Initially conceived as a limited series of theater workshops offered at the Hampshire Jail and House of Corrections, the Performance Project is still going strong over twenty years later. 

Through various performances, projects and visual arts created and inspired by the young participants the program strengthens youth leadership in western Mass communities. And the Performance Project also actively encourages its members and audiences to engage with community and social justice issues. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with the co-directors from the Performance Project to hear more about their work. 

This segment originally aired on January 13, 2022.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Initially beginning as a limited series of theater workshops at the Hampshire Jail and House of Corrections, the Performance Project is still around more than 20 years later, strengthening youth leadership in our communities.

Through various performances, projects, and visual arts created and inspired by the young participants, the Performance Project is engaging its members and audiences by bringing awareness to social justice issues and community engagement.

I spoke with the co-directors from the Performance Project to hear more about their work.

Julie Lichtenberg, The Performance Project: I was invited by the Hampshire County Jail to co-lead a workshop. It was a dance and theater workshop for men who are incarcerated at the jail. And it was initially supposed to be a 14 week workshop, culminating in a performance. And the audience was both the inside audience of men who are incarcerated at the jail, and the general public.

And it was so impactful, both in the participants’ lives and in the in the audience’s experience, that we were invited to repeat that. And the next time we did it, it was six months to create a performance and build up the performing ensemble, and that’s how it began.

Zydalis Bauer: So, as you mentioned, this was supposed to be a very limited project, but now it has grown 20 years past the fact.

Who do you encourage to be part of this project now today?

Julie Lichtenberg: So, the overarching answer is that we encourage everybody to participate. We hold youth at the core of the work that we’re doing in First Generation and Ubuntu arts community. But ultimately, we have family and community celebrations.

We want artists to come. We want the general public to come. We want scholars to participate. We want activists to participate. We want teachers to participate. And when we have our performances, we’re really, you know, we’re inviting the general public, as well.

So, holding our First Generation and Ubuntu youth at the center, we hope that it is a community-based initiative.

Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned First Generation and Ubuntu, which are components of the Performance Project. Talk to me about those programs.

How did they come about and who are they for and what — where do the names come from?

Julie Lichtenberg: First generation evolved out of the work that was happening in the Hampshire Jail, and the the name of the the community is meant to encompass all identities.

So initially, we thought of first generation as being the first in one’s family to be growing up in the United States and speaking English. The identity is expanded to a young person who can identify any first in their life.

So, it might be the first to be an activist. It might be the first in their family to be graduating from high school or going to college. They might be the first in their family to be incarcerated. They might be the first in their family to be a feminist or to break a silence. That’s first generation.

Cristóbal Silva San Martin, The Performance Project: Ubuntu is named after the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, which really speaks to the interconnectedness of human beings and how we cannot exist in isolation.

It sometimes gets translated to “I am because you are” or how each one benefiting from, like, us coming together really makes us all thrive. So that’s very intentional in how we come together in our mentoring and our being an existing with each other.

Zydalis Bauer: Some of the core values of the Performance Project are around intergenerational and intercultural mentoring, artistic training, social justice, and community engagement.

In what ways are participants being introduced to these core values throughout the program?

Cristóbal Silva San Martin: We focus on doing leadership trainings, and really focusing on connection among our young people. So preparing them with skills to be able to be there to support each other.

Also in our family and community celebrations, to bring in community in terms of artistic  — artistic training and cultural activism, we work with professional artists to be able to provide that training leading up to the creation of performances. Really focusing on using the arts kind of as a vehicle for storytelling and tackling social justice issues.

And that also ties into our social justice and community engagement pillar, which is really having conversations around these issues, learning about community organizations and ways to get involved, examining the systems of oppression through the experiences of young people and current events, and through a wide variety of other mechanisms as well.

Zydalis Bauer: You briefly mentioned the First Generation program, which is a component of the Performance Project. And I know that that came about after hearing members commenting on how big of a difference this project would have made in their lives if they had it when they were younger.

What have been some of all of your favorite moments or most impactful moments of transformations that you’ve seen within individuals part of the program?

James Arana, The Performance Project: Just getting phone calls from people, from participants who are now in Europe or in graduate school or college students who are being successful and being challenged and having our young people in our Ubuntu community look towards each other and acknowledge that they are already mentors and how how good they feel being together in the way that we are supporting and nurturing each other.

Julie Lichtenberg: I would say that there was a moment in our Ubuntu Arts community, which is third grade through eighth graders who are mentored by high school and college students.

And there was a moment in one of our community circles where one of the eight — third graders, who are eight years old said, “When do we get to be mentors?” And the other — and a little girl sitting next to him said, “We’re already mentors with each other.”

That just gave me goosebumps because I felt like they completely understood what we were doing.

Zydalis Bauer: It came full circle in that moment. Absolutely.

Talk to me about some of the creative and artistic works that you do with the Performance Project and how that has been really helpful and beneficial to the members.

Julie Lichtenberg: What audiences see when they come to see the performances, are the final product of stories that are being told based on the personal experiences of ensemble members, of the youth.

The Performance Project Performer: We are laughing all the way to the world. And all the way home. And honestly, I love her.

Julie Lichtenberg: And those stories, the social justice piece, is that youth have spent time alone — and together — in writing and in conversation, really thinking about how their stories are not just their own personal stories, but really connect to the world at large, really connect to systemic issues, either in the United States or globally.

And…through that process, they have analyzed kind of where their places in the world and how there are — you know, what the barriers are or what the support systems are that can help move them forward in life.

And  — but the one thing that they haven’t yet understood until they’ve performed their stories, is how people are going to appreciate receiving them and how the audience sees themselves in — in the performances.

And it’s very powerful for them, after performing, when audience members stand up and say, “You just told my story” or “I have never been through that. I’m not from Bhutan, I’m not from Nepal or or Ethiopia, but I have had a very similar experience.” And so, there’s a kind of a common humanity.

Zydalis Bauer: And you mentioned that a lot of these performances are based on their personal and true stories, so they really claim full authorship over their performances.

How important is it to offer people this creative freedom?

Julie Lichtenberg: That’s a really good question! Youth don’t have a lot of opportunities to be heard in our society, and they will — they tell us on a weekly basis how they feel their voices are not respected or given weight or importance.

And so it’s important, it’s important to them, and it’s really, like, a weekly, you know, lesson to us when they share how they feel heard and and they feel…the opportunity is there to grow because they can voice their opinions and their experiences.

James Arana: I think you hit the nail on the head. I think the opportunity for young people to experience being witnessed is what we provide because, in their daily lives, you know, they are part of just the background.

Even when they were in school or at home, they’re not at the focal point. And when they come to us, the space is there for them to be seen, heard, and invited in a way that gets them to say like, “Oh, they’re really interested me and what I — who I am and what I have to say.”

Zydalis Bauer: And yeah, and I think part of that environment that you all create is incorporated in another one of your values, which is that you all learn from each other.

So in that, what have been some of the things that you all have learned from the members and from these young people, part of the Performance Project?

James Arana: Young people and everyone will grow when we are consistent. When we hold them accountable, hold them in high regard, when we have high expectations, that magic happens.

So we learn that the more that we invest, the more that we bring in and expose everyone to ideas, thoughts, and feelings that everyone benefits from it.

Zydalis Bauer: And I know that part of the mission of your work– and Julie, you mentioned it also — is kind of sparking that dialog between performers and the audience and having that common connection for people to experience.

What is it about the creative arts do you think that provides this avenue for relationship and community building? And what conversations do you hope people begin having after they witness one of the performances?

Julie Lichtenberg: We hope that the audience experiences young people as teachers, when they’re in the audience. And so, the power dynamic is flipped in that moment and the audiences have the opportunity to see the power and potential of youth.

James Arana: When we create a space through consistency, through nurturing, where caring words and phrases and…and just, you know, making the space for connection to happen, then our whole society benefits.