Letting them lead: Youth Performance Festival works to build kids’ creativity

  • Jess Atkins-Barber of Easthampton, 11, adjusts a camera before shooting a scene for the Youth Performance Festival, which takes place this weekend at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

  • Silas Kleppinger, 11, of Easthampton adjusts his death mask before shooting a spooky scene from a theatrical piece that’s part of the Youth Performance Festival, taking place this weekend at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

  • Jess Atkins-Barber and Silas Kleppinger debate scene blocking ideas while Tejas Eck appraises the scene during a recent rehearsal at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building of the Youth Performance Festival. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

  • Louie Phipps, who played ukulele at previous Youth Performance Festivals, moves on to the guitar during a rehearsal for the 2022 YPF at the Northampton Community Arts Trust. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

  • Jess Atkins-Barber discusses shot selections with Silas Kleppinger during a recent rehearsal for the Youth Performance Festival. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

  • Sarah Marcus and Kelly Silliman, co-directors of the Youth Performance Festival, say the program is designed to help young artists further develop their creative potential. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

  • Sarah Marcus and Kelly Silliman, co-directors of the Youth Performance Festival, say the program is designed to help young artists develop their creative potential. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

  • Sarah Marcus and Kelly Silliman, co-directors of the Youth Performance Festival, say the program is designed to help young artists further develop their creative potential. SABATO VISCONTI/FOR THE GAZETTE

Staff Writer
Published: 2/11/2022 12:33:35 PM

Ian Kim had come to this latest rehearsal with a large cardboard box, one with taped seams and a sort of wedge of separate cardboard on its top. It turned out that wedge was actually the top part of a T-shaped chunk of cardboard that could be moved up and down via a slot in the top of the box.

“It’s dynamite,” explained Ian, who’s 9 years old and lives in Amherst. “This is the plunger.”

Or course it wasn’t real dynamite. But Ian’s homemade prop was a key component of a performance he had devised with another young aspiring artist, Max Schneider, that was due to be presented this Saturday and Sunday (Feb. 12 and 13) at the Youth Performance Festival (YPF), a forum designed to help develop the creativity of children and teens.

The YPF, now in its third season, is a joint project of the Northampton Center for the Arts and Valley Performance Playground, a Northampton organization that offers art and theater workshops for young people. Held at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building at 33 Hawley St., YPF links mentor artists with young artists ages 8 to 18 to create original pieces in music, dance, theater, poetry/spoken word, and video/animation.

At its heart, says Sarah Marcus, one of the co-directors of the free program, YPF aims to help give young artists the confidence to develop original work — not just to gain proficiency on, say, a musical instrument, but to encourage them to compose music, too.

“It’s really about helping them to discover their own creative process and giving them the skills to build on that creativity,” said Marcus, who heads the Valley Performance Playground and has worked in theater as an actor, teacher and producer. “We’re also interested in helping [youth artists] work in different disciplines.”

Kelly Silliman, a co-director of YPF, is a longtime dancer and dance instructor, and also the program director of the Center for the Arts. Looking back, she says she could have benefited from a program like YPF when she first began dancing.

YPF, Silliman said, “is designed to meet people where they are.” The mentor artists, several of whom have been part of all three festivals, are there “to help support and guide the youth artists,” Silliman says. “They’re not there to tell them what to do, or to make changes — and they’ve done a great job in that sense.”

COVID-19 has posed a challenge to the festival the last two years. In 2021, all rehearsals and final performances took place online. This year the rehearsals, which began in mid-January on Saturdays and have involved 22 young people, have been in person, but with everyone masked. For the shows this weekend, in-person audiences are limited to youth artists’ families, but both performances will be livestreamed for free.

Collaborations and solo work

For the last rehearsal for this year’s YPF, youth and mentor artists gathered in several spaces at 33 Hawley on the first Saturday in February. In the dance studio, Sasha St. Germain, 14, was working on a solo dance while Jen Peterson, one of the mentor artists, sat nearby on the hardwood floor, cuing up backing music on a cellphone.

Sasha, from Westfield, said this is her third year with YPF and that she’s really come to enjoy the chance to try out some of her own choreography. “I feel like I get a lot of support here,” she said.

Peterson, a veteran dance instructor in the area, said she’s been happy to let St. Germain take the helm for her work. “She’s done all the choreography on her own. I’m basically here to provide some feedback.” With a laugh, she added, “I also keep the music going.”

In the opposite corner of the room, Ian Kim was huddling with mentor artist Katherine “Kat” Adler, a dancer who was working with Ian and his buddy Max Schneider on their part-video, part-live performance piece. Ian and Max had raced across the floor in one brief scene; then Max left and Ian chatted with Adler, who sat on the floor with a laptop computer.

“So maybe we can work on the dialogue?” Adler asked. “Or do you want to work on the video?”

“Maybe let’s try some dialogue first,” Ian replied.

The mentor artists themselves don’t necessarily work within their specific area of expertise. Marcus says the YPF is also designed to encourage young artists to think in terms of cross-disciplinary work, or to help them do that if they’re interested, and mentor artists work along those lines as well.

“It’s really interesting to see the collaborations that develop,” Marcus said. “You’ll have one young artist say, ‘I think I need a backup singer for this’ and then a bunch of other kids will volunteer for that, and the whole piece takes on a different dimension.”

Seana Lamothe, who teaches theater at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, has been a mentor artist at YPF all three years. This year she’s been working with another mentor, Shakira Tejada, to help guide the efforts of several young musicians, including a group of a capella singers. Sasha St. Germain, the dancer, is also part of that group.

“Some of the kids come in with very clear ideas about what they want to do, and others are a little less specific,” Lamothe said. “Our job is to try and help them reach their goals and expectations.”

In some cases, YPF can be a family affair. Thirteen-year-old Aislinn Hentz, Lamothe’s daughter, has also been part of all three festivals. Last Saturday she was sitting on a couch in the office of Northampton Open Media, in the basement of 33 Hawley, developing some animation on an iPad as mentor artist Gabriel CiFuentes sat watching nearby.

“She’s brilliant!” CiFuentes said. “I don’t need to do much here. Our job is to offer what you can to help their artistic process.”

Meanwhile, across the hallway in a space known as Eli’s Room, three other youths — Jess Atkins-Barber, Silas Kleppinger and Tejas Eck — were arranging some large standing mirrors with wooden backing as they prepared to film parts of their theatrical piece, with Silas pulling a black hooded mask over his head for one scene.

Mentor artist Ezzell Floranina, a longtime arts instructor in the Valley who was working with the trio, said she’s been impressed with how the YPF has developed over the last three years.

“I think the whole structure has improved and has really gotten the kids involved,” she said.

Silliman and Marcus say the pandemic has slowed their efforts so far to increase overall participation in the program, though Silliman says they’ve been able to engage young artists from more outlying towns each year.

“This isn’t just kids from Northampton and Amherst, and we’re really excited about that,” she said. “We want to make this a truly regional program.”

The 2022 Youth Performance Festival takes place at 33 Hawley this Saturday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Both performances will be livestreamed for free, and donations in lieu of tickets can be made through the Northampton Center for the Arts. Go to nohoarts.org/events and click on the links for the YPF for more information.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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