The Young Creatives Camp of the Y-ARTS program in the Boll Family YMCA is bustling with activity. About 40-50 young, inner-city teenagers are here. So are more than a dozen professional, working artists. The combustion resulting from this mix of people is remarkable.
In an art studio, students are sitting at pottery wheels. At first the wheel speed is too fast; they have to slow it down in order to control it. Their instructor is coaching them to shape the clay with their hands as the wheel spins, and he urges them to place their elbows down and lean into the clay. A great deal of physical control is required. This is also a lesson in trial and error. When one piece doesn’t work, the instructor casually tells the student to throw it away and try another. This leads to two observations that will reoccur throughout the camp: first, in order to create something, (be it a pot, an improvisation, a poem or a web design), students must be fully engaged both physically and mentally. Second, a creative product requires practice, practice practice, as students continuously ask themselves and each other “how is it going? how can we make it better?” These observations are important to understanding the transformative power of arts experiences for these young people (see Sidebar: What Studies Tell Us About the Impact of Arts on Youth). Another important key to successful artistic expression for these kids is to give them projects which affect them personally in some way. This art instructor began with masks in order to address the students’ reluctance to participate when they were first together. Not only were the masks a way to shield them from exposure; they also addressed questions of identity, of “who am I?” Eventually the masks went on display in a case in the lobby of the YMCA, which was a point of pride for the students.
In the media lab across the hall, students are also at work creating something which has personal interest for them. Groups of kids (mostly boys) huddle around computer screens where they are creating web designs. Their instructor has them start by drawing what their web page would look like. It is important to have a concept, an idea. Then the web design becomes about making the idea a reality. Three boys who are interested in sports think it would be cool if all their sports heroes could be found in one place, at one website. They will call their site “Bestof theGame.com”. Right now they are looking for photos and video clips on YouTube. Eventually they will put their heroes’ stats next to their pictures. This activity is not only creative expression for these boys, it is career development. These kids could end up with jobs in the creative Media Arts, a field which is expected to grow by 12% over other careers according to the Department of Labor.
Downstairs in the Boll YMCA Theatre, 17 kids are gathered for theatre improv. As a warm up, the instructor has them playing a game in a circle. When the kids start to laugh at one another, the instructor reminds them, “no teasing so we can all feel good about trying.” This game isn’t working too well; the students are acting silly and having difficulty concentrating. One girl is removed from the group and told to sit out for a while. Then, skillfully, the instructor shifts gears to a different game which has them more engaged. If their concentration strays, she reminds them to “Play the game!” When it works, the theatre game is another demonstration of the combination of physical and mental engagement which these creative activities stimulate. The students then move to the main focus of the class which is the creation of commercials. After talking about the elements of good commercials, the instructor informs them they will be creating commercials for Vitamin Water, cases of which have been supplied to Y-ARTS by the makers of Vitamin Water, a corporate sponsor. After dividing into groups of 3 or 4, the students are told they will do their commercials twice—once in gibberish as a kind of rehearsal, and then in English, at which point their commercial will be filmed on video tape. The groups have ten minutes to plan and they need to use that time wisely and be productive. The very real deadline of a performance in front of a camera and an audience of their peers provide a relentless accountability to these young performers. During their planning time, they are explaining their ideas to their partners. They talk about “what if?” and “let’s try this.” They throw out imaginative situations for others in the group to consider: “if Vanessa comes out from over there and Charles jumps out from behind the curtain here…” When it is time to present, the three students assigned to be on the camera crew are ready with their equipment, and they have been prepped by the video instructor. There is a requisite discipline to filmmaking which the students are quickly taught: “Quiet on the set. Actors ready? Sound ready? Cameras ready? Roll cameras. Action!” The students perform their gibberish version first, as a kind of practice for the real thing. The Vitamin Water appears to have turned the kid who drinks it into a superhero. It is silly and everyone laughs. The English version, which comes next, is actually quite effective as a commercial. Clearly the presence of the cameras and a live audience has inspired the young performers.
Noticeably, the girl who was told to sit out earlier in the hour now has a lead role in one of the commercials.