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On Rise, NWT Youth, and Hope for the Future

Posted October 02, 2020 in Articles

Author: Jodi Kirk

The show that I directed at Near West Theater was in the summer of 2004: a youth theater production of The Hobbit. The music was not particularly memorable and the script was a bit clunky, but as with almost all shows at NWT, the spirit and heart of the cast brought the story to life. The adventure of Bilbo Baggins and his band of dwarfs became a personal journey for those brave kids who reached beyond themselves and banded together and raised their voices in unity.

For 15 years NWT has been my artistic home and allowed me as a director to step into story and song with groups of kids, teens and adults to ask the questions that shape and define us and create a sacred space where gifts were unearthed, amplified and shared fearlessly and unapologetically. With the support and guidance and encouragement of both Bob and Stephanie and the willingness of countless cast members—including my co-creators in RISE, Trinidad and Mariah—I was able to claim and own my voice as a director, a teacher, and an advocate for arts education and social justice.

For the past 15 years, my work has shifted concentrating mostly on raising my family in Wooster, Ohio and serving as the Director for Active Learning at The Musical Theater Project. When Trinidad was brought on as NWT's Artistic Director, I thought that in some way my connection and devotion to NWT had come full circle. Witnessing her take on this role and knowing that we had shared so much history in both our evolution as artists made the legacy of her journey all the more potent. When she shared her vision for Big Fish or spoke with such love for the kids who brought The Mystery of Edwin Drood to life, memories of productions that I had shaped and images of cast and crew members who had shaped me flooded my senses. I was back in St. Pat's rehearsal hall and echoes of West Side Story, Pippin, Man of La Mancha, Camelot, Our Town and so many others reverberated in my soul with the deep joys of the past binding with the promise of all that was yet to come. I was excited to see what new seeds would blossom and grow under Trinidad's guidance, passion and artistry.

When Trinidad invited me to be part of this particular venture, I knew that I couldn't pass up the opportunity to work with her and Mariah and Darius. I was eager to meet and work with some of the very same young people that she had spoken so highly of. Although I relished the chance to create an original script in the tradition of some of the NWT works that I had been part of - Breaking Through, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, and America Through The Looking Glass - the thought of creating innovative and student lead work via ZOOM was overwhelming.

At the start of the process, there were many more questions than answers. Without being able to be in the same physical space, how would we be able to generate work that truly came from the kids? How would we be able to authentically build community and create a space where each voice was heard, celebrated and elevated? And personally – as both facilitator and director – how could I translate my ability to connect the kids to the material and the art form – to personalize language, embody character and physicalize energy – without getting to know them in person. Would my directing, facilitation and teaching skills translate in any deep and impactful way?

In the early stages of planning, our focus centered on the realities of living through quarantine and adjusting to the new normal of life amid COVID-19. And then George Floyd was murdered in Milwaukee. We immediately knew that the fight for racial justice and support for Black Lives Matter demanded attention. We had faith that once we began the journey of exploration, the kids would lead all of us to find a pathway to create a piece that reflected their joys and sorrows, that gave voice to their deepest fear and greatest hopes. What I didn't know was how much I needed their strength, their guidance and their fierce belief that they had the power to and ability to change the world.

While the youth are all are achingly aware of the injustice in this world and struggle with the brutality of our current political climate and the self-serving attitude of those in power, they also have a fervent belief that they have the power to make the changes that so many seek. Best of all, they are acting on it. In addition to writing stirring work and sharing their thoughts and ideas so beautifully during our rehearsal period, they are making their voices heard through social media and at rallies and by volunteering for organizations that serve and lift up others. Best of all, they act upon their desire for a fair and just world by taking care of each other, and supporting one another and lifting each other up in times of triumph and tragedy.

The participants have provided me with a sense of hope and have helped redefine my personal sense of purpose and advocacy. Although it took a few sessions, our gathering time became a sacred time and space where we could share our truths without fear of judgement. Through our time together, the leadership dynamic shifted from Darius and me serving as the primary guides to members of the group taking ownership of the space and conversation. We were able to bring new work into the session and create as both a group and individuals. As the process moved forward, members of our class were empowered to create pieces – spoken word poems, a group dance and song parodies – on their own. Witnessing individual creative agency in so many of the participants has been a gift without measure. If what we are able to weave together allows a broader audience to experience even a portion of what I was able to soak in these few months, I know the impact will be great.

Our world is chaotic and messy. Our country is divided and the story of who we are and who we are meant to be – who we COULD be – is unfinished. I am ready to give the pen to this next generation... to this group of young people who are so ready and more than capable of writing the next chapter. As Tolkien said in the The Lord of The Rings, which takes place long after Bilbo Baggins has returned from his adventure and follows the journey of two other brave hobbits, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee: “There's good in this world and it's worth fighting for!”

Even during uncertain times when so much is changing for these kids and the world itself seems to be falling apart, the story begins anew. These kids are ready to rise above and beyond. They are ready to face this needed reckoning with strength, humor, wisdom, grace and compassion. They will fight for the good... fight for justice, fight for change, fight for the arts, fight for the future of NWT, and fight for the right to live out loud.

This experience has been like no other and yet it embodies the best of what I love about theater, the creative process and NWT. It feels good to come back home.

Sam: It’s all wrong
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.
It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo.
The ones that really mattered.
Full of darkness and danger they were,
and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.
Because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.
Even darkness must pass.
A new day will come.
And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Those were the stories that stayed with you,
That meant something.
Even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.
I know now.
Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t.
Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam : That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

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