The training program of the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta (YEA) is the core program of the organization. Our mission is to empower youth, through the performing arts, to become catalysts for positive change in their communities. We use the training program to give our members the skills they need to succeed at whatever they do in life, thereby empowering them to make changes in the world around them.
With this program, YEA provides free training in music, dance and theatre to members of the ensemble. We also provide them with the opportunity to create an original, issue-oriented musical drama that focuses on an issue they are facing in their daily lives. Ensemble members also experience the breadth of performance styles across the arts community.
Young people, ages 8 to 18, audition to join YEA. We hold auditions in the fall, winter and spring. Ensemble members are selected primarily based on their passion for the arts and interest in pursuing this kind of continued training for many years. Once selected, members are provided with a scholarship that covers all of the expenses related to training, performing, attending productions and even traveling with the ensemble. To maintain their scholarship, ensemble members must meet attendance, academic and participation requirements throughout the year.
The ensemble training is rooted in our weekly three-hour workshops. The entire ensemble comes together each week on Saturdays to focus on their training. The day is broken up into five segments: warm-up, dance, music, theatre, and the circle. Warm-ups are physical and mental exercises to focus the ensemble. This usually ends with dancing “across the floor”, which both teaches the beginning of routines to learn later and energizes the ensemble for the rest of their day. The core 45-minute classes are led by the professional staff of YEA, our intern leaders and guest artists from the world-wide artistic community. The day concludes with 15 minutes of cool-down including a gathering time at the end of the day for reflection, announcements, and commendations. This is also a time when ensemble members can share with the group some of the burdens they are carrying outside of YEA and seek support from their friends.
Our classes provide both depth and breadth in each of the disciplines. Artists not only learn to work from a given text, but also to create words, music, songs and dances. Because we work with young people with a variety of experiences, we often break up into beginning and more advanced classes. The beginning theatre students learn the basics of stage directions, note-taking, pantomime, emotional recall, memorization and presentation skills, while the more advanced students are doing scene-work, developing audition skills, writing and performing monologues and developing new work. By the same token, the beginning classes for music and dance start from the beginning of breathing, terminology, listening in a group, basic steps, basic form and memorizing simple phrases. Advanced students are learning more complex steps, phrasing, interpreting, and creating new work. Though we have such varied degrees of skill, we still spend the majority of our time together as an ensemble. The more experienced students share their skills with the more novice artists, which helps everyone build shared vocabularies and experiences.
The Creation Process
The creation process is also one of our most powerful teaching tools. In this project, YEA will create another original musical production. As a reflection of our mission, YEA’s original work is issue-oriented and deals with the challenges our ensemble members are facing and experiencing in their communities. To that end, we do not know of the issue to be faced, but the process will be reflective of the YEA form. Under the guidance of the artistic leadership, we begin each production with round-tables and discussions about the many issues everyone is seeing around them. One or two primary concerns typically bubble to the top and the issues are explored in depth through research, presentations from community partners and more round-tables. One issue always comes out as the one that would make for the most impactful production around which we feel a need to raise awareness in our community. The topic is then further researched by the artistic leadership, as well as the more experienced members of the ensemble. They work together to determine the areas to be most addressed and generally a loose structure is born. At this point the rest of the ensemble join the process through round-tables. They also write and submit pieces (monologues, songs, scenes, ideas, etc.) to be a part of the piece. These submissions are auditioned for the artistic team and selected for further development, combined with other ideas or declined for the production. The scenes are further refined by their authors and the ensemble and ultimately, a production is born out the process. YEA works with professional directors, designers and stage managers to create the final production. To date, YEA has created eight original productions and performed to more than a million people around the globe with audiences as large as 25,000 and as small as 20.
The experiential part of the training program has been growing for several years. Being based in Atlanta has been an incredible asset for YEA and our ensemble members. There is a diverse array of artists brought into our community each year and our members often have the opportunity to not only experience their work, but learn from them in special workshop classes. YEA attends, on average, three to five productions each year in our community. The artists are as varied as New York-based dance company, Ron Brown’s Evidence to Massachusetts’ Double Edge Theatre and even Belgrade’s Dah Teatar. Artists from these companies often come into workshop while they are in town to share their skills with our members. We also attend mainstream performances at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta Ballet and mid-sized companies around the city where we are usually able to secure free and reduce-priced tickets.