Arena Stage Hosts 2014 Voices of Now Festival Thru May 17

Arena Stage Hosts 2014 Voices of Now Festival Thru May 17

"This is an amazing opportunity to learn from young artists and be impressed by their expertise."

This is how Ashley Forman described the Voices of Now Festival, a four-day event showcasing original plays written and performed by more than 100 young artists from DC., and beyond.

Hosted by Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater through May 17, 2014, the Voices of Now Festival features the work of nine different youth ensembles presenting their original pieces in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle.

But these are not ordinary school plays, explained Forman, Arena Stage's director of education. The theatre performed by these ensembles are "original plays, created and written by the artists onstage."

"They are all young people who care about making a change in their community" and creating a conversation about issues, said Forman. "They will not give the audience answers or tell them how to think. Every one of their plays asks questions, but it's up to you to seek the answers."

This year, plays will examine topics such as mental health, self-esteem, gender equality, sexual identity, and others. Each performance will be followed by a talk-back session with the artists.

The participants in the Voices of Now Festival represent the ensembles that have come together from Washington, Virginia and Maryland, ranging in age from 11 to 24. Under the curriculum designed by Forman, each group works with professional theatre artists during workshops to explore their own world and ask questions. "We give them an open-ended title and they generate as much material from that as possible," Forman offered. "What they create is autobiographical and unique, following a question but exploring various narratives."

The final performance piece is a product of the ensemble and their artistic partners. "These are plays filled with movement as well as their original writing," Forman said.

"The goal of the current curriculum for each ensemble is to create the most authentic, honest piece of theatre. We want the stories of these young people to create a dialogue in their communities."

One such group is based at Jefferson Middle School in SW Washington. This is a place where the youth did not see themselves onstage. "Their focus was about being disconnected with the elders of their community." Forman described another ensemble which wrestled with how to communicate grieving.

The Mentor Ensemble did work as part of the National Civil War Project. "They created a play that examines what they see as social and cultural 'fault lines' caused by the Civil War."

The Voices of Now program has extended its scope beyond the DC area in the last two years. "We have been really lucky to have been awarded grants from the state department that allowed us to take Voice of Now to India, Croatia and back again to India," Forman explained.

During the first trip, "We went to four cities in India. Last year, when we went to Croatia, we were able to spend three weeks." Presented in Zagreb, Croatia, in December, 2013, "Disable(d) Prejudice" was created by students and young adults with disabilities. In January, nine members of the Voices of Now staff were able to return to India for a three-week residency.

The unique experiences of meeting and creating devised work abroad affects the visiting artists as well as the youth they engage in the program. As Forman remembered, "In India, we have had participants who are children rescued from child labor or have lived on train tracks and have no families.

She said one of the most surprising outcomes of the program is "how so many concerns are the same both here and in the other countries. We have found a fierce, impassioned cry for equal access to education - this has come up in India and Croatia, but it also comes up in Maryland, Virginia and in DC."

The Voices of Now Festival will allow people to see the work of the local ensembles as well as the international groups. Videos of the Croatian and Indian ensembles will be shown this week.

For Arena Stage, Voices of Now represents a point of pride, according to artistic director Molly Smith.

"What else is more passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit than the voices of our youth? The plays from these young people are powerful because they give voice, in a unique way, to their concerns, fears, and ideas. We all grow to be better people when we listen to their voices."

To visit the Arena Stage website for Voices of Now click HERE.

2014 Voices of Now Festival take place in the Kogod Cradle in the Mead Center, 1101 6th St., SW, WDC.

Tickets for Voices of Now Festival are free, though reservations are required through the Arena Stage Sales Office, 202.488.3300.

Photo: From the 2012 Voices of Now Festival.

Photo Credit: STAN BAROUH.

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