenging. So we have been mindful to stop often to assess and reassess – to address the possible challenges that lie ahead and to keep reminding ourselves that we are trying to lay the groundwork for something that we don’t exactly have a final picture of.
As we push through these early stages, we are mindful to allow for fluctuations in our timeline. We adjusted the launch of the Fellowship process slightly, taking extra time last fall to more thoroughly review our process, and revising our timeline accordingly. We had originally envisioned jumping right in and starting our Fellowship process in the fall, aiming to have the Fellows identified by the end of calendar year 2014 and ready to begin with the start of the new year in 2015. Following our strategic planning sessions, we felt we should take extra time to more accurately and articulately describe the Fellowship program for the national call and application process.
This seemed necessary for several reasons: we wanted to be as clear as possible about expectations for the applicants so we would have the right target groups, and we wanted to launch the program with the most well-aligned group of individual artists. With our ambition to navigate and cross several artistic fields (theatre, poetry, production, music, and beyond) we felt it was important to sculpt bold and precise language that could attract individuals across disciplines, but who were all rooted in theatre performance. As an organization, we are in the midst of several wide-ranging Fellowship Initiatives, and so we also wanted to be mindful and strategic about the ways we aligned the language for our Performance Fellows with our other distinct but interconnected Fellowships.
The development of this program has already allowed us to expand as an organization on several levels. We are now able to further advance our body of theatre and performance work, initiate and create an inaugural Youth Speaks Performance company, and imagine and explore new ways to create original performance work that will reach more communities – specifically communities of color and younger populations. On a philosophical level, this program has given us an opportunity to expand our thinking in terms of what writing, spoken word, and multidisciplinary performance can mean and how it can be cultivated. It has pushed us to think of expanding the trajectory of how we reach and work with younger artists, going beyond our current pedagogical framework for students into a new territory of artistic development. Perhaps most significantly, this new Performance program is the first in Youth Speaks’ incredibly celebrated and successful history, and its creation has reenergized and inspired us to examine and redefine our own work with younger performance artists, as well as the influence and impact of this work on a national level.
While working to build the foundation of this new model, we premiered an original piece this January by Youth Speaks alum, Dahlak Braithwaite, titled Spiritrials. The last in a series under our former Living Word Project model, this piece and process was helpful in bridging our two performance models. It was also aptly co-directed by Living Word Founder, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and myself, as Youth Speaks’ new Performance program Artistic Director. This production – written and performed by a poet in collaboration with a DJ and combining elements of spoken word, hip hop, theatre and digital media – served as a current and tangible example of new multidisciplinary work to respond to with the new group of artists with whom will be collaborating.
Part of the challenge with this new Initiative is also part of the excitement – to trust ourselves to embrace the unknown, all the open possibilities. We recognize that in order to allow the proper space for a new group to be formed, it is important that we do not rely upon our known experiences and skill-sets to drive our creative and production process, so that we can allow the most effective and fitting process to generate the new work.
About Youth Speaks: Founded in 1996, Youth Speaks is a multi-faceted organization that understands and believes that the power, insight, creativity, and passion of young artists can change the world. Through the intersection of arts education and youth development practices, civic engagement strategies and high quality artistic presentation, Youth Speaks creates safe spaces that challenge young people to find, develop, publicly present, and apply their voices as creators of societal change. Youth Speaks exists to shift the perception of youth by combating illiteracy, alienation, and silence, creating a global movement of brave new voices bringing the noise from the margins to the core.
Sean San José is Program Director and a founding member of Campo Santo, and the Artistic Director of Youth Speaks. He is a native of San Francisco, of mainly Filipino and Puerto Rican background. An award-winning actor, he conceived the theatre project Pieces of the Quilt, a collection of new, short plays confronting the AIDS epidemic. As a Co-Founder, he works with Alma Delfina Group-Teatro Contra el SIDA, presenting these plays in schools, libraries, clinics and community centers. Started as an homage to his parents who died of AIDS, the collection involves eighteen writers, including: Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, David Henry Hwang, Tony Kushner and Migdalia Cruz. Part 1 was premiered at the Magic Theatre in 1996, where he performed for four seasons. He has appeared in the premieres of works by Caryl Churchill, Philip Kan Gotanda, Octavio Solis, Jose Rivera, Marlane Meyer, Nilo Cruz, Danny Hoch, Octavio Solis, Erin Cressida Wilson, Naomi Iizuka, Migdalia Cruz, among others.
1. On the marquee at Z Space, where Spiritrials received its world premiere production.
2. On stage at Z Space with writer/ performer Dahlak Braithwaite, director Marc Bamuthi Joseph and collaborator DJ Dion Decibels.
3. Spiritrials writer/ performer Dahlak Braithwaite at Z Space in San Francisco.
(all photos by Joan Osato)