August 23, 2022

A powerful partnership with Chicago Urban League

The powerful partnership between Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Urban League continues to provide ongoing opportunties for students to explore working in the arts and making art from their own lives.This season, the collaboration will (finally) take place in person again.

While EmpowerYouth! is one of the most exciting activities under the Lyric Unlimited umbrella, it was also one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Begun five years ago as part of Lyric’s ongoing commitment to community engagement, the main activity of the initiative is to engage young people from Chicago high schools in a robust artistic devising process alongside professional artists. Artists and program participants alike made it through the height of the pandemic with virtual sessions, but of course there is no substitute for in-person creative collaboration. This season, EmpowerYouth! is up and running as it was intended to, bringing young people and artists together in-person to create performances that amplify the unique perspectives of the participants.

The program continues as it began, in partnership with the Chicago Urban League. Participants in the program work with artistic staff and program facilitators to learn how principles of performance, the written word, music, and dance relate to their everyday lives. The magic lies in the artist mentors showing students how their ideas can translate into exciting live theatre.

Through the program, participants develop movement and dance skills that are used in their performances.

Students learn about the critical role of other aspects of being a working artist as well through professional development. Last season, the staff coached students through the process of taking professional headshots and writing their own artistic biographies. This holistic approach gives the youth real-world experience of what it’s like to have a career in the arts.

During the 2022 program, young people worked with four artists: acting mentor Vic Wynter, dance mentor Tanji Harper, music mentor Shawn Wallace, and program facilitator Mari DeOleo. At the conclusion of the session in June, participants put on a showcase of original pieces devised using voice and movement exploration as well as classic Chicago short-form improvisational theater techniques. The program embraced many expressions of artistry, including scenes, dance, and poetry set to music. After the final performance, Daja, a student at Whitney Young Magnet High School, said she will remember “the bond I had with the instructors and other students in the program.” Elijah, a student at Urban Prep Englewood Academy, went even further: “I realized that I am capable of doing anything I want to.”

In the coming year, EmpowerYouth! will continue to prioritize centering youth voices in the program by listening to the interests and ideas of the young artists and fostering an environment of organic co-creation. There will also be a renewed focus on social emotional learning, led by the social workers from the Chicago Urban League. Teens will engage with more guest artists and attend workshops to enhance their learning experience. A full season of in-person work means participants will also have the opportunity to attend performances and take field trips to see first hand more of the varied art that Chicago offers.

EmpowerYouth! offers young people a creative opportunity to explore their life and identity, which can inspire them to discover more about themselves and their relationships to the arts. The innovative platform and support these young artists receive help them realize the power of their voices and storytelling—a power that will last for a lifetime.

All photos: Jaclyn Simpson