Thursday, 15 June 2017

The AMY (Artists Mentoring Youth) Project - the Importance of Supporting Youth

Theatre Ontario Youth Advisory Committee member Julia Vodarek Hunter works with The AMY (Artists Mentoring Youth) Project, a barrier free arts mentorship program for women and non-binary youth with a shared interest in creating theatre.  The AMY Project has received funding from Theatre Ontario’s Youth Theatre Training Program (funded by the Ontario Arts Council) on numerous occasions. The AMY Project was founded in 2005 By Claire Calnan and Pasha Mckenley, and in 2015 Nikki Shaffeeullah became the artistic director.  

Julia Vodarek Hunter
Julia Vodarek Hunter (JVH): I came to AMY as a participant in 2015 and it was the first time I felt like I had a space to express myself through my personal stories. The AMY Project was, and still is, for me, a platform and catalyst for the type of art and theatre I am making now. This year I have been working with AMY as an assistant director and script coordinator as well as an AMY Alumni Program Coordinator. Last month The AMY Project became the recipient of the 2017 Toronto Arts Foundation Youth For Arts Award. I sat down with Nikki Shaffeeullah, the artistic director and current session co-director to talk about the importance of supporting youth, the impact of AMY, and the challenges youth face when trying to access theatre.

JVH: How did you come to find the AMY Project?

Nikki Shaffeeullah
Nikki Shaffeeullah (NS): Honestly, I just found a posting on Work in Culture for the Artistic Director position, and I applied. At the time I was living in Edmonton - I had done an MFA there, at the University of Alberta, in community-engaged theatre direction and facilitation, and after working there for a bit after, I was looking to move back to my home city of Toronto. A friend and colleague in Edmonton had previously been one of the session directors for AMY and had told me about it and was like “you know, if you ever move back to Toronto, you should work with AMY.” I remembered that when I saw it posted on Work in Culture, and I applied and got it. It was in line with what I had been doing for the past several years, leading devised community-engaged theatre projects around themes of gender, culture, social issues. I had definitely worked with youth a lot but not exclusively, actually moreso with adults (particularly work with women of colour) and intergenerationally.

JVH: Did you have things like AMY project when you were growing up?

AMY 2017 session launch with mentors. (Photo by Rachel Penny)
NS: I was involved in theatre from a young age, and I was lucky to have some access to opportunities. In my elementary school in northeast Scarborough, I remember there was an announcement about auditions for a playI couldn’t believe it. My family loves music and the arts but I didn’t know any industry professional performing artist growing up and it was all very elusive. I don’t know that I had seen a play before but I had this sense of what it was, that you could stand on stage, sort of like being in a movie but live. I was deeply fascinated with the prospect that I could possibly participate in such an opportunity. You know, probably nothing in my adult life will ever compare to, the excitement of then at 8 years old, thinking I could possibly be in a play. So anyway I auditioned for this play about talking animals in a wacky zoo, and it changed my life.

My family later moved to Whitby, I was in school plays, and and I did a youth musical theatre training program at the local community theatre for three years. In retrospect I realize there were issues embedded into many of those school and community contexts that at the time I hadn’t fully identifiedI was probably too naive and just grateful and excited to be there (microaggressions and internalized racism, amirite?) These were predominantly white spaces and I remember other young folks, both of-colour and white, actually, pointing out to me some of the ways my participation was contained in racialized ways, but I mostly shrugged it off. Anyway, I did have access to some performance and training opportunities, particularly music theatre type stuff. But I definitely never had any arts training that asked me what stories I myself might want to craft and tell. I was in The Wizard of Oz twice but there was nothing like AMY Project to validate that stories by and about people like me, whatever that means, could be on stage. 

In high school, I did a lot of theatre, and I was also really invested in social justice. My friend’s big sister got me involved in anti-racism work, which was really formative for me. In grade 12, one of the drama teachers was going on mat leave and asked me if I wanted to select and direct a show for our school’s entry into the Sears Drama Festival. It was the first time I got to curate something. I was determined to pick a show that I saw as politically important as it was artistically interesting, and I landed on This is For You, Anna. It did well, going  to the top level of the competition. My lovely drama teachers encouraged me to apply for this scholarship offered by the festival, but in order to be eligible you had to be planning to study theatre post-secondary. So, at the interview, [for Ken Watts Scholarship] the committee asked “why do you want to study theatre?” and I basically confessed, “Honestly? I like theatre, it’d be cool to pursue it, but really, I want to do social justice work.” Someone on the committee replied, “Well you know, there are ways you can use theatre to do your social justice work,” like in ways beyond programming and directing political plays written by professional playwrights. That moment was a bit of a turning pointokay, I can pursue performing arts, and I can do it in ways that are rooted in social justice and community work. I’m so grateful for that series of events, it’s how I first got thinking about the intersections between theatre and community work! 

JVH: How has working with youth influenced you and what you do?

AMY 2016 Quiet Revolution. (Photo by Vita Cooper)
NS: Working with AMY has foregrounded the youth part of the work! I had previously been creating devised theatre, facilitating and directing around socially engaged themes with people from different communities. AMY has allowed me to really think about how youth fits into the wider picture of arts, storytelling, equity and access. With AMY, the fact that it’s youth that we work with is paramount, but it’s also not paramount—it’s more than just youth, it’s that we are working with young people who face barriers to arts training and telling their own stories. That’s what AMY is doing. We are filling gaps left by other institutions, filling gaps left by schools, filling gaps left by the government, by the way the city’s built, by the way resources are distributed. It has a youth-based focus because youth are often the ones in learning roles, and it’s so important to invest time and creative energy and love in them! I really enjoy working with youththeir artistic vulnerability, ideas, creativity, honesty, and I think there’s something valuable about creating with a cohorts of peers. 

JVH: What’s the biggest change you see in participants as they go through AMY?

NS: When the scales start growing and wings start popping out and they all turn into dragons 

JVH: with AMY tattooed on them

NS: and they fly into the night! But also: the biggest thing is when they have the realization that they have the ability to write and perform. It’s kind of obvious but it’s actually a humongous thingto not just write, but to write about themselves. I hear it every year from AMY participants “I have a story to tell and it’s worth while and I want people to hear it.” The kind of personal storytelling is amazing at all levels, when people who have the power to tell their own stories in strong and unapologetic, nuanced ways. I learn from witnessing that, I learn so much. Seeing that every year, how people go through the process of sharing their vulnerability, sharing their visions, it’s quite a transformative thing to experience.

JVH: What do you think the biggest challenge is for youth, if they have an interest in theatre and the arts?

NS: I think there are, unfortunately, many reasons for people to think the arts are not for them or not possible for them. There’s so many things like, you don’t feel good enough, or that your body’s not small enough or your skin’s not light enough or your gender is not normative enough, or whatever it is. You don’t have to be anywhere near the performing arts industry to know that it’s a competitive place where all kinds of success factors that have nothing to do with skill, creativity, or talent are privilegedeveryone knows that, and I think it’s alienating. I think a lot of people don’t know where to begin, how to access it. It can be this elusive thing. Theatres aren’t usually spaces that are authentic community spaces. A lot of theatres are working to be, but c'monthey’re not like parks, they’re not like shopping malls. Most theatres are culturally inaccessible to many people for more reasons than we can enumerate right now. I do admire how some theatres are working hard to change thatlike The Theatre Centre is a good example of a place that’s really playing with the idea of what a theatre can be. If theatres want to be accessible to youth who aren’t already in their immediate networks, they have to do some intentional work. The status quo insists that it won’t happen incidentally.

JVH: What are ways you think that more established artists can help youth feel less intimidated to accessing theatre? Do you think there is a solution to fixing that daunting feeling that only a certain type of person can access the performing arts?

2017 AMY Participants
NS: I would first want to pose that question to people who shepherd institutions, before posing it do individual artists. I do have a lot of respect for artists who invest their time into mentorship, I think it’s really important. I have so much respect for all the artists who work with AMY, as well as for Watah and Paprika and other mentorship programs who are creating those kinds of connections. Mentorship can be a very transformative thing if it’s done well. It’s easy to think that you don’t have a lot to give, that you don’t have a lot to teach or a lot to say. I see some folks being timid about engaging in mentorship. But when you engage in mentorship it’s not egotistic, like ” ooh I’m so smart, I can mentor”it’s actually the opposite, you have a responsibility to share your skills and I don’t care if you are still young yourself. Understand what you have left to learn, but also, understand the access you have and the knowledge you have to giveand give it. Give it because that’s how people learn. It’s a really messy field where there’s not enough paid opportunities for training and growth. Even for people who’ve accessed institutional training, theatre schools take people in and spit them out and there’s not enough work. Young and emerging artists need mentorship, they need opportunities to grow, they need opportunities to test things out. 

Own your power, step into your light doesn’t have mean that you’re an expert. I’m not that old, when I started working at AMY I was like four years older than the oldest participantya, you!but I had something to share . Half of being a mentor is simply committing the care and time and thoughtfulness to mentor. It includes transmission of knowledge, but is also also about relationship building and letting people into your practice and creating spaces for other people to learn, and there’s mutual support that is done through that.

Nikki and Julia

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