Holly Tarnower (she/her) is a Teaching Artist with Urban Improv and Rehearsal for Life’s Resident Scholar. Her blog, Life Unscripted, offers audiences a deeper look into our organization’s work, shedding light on our processes, practices and experiences with students. According to Holly, staying connected to — and being able to look more closely at — a diversity of perspectives, including on youth experience and expression during these times, is vital for all of us.
“Youth Unscripted: ‘The Life That’s Within Us All’”
This Friday, March 26, 2021, Rehearsal for Life’s Youth Unscripted ensemble will perform their original, virtual piece, “The Life that’s Within Us All.” This performance is the culminating event of the first-ever virtual Youth Unscripted year.
Youth Unscripted (YU) is Urban Improv’s creative arts program for high schoolers. It is open to any Boston-area high-school student interested in participating in a safe space where they can share their experiences and opinions, practice leadership and performance skills and use creative expression for social change. YU meets once a week, for an hour and a half per session, for about five months — usually at the Reggie Lewis Center at Roxbury Crossing, but this year on Zoom. While it took some adjusting, on both the students’ and facilitators’ parts, to adapt the program virtually, the real core of this impactful work remained the same. Because, while YU is a creative space, allowing students to explore and refine their artistic craft, the heart of the program, to me, lies in its focus on community.
Time is spent each session to really welcome students and hear about their past week. This ritual creates space for students to share their feelings surrounding life challenges such as “Zoom school” or the college application process. Instead of hearing adults offer advice, students connect through shared experiences and get a chance to learn from their peers and counsel each other. I have seen this time and again build lasting relationships between students who enter the year together as strangers.
Once the program is completed in the spring, students receive a stipend for their culminating artistic creation and time spent in the program throughout the year. The stipend is also meant to honor the work we believe students will do in their own communities after completing the program — fostering intersectional discourse and promoting social justice. YU better prepares students to have discussions surrounding difficult social topics, navigate contentious situations and use art as a tool for education, dialogue and strengthening community. Working with YU over the years has truly been one of the highlights of my career. I love watching students come out of their shell as the program progresses and find common ground with each other.
While I adore working with every one of our students in every aspect of Urban Improv, there is something very unique and special about YU. As the program is voluntary, every student who participates really wants to be there, and students may choose to participate throughout their entire high school career. This year we hosted nine returning students and seven new members. It’s wonderful to work with participants over the course of their high-school career and really get to know them, watching them grow as people and artists. Having an ensemble of both veteran and new members also makes for a richer community, as it organically creates leadership roles for veteran students. This year we established two official student mentor roles for “graduates” of the program who are now in their first year of college. Our mentors, Samiir Muhamed and Kayla Williams, help lead activities and discussions, offer ideas for performance material and give our high schoolers a peek into college life. Quite appropriately, they will also be serving as co-emcees for the Friday, March 26 performance.
While the program is theoretically led by Urban Improv teaching artists, it is a collaborative space that centers student voice. The teaching artists melt into the rest of the group, participating in the activities along with the students and gathering their ideas for the culminating showcase. Even this year’s show title, “The Life That’s Within Us All,” was student-generated and selected by the group from a pool of student suggestions. From start to finish, students devise, write, choreograph, film, edit and produce the show. Every aspect is a collaboration. Though YU is very much based in a process over product pedagogy, the culminating performance provides students an opportunity to deepen their collective approach by thinking critically about the kind of art they want to make for and with their community.
During the devising phase, students break into smaller groups based on their desired artistic focus. This also gives students a chance to work more individually with teaching artists who have an expertise in their chosen medium. This year, the groups consisted of a music group, a dance group and a spoken word group. Throughout the creative process, groups continuously share what they’re working on with the whole ensemble, utilizing feedback to refine their final performance pieces. One of my favorite things is when students come in with a bar of choreography or a verse of lyrics they worked on individually over the week, and the rest of the group incorporates it into the piece.
This year, the performance is punctuated by student interviews that are interspersed throughout the show. These interviews give beautiful insight into the program and the engaging emerging artists who have made the show what it is. Vivian Zhu, a senior at the O’Bryant School, who has been at YU for two years, shares, “I’m in the music group. I’m rapping part of the song, and my inspiration came from what is going on in the world. I hope Asian hate crimes stop soon…. I hope the message gets through to the audience…. This year especially was very significant because, as we all know, we’re in a pandemic, and it really helps to be able to talk to a group of people who are supportive and understanding. So this was a great motivation for me to get to the next day.”
Layah Turner, a newcomer to YU this year and a junior at Boston Arts Academy, says, “Being here has taught me a lot about beatboxing and rapping…. What stood out to me most was that, in my music group, at first a lot of people didn’t want to show their piece, but then when everybody else started doing it, they would. I really like that. People are starting to feel comfortable around everybody.” Choice McCarty, also a newcomer and junior at Boston Arts Academy, touches upon her experiences this year in the program and working in the music group: “This is the first time I’ve ever really written any lyrics for something. I usually write them for my own satisfaction. So it was really nice being able to collaborate with other people and actually share my lyrics…. It was definitely a learning experience.”
Regarding the creation of the show and the music piece, Choice says, “The inspiration kinda came from the pandemic, and especially about school. Being stressed out in general about school. It’s also about who we are as people. So it has to do with mental health, about, you know, our ethnicities, our races, all coming together, what it’s like in our home lives, things like that, and it kind of all manifests in the song. It doesn’t just showcase our talents — it showcases who we are as people, and that’s what I want to do with my music…. This is a stepping stone for establishing my brand as a person and who I’m going to be as an artist, because you can’t be just like everybody else…. This whole experience has really helped me define who I want to be as an artist and really look deep inside myself.”
While I was not able to work with the group for the entire span of the program this year, the time I spent with them was a bright light in the midst of quite a bit of darkness. While these students spent hours and hours on Zoom every week, they came to YU eager to participate and share. In just a matter of weeks, this new group of students from several different schools and neighborhoods felt like a tight community. One memory of this year will stay with me forever, and I leave you with it today.
Like many of us, by far one of the most memorable days of my year was January 6, 2021: the day that violent insurrectionists stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. I sat watching the news in fear and disbelief, wondering how I was going to be able to work. As I met with the fellow teaching artists for our weekly planning session, we questioned if the students would even show up. At that moment, I even wished they wouldn’t — that YU would be canceled that day, so I could just go back to watching the news.
As we logged on, the students came right in, ready to work and be together. They spoke up and expressed how they were feeling. They shared pieces of art that they felt spoke to what was happening in our country, and they offered words of hope. I went from wanting to be anywhere but Zoom or work to feeling so grateful that I got the chance to break away from CNN and spend a couple hours with these incredible young people, who were handling all this with complete and utter grace. We closed the day with one of our rituals: typing one word into the chat that encapsulates how we are feeling after the day’s session. These are the words that appeared on the screen:
Now, when I remember that day, I will get to remember this too. A bright light in a time of darkness.
Sending Love, Creativity and Hope,
-Holly Tarnower (Teaching Artist, Resident Scholar)
Register here to attend “The Life That’s Within Us All” on Friday, March 26, 2021, at 5:00pm EST!