Finding Our Voices

Miracle Project CastIt’s sometimes a cliché to say the arts help people “find their voice.” But in recent months I’ve had a chance to see the cliché become a reality. It has been thrilling to provide a platform for people to find their voice and tell their stories. We only dreamed of such impact when we launched GRoW @ The Wallis: A Space for Arts Education.

The Wallis has joined with The Miracle Project to develop and present a new musical. “Work in Progress” is about the hopes and dreams and fears young people with autism have as they prepare to leave high school and enter the “real world.” The show is inspired by the life experience and ideas of the participating youth. Their desire to be accepted, understood, and valued comes through in the musical numbers. In one song the cast pleads “give me a chance, give me a shot, look at what’s here and not what’s not.” In addition to the public performances, we are hosting a special student matinee when other high school students with special needs will be able to experience the show and then discuss its meaning with the cast.

This Fall we launched a Wallis Youth Theater Company for high school and college age actors. The original plan was to do a contemporary play in the Fall and a classic work in the Spring. The early readings of potential plays took place in October in the run up to the presidential election. One Saturday morning, as the actors gathered for rehearsal, they began sharing their responses to the campaign. The overriding theme was that of fear. As a very diverse mix of young people, each wondered how it was possible that the political debate could be overwhelmed by such strong currents of fear? In response to their palpable sense of anxiety, the Company’s director, Madeleine Dahm, decided we needed to take a different course. Rather than perform an existing play, the actors would instead develop a devised piece about the culture of fear evoked by the campaign.

“Word of Mouth” premiered in our Lovelace Studio Theater this past January. The piece wove together speeches from throughout history with masks and movement to show the power of words – both to inspire hope and to divide and instill fear. While the piece succeeded as a work of theater, it was almost more effective as a vehicle for these young people to share their voices and inspire change. Days after the Wallis premier, the young actors performed an excerpt at Artists Rise Up LA – a benefit event to raise funds for the ACLU. I was thrilled to see our cast on that stage, the only young people among an evening of adult artists.

The Wallis has joined with CRE Outreach to present “The Hero Within,” an original theater piece drawn from the true stories of seven African-American military veterans. When rehearsals began in January, many of the participants were meeting each other for the first time. They began by telling their personal stories and experiences with their military. Each story was intensely personal and unique. Yet themes emerged among the group, such as a mix of pride in their service and anger about the racism and sexual harassment they had to confront. They each appreciated the chance to share and perform their own stories. Too often the role of a veteran is performed by an actor who never served. Because they reflect their lives, there is a power in these performances you rarely get from someone merely playing a “role.”

I expect the audiences for “The Hero Within” will be moved by the performance and troubled by the issues it raises. For all of our national commitment to “patriotism,” in reality we are failing to treat our veterans with the compassion and respect they deserve. Most importantly, I know the cast will have a sense of achievement. Their voices will be heard.