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|
JVH: How did you come to find the AMY Project?
JVH: Did you have things like AMY project when you were growing up?
|AMY 2017 session launch with mentors. (Photo by Rachel Penny)|
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 identified—I 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 point—okay, 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)|
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 thing—to 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 privileged—everyone 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'mon—they’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 that—like 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|
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 participant—ya, 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|