By Holli Harms

I was honored to watch an evening of the 2021 National YoungArts Week + Next Generation of Artists share their work with the public on Tuesday, January 26th. The evening was Jazz and Theater and it was fantastic. All of course via Zoom. The evening opened with eight band members all performing in their dorm rooms and bedrooms from Florida to Connecticut, San Diego to New York, and all so good that I thought, “They could easily play Cafe Carlyle.” To hear them rock together and communicate the songs to us all via Zoom was astonishing. They are playing jazz music, a highly collaborative music genre, in bubbles and yet!  And yet! They made it happen. They brought it together. They gave us all watching and listening a full set. I couldn’t have been happier if I were sitting in a club watching them riff in front of me.

“NATIONAL YOUNGARTS FOUNDATION identifies the most accomplished young artists in the visual, literary and performing arts, and provides them with creative and professional development opportunities throughout their careers.” The ones who are the winners in creativity at the Finalist level, the organization’s highest award, have the opportunity to participate in a week-long program of workshops and panels, opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, project-based assignments, and classes with renowned guest artists and panelists.” And as stated this year all virtual.

The same praise as to the jazz portion of the evening I would like to laud upon the Theater Ensemble piece titled Here/Hear. It was sectioned off into four sections each with four to five artists performing monologues of poetry and prose that they themselves wrote. These young actors – their passion and depth, their observations of the world around them and especially this past year 2020, the year our eyes were opened wide, was full of insight and hope. 2020 vision sees all and they are not only seeing but recording their place in it, their love, anger, and vision of what can be, of what it means to be a human in this country and walking on this planet. Hearing them, hearing their insight – staggeringly beautiful.

I am so impressed with this program and the opportunity it affords, but I want you to hear the passion from the participants themselves and panelists. I posted five questions to two of the panelists, Peter Jay Fernandez and Kenneth Noel Mitchell, and the same five to two of the young artists Isaiah Boozer (South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities,Greenville, SC) and Chloe Meinershagen  (Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Dallas TX). Below are each of their in-depth answers.

Not every young artist is so lucky to be at a school that is not only aware of the National YoungArts Foundation as both Chloe and Isaiah’s but also pushes each student to submit an audition. If you are a parent, a guardian, a teacher, a friend of a young artist 14-18 please read this and pass it on to them. The competition is fierce but a chance given is a chance. 

Peter Jay Fernandez: Panelist

1) How did you find out about National YoungArts? I first heard about YoungArts four years ago from a friend and colleague, Michael McElroy. Michael is a YoungArts alumnus, and former chair and panel member in the Theatre discipline. He called me in the summer of 2017 and asked if I would be interested in being a panelist for the upcoming YoungArts competition, as they had an opening and he felt I might be a good fit, given my background as an actor and teacher and our work together on stage. I am ashamed to say that I had no prior knowledge of this extraordinary program for young artists, but I am deeply grateful that Michael sought me out to be a part of that year’s selection of finalists and coaching/mentoring of them in National YoungArts Week in Miami. I have been honored to return each year since that initial year, and it has become a staple of my artistic well-being and a reminder of what is important in this interchange we call humanity.

2. Could you talk about what the process has been like for you? What surprised you about it? I was initially ( and continue to be) taken with the vastness, integrity, and collaborative spirit of the program and the amount that is not only accomplished in a very short time but has a lifelong effect on so many. Within that one week (after a lengthy selection process) over ten disciplines, these young artists are coached and mentored by a panel of highly skilled professionals; take part in a public staged performance; take classes with leading figures in the artistic world, and are encouraged to delve into their art and selves in ways that are new and quite challenging. What surprised me (as it always does) is the amount of discovery and growth displayed in them as individuals and as a collective ensemble. They emerge changed in profound ways. In addition, YoungArts is a deep well of continuing guidance and mentorship, long after competition week.

3./4. Talk about how the performance came together? The obstacles? The surprises?
What is your take away from this experience? The performance aspect of the week usually comes from the panelists coaching the finalists on solo and two-person theatre pieces, and songs or duets for the musical theatre finalists that have been previously assigned. In the space of two to three days these pieces are staged and performed before the public in a state of the art theatre. This year, given the brave decision to move ahead with National YoungArts Week + online, (as a result of the pandemic) we were faced with the considerable challenge of duplicating the scope, intimacy, and depth of the ‘in-person’ experience through the internet platform of Zoom. Rather than play it ‘safe’, and in an effort to give our young theatre artists a chance to express their art in the midst of this time of crisis in which the country and world finds itself, we offered them an opportunity to create their own artistic responses to the ‘moment’ we are in. I am so proud of and inspired by what they found in themselves and each other. What they accomplished in this short, ‘Zoom’ week will linger for them and all of us in the ways that true artistic collaboration always does.

5. Any advice, thoughts for others who might want to participate in this program? To the young artist who may be considering YoungArts for their future, I would say: run, run toward this possibility with as much passion, imagination, heart, and skill as you can muster. You will be challenged and changed for the better. I know that I have. We are waiting for you with open arms!

Chloe Meinershagen: Theater Finalist

1) How did you find out about National YoungArts Foundation? I found out about YoungArts through my school, Booker T. Washington HSPVA, where they encouraged all seniors to apply.

2) Could you talk about what the process has been like for you? What surprised you about it?
I was surprised by the immediate familial energy that I received from all the finalists and th

e panelists. We began the week by introducing ourselves through performances of our material, and it was an incredible way to be inspired by everyone’s abilities and to realize that no one was there to judge, we were all there to create and explore. I think this surprised me because there is a lot of competitiveness within theatre and within art in general, and it was so nice to step into a space where it wasn’t competitive at all, it was a space full of love and support. I quickly became very close with all the finalists and panelists, and I am so appreciative of that experience.

3) Talk about how the performance came together? The obstacles? The surprises?
The process commenced with everyone creating an artistic response based on two books: Citizen, An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine, and The Me Nobody Knows, by Stephen M. Joseph. We presented these creative pieces as a solo, and then the panelists split us off into groups of 4-5 to find a way to combine our pieces for the final expression. The panelists always acted as a guiding hand, never enforcing what to do or how to feel about our exploration, more so giving suggestions of places we could expand further. My group started by searching for the similarities and links between our pieces. We found that we all had an emphasis on identity and the struggle and experience of our individual identities. Since my expression was the only song of our group, we decided to have my song be the through-line of the piece and created an emotional arc of introducing all our identities, expressing the struggles, and ending with hope for acceptance.Our pieces truly worked so well together, and the only obstacles were mainly personal ones, each of us learned to explore the emotion of our pieces deeper. One obstacle I had was finding a way to play the ukulele throughout the piece while being able to turn my camera off and on again throughout the performance. Mainly what surprised us was how similar each of our pieces were in themes, despite what all our different experiences were with our identities and the variety of ways of artistically expressing ourselves, we all were searching for acceptance and equality.

4) What is your take away from this experience? I could truly go on for hours about how many different takeaways I had from National YoungArts Week +. Something that was the most impactful to me was the emphasis of being your own creative individual and giving yourself the liberty to simply express yourself exactly for who you are. There is no need to want to be like anyone else when you have you, your background, your story, and your own creative talents. There is literally no one else like you, and you bring something special and unique to the table simply by being yourself. Additionally, I savored the diversity of our group. I felt so grateful to be in a space where I didn’t feel isolated as a mixed-race person. In our group, there were other mixed-raced individuals and more within the BIPOC and specifically Black community, and we all shared our experiences and our stories. I am so appreciative of the safe space that was created for us all to feel heard and validated. We were encouraged to let our identities and life experiences influence our art and creativity.

5) Any advice, thoughts for others who might want to participate in this program? My advice for applying is to audition with pieces that really show who you are and what you love to do. Know that with or without YoungArts, everyone is inherently creative and should not feel deterred by rejection because rejection is never a statement about one’s worth as a unique individual. If you find joy in creating and experience joy in your audition videos, then that is really all that matters. No one can take that joy away from you. As my panelist Kenneth Mitchell would say, hope can be a dangerous and scary thing, but it is absolutely necessary. YoungArts is truly a family for life, and I know I will keep the memories and the friendships made from this program forever.

Kenneth Noel Mitchell: Panelist

1) How did you find out about YoungArts and how did you become involved with the organization? My mentor Kenneth Washington was involved in YoungArts for many years. 7 years ago about a week before adjudication, there was a vacancy and my friend Michael McElroy reached out to me. That was before we did pre-screens. We watched about 400 candidates in 4 days. Now we see 130. I was terrified and overwhelmed. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would become chair of the Theater discipline.

2) Could you talk about what the process has been like for you as a panelist for National Young Arts Week? What surprised you about it? Amazing! To be in the room with the other panelist in my theatre is like a master class. Our discussions and our work with the finalists have made me a better teacher and person. The finalist comes open, available, and hungry to learn. But it is the deep connection the finalist make with each other that is inspiring. They will be forever be connected through their art

3) Can you talk about how the performance came together? We as a panel acknowledge the circumstances of the world today. We knew we were going to be online So we rethought our traditional performance. We decided the online platform would be a great place for our young artists to give voice to our current challenges by creating a devised piece. Peter Jay Fernandez suggested we have our finalist read Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. The panel decided to ask the finalist to create an artistic response to the themes in the book regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion. During the week we engaged in equity, diversity, and inclusion workshops and collaborating with finalists, and putting the piece together. What you saw and heard is the finalist expressing themselves through art created by them.

4) Any big takeaways from this experience? We got to know the artist on a deeper level. The stories that were shared were passionate and personal. The moments of compassion and empathy between people uniquely different from each other were moving beyond words. I left the week filled with hope about the future! The world they will create through their art will be one of empathy and understanding.

5) Do you have any advice or thoughts for other young artists who might want to participate in this program next year? Don’t worry about impressing us. Find material that you personally connect with. Show us your heart!!!

Isaiah Boozer: Theater Finalist

1)How did you find out about YoungArts and how did you become involved with the organization? My school, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, requires every senior drama student to participate in the YoungArts competition. So that’s exactly what we did and that is how I found out about YoungArts. I found out through my school, I found out through the seniors who came before me doing it, and then I did my own research and find out what it really was and who was going through it and the process of going through it and how beautiful their artistry came out to be. And finding out was such a, now looking back at it in the end, a grandiose crashing sort of crescendo, because I think in the state of the world that we were in, life wasn’t a sunset on the beach. It was the waves, as I said before, crashing into a grandiose crashing crescendo that rises and falls again and again.

2) Could you talk about what the process has been like for you? What surprised you about it? The process of YoungArts was so fascinating because you wait about 5 weeks after you send in your audition tapes and then I and my friend Tyler found out “oh my God we got into YoungArts” on the exact same day. And that process was then trying to figure out OK what pieces am I going to do, not knowing that the pieces would be pretty much assigned for me, trying to prepare myself for that.  What surprised me about YoungArts was how beautiful all of it was in the end. What surprised me about the process was how selective they were, and it was purposeful. Many of my esteemed panelists talked about how we were put in this group for a reason. There was nothing done by mistake. And that’s what was so surprising about all of it was that I met people from all over this country. People with all different backgrounds. People who were young teenagers trying to find their voices, artists in today’s world that tells them that they are not worth it, that tells them their voice has no meaning no value no nothing to it. So that is what surprised me, was how beautiful this all coming altogether was.

3) Talk about how the performance came together? The obstacles? The surprises? The biggest obstacle, of course, was zoom. I remember reaching out to the technical staff and saying hey if you are recording on Zoom there’s a way to separate audio for each person so that the audio doesn’t cut out but, of course, I don’t think that information got to them in time and so there was a moment when Evan was singing and I believe it was Kate who began singing and the audio wasn’t exactly where it should have been but that’s fine. It’s a learning process. You learn through your mistakes. The performance came together as a result of one of the panelists, the amazing Peter Jay Fernandez, simply letting us as artists create. Giving us the opportunity to just let go and create. If it wasn’t for that we wouldn’t have had that performance that we did. It was honest, it was raw, it was real. There was nothing about it that was fake or pretending to be something vibrant. It was vibrant.

4) What was your take away from this experience? My take away was that a young black boy from the south who defies the odds of what it means to be a “man” in today’s society, who doesn’t walk down the street in fear as a young black man who walks with confidence knowing that his voice can make a room shake not out of arrogance but out of the beauty that I found through life, out of the intrinsic nature that we all have within ourselves. What this experience told me is that all those things matter to the world, to our society that they would choose a young black man who walks how he wants to walk, talks how he wants to talk and has the ideas that he has that matter. Black lives matter. Black stories matter. Black art matters. Black intelligence, black women, black non-binary people, black men, black children, black adults (which adults are just children pretending to be grown-ups in my opinion). It told me that and reminded me that artistry is at the forefront of change in this nation.

5) Any advice, thoughts for others who might want to participate in this program? My advice for other artists who potentially want to be part of the YoungArts experience and who don’t know fully know what it’s about or who don’t fully understand the process. Trust yourself. Trust the process. Getting into YoungArts isn’t the “start” of your success, not getting in isn’t your failure. This life is one long road that we decide to take different branches off of. You might have to sway this way and this lane, or go off on to this side road, or off onto this interstate or highway to get where you want to go. Know that your essence is enough. Know that you are more than enough. Know that your story matters. Know that you are important. And that the things that you have to say are not cheesy, they’re not artsy. I can’t stand it when people do that. When people will say something like “And you kissed me and the heavens opened up for the first time and I finally felt love. Oh, that was cheesy.” Don’t, don’t ruin that moment. Stay in it. Love your art. Love your words. Love your love. Love yourself. Self-love takes practice every day. You look beautiful. You are amazing. Those steps working up to YoungArts and trusting yourself and loving yourself and believing in you when no one else will – you’re the only person who has to spend 24 hours a day with yourself so you better make them count cuz those hours are long. Everyone says, “Life is short” no life is long, really long. Long if you let it be. If you waste countless moments doing and living in nothingness it’s going to go by really fast. So be you, live in your essence, continue to live life, love yourself, love your art. Find bits and pieces of the artist that you are, find whether you’re an essential or literal thinker. Find what pieces of art make you want to wake up in the morning. Those would be some of the main things that I would say are beautiful ideas to start thinking about.