If you speak with Bonnie Nelson Schwartz and Betti Brown, the two women most instrumental in the founding of the Helen Hayes Awards thirty years ago, all they want to talk about is a third—Helen Hayes herself. “It was [producer] Arthur Kantor who first asked me, ‘If you had something like the Tony Awards in Washington, what would you call it?’” Schwartz remembers. “It was a no-brainer. I told him we’d call it the Helen Hayes Awards. Arthur just said, ‘Let’s go up to Nyack and ask her.’”
In a broad spectrum of educational opportunities available to everyone from preschoolers to adults, Arena Stage’s Voices of Now stands out as a program that makes an immediate, tangible difference in the lives of area youth—and those living a world away. Director of Community Engagement Anita Maynard-Losh explains, “One of our missions at Arena Stage is to hear voices on stage that we don’t usually hear. Voices of Now does exactly that.”
Launched twelve years ago by Education Director Ashley Forman, the program hoped to address tensions in Arena’s waterfront neighborhood. Students of Jefferson Middle School collaborated with Forman and her staff to devise an original theatre piece that helped tell their story, and made clear the obstacles they faced. The result was a new level of communication in the community, and a deeper understanding of the children’s lives.
Today, Voices of Now ensembles exist at schools across DC and Virginia, and in partnerships with organizations such as DC’s Child and Family Services Agency. Funding from the State Department has brought the program to schools in India, Croatia, and Ukraine. In each case, it’s the young artists who decide what issues to explore as they create a theatre event that reflects their lives.
Ky’lend Adams, 19, has been participating in Voices of Now for six years. “For eight months, meeting once a week, and devising a play with 8 to 12 of your peers—a bond forms,” she says. “Everyone becomes family, and the bond you form helps you realize that you are not alone. Every struggle or obstacle that you may face you can turn into something beautiful. That translates on stage and that is why the experience is so powerful.”
“It’s never about telling people what to think,” Maynard-Losh adds. “It’s about asking questions, and then sharing stories and movement and poetry that comes directly from the lives of the participants in a way that stimulates discourse.” That discourse is key to the program. “There is always a talk-back,” Maynard-Losh stresses. “There is never one without the other.”
In collaborating with the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, Voices of Now offers support to young people grieving the recent loss of a parent. “It’s one of the most rewarding of our partnerships,” Maynard-Losh says. “Grieving children don’t often have peers in the same situation. This creates a community for them, as well as allowing them to express what they need to express. You see, first hand, the transformational power of art.”
Internationally, Voices of Now ensembles have tackled issues of power and gender, child labor, sexual harassment, LGBT rights, and disabilities. A recurring theme has been the struggle between maintaining cultural traditions and recognizing the need for change. “The young people set the agenda,“ Maynard-Losh explains, “but there are situations where we have to consider how to honor that without exposing them to danger or arrest. We always make it clear that the person telling the story on stage is not necessarily the person whose story it is.”
Ensembles in DC and Calcutta recently used Skype to conduct warm-up exercises together, and some performances are live streamed on Howlround.com. “One of the most powerful things about the program is how it breaks down stereotypes,” Maynard-Losh pointed out. “We see young men in India passionately committed to equal rights. That’s not part of the image we normally have. We break through that notion that everyone in a country thinks the same way.”
Program veterans often return to mentor new ensembles, or to create their own new works. “The connection continues,” Maynard-Losh says. “We’ve hired graduates of the program to be counselors in training. The staff coach them before auditions, and edit their college essays. It’s a relationship that doesn’t end.”
Each May, a Voices of Now festival presents that year’s ensembles in a weeklong series of performances at Arena Stage. With plays ranging from 15 to 45 minutes, each evening offers an array of revelations. Ky’lend Adams admits that audiences are “shocked, and sometimes left uncomfortable at the stories they see and hear.” She adds, though, that “it causes them to think and question things in their own lives. And I believe, as the performers, that is all we can ask for.”
First show you saw: I recall a production of The Wizard of Oz in my elementary gymnatorium? Prior to that shining example, I encountered a number of deliciously unmemorable "original works" at my private school and church. I began performing, before I'd ever seen live professional theatre. My first professional show was a visiting production of RENT at the National Theatre.
Not long before Carrie Underwood traipsed across the Alps in NBC’s live broadcast of The Sound of Music, the artists at Compass Rose mounted a production in their intimate, black-box space in Annapolis, Maryland. Instead of painted murals and a pre-recorded orchestra, they had a single wooden bench, a concert grand, and an empty space ready to be transformed – by the imagination of actors and audience – into mountains, convents, and villas.