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Youth Share Reflections On Virtual Stage With Near West Theatre

Near West Theatre's youth prepare for "Rise: The Isolation Project' [Amber Patrick]

Last fall, 15-year-old Josh Mink had a great time starring as Uncle Fester in the Near West Theatre production of "The Addams Family."

"It was so much fun having a whole team help me with the makeup and the fat suit and putting the bald cap on. It was a blast," Mink said.

Josh Mink as "Uncle Fester" in Near West Theatre's 2019 production of "The Addams Family" [Amber Patrick]

For 14-year-old Amaya Moore, it is the atmosphere of opening night, during her five-plus seasons at Near West, that stands out.

Amaya Moore (center) in Near West Theatre 2020 production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." [Amber Patrick]

So when the pandemic slammed Near West Theatre's doors shut in March, she was heartbroken.

"Near West has always been a home to me and will always be a place that I can come to in times of need, and for that place to no longer be available to me in such a way that has been in past times was really difficult," Moore said.

Near West Theatre artistic director Trinidad Snider with Amaya Moore at opening night of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" [Near West Theatre]

Near West artistic director Trinidad Snider quickly realized she and her team needed to reach out to their kids.

"We all had this feeling that that age group had so much to say about this and needed a platform in order to express that. So once we opened that up, you know, the kids they were there and they were ready, they were ready to talk and engage," Snider said.

However, when Moore got the email to participate in the theater's afterschool "Rise" program this summer, she was wary.

"Yeah, at first I just didn't think it would go well. I thought it would be boring. I thought it would not make any impact in contrast to being with people in person at the theater," she said.

But soon the Zoom meetings with Near West friends gave her hope.

 "It was relieving to know that the same people that I've gone to for years at that theater were still able and willing to listen to me," she said.

Josh Mink [Bailey Pfohl]

Meanwhile Josh, who lives in Shaker Heights, was missing his friends from Near West.

"I don't see a lot of the people from Near West in school, but to have "Rise," which is fantastic, [we get] to see everyone' faces again and to express our creativity. So it meant a lot," he said.

Students shared drawings, paintings, poems and stories during the "Rise" program.

"And it didn't have to be related to what was going on. Most of it wasn't. It's just keeping art alive at Near West," Mink said.

Now Near West is turning the students' artistic efforts from the summer into a virtual program starting Saturday night.  It's called "Rise: The Isolation Project."

Snider said it's brave new world for the program.

"Normally when you put a show together, a production, you're looking at eight weeks of production. And that's eight weeks, three to four nights a week. And now we're trying to build a production on basically what would've been a week of rehearsal," Snider said.

Near West Theatre's fall youth production, "Rise: The Isolation Project," includes a socially-distanced dance performance. [Amber Patrick]

In the show, Mink can be seen in a pre-recorded, socially-distanced dance performance while Moore shares a piece she's written about grappling with her emotions during the pandemic.

"You can take your struggle and turn it into something beautiful. You can use art to express yourself. You can use so many things to turn that struggle into an advantage, an advantage to yourself," he said.

For Snider and the rest of the Near West Theatre staff, this new take on their youth production offers them hope.

"Quite frankly, these are the kids that are going to be leading our country one day and you know they're our future... I've learned probably more from these kids than they could ever learn from me in this experience," she said.

As the great Bard might say, this production hopes to "put a spirit of youth in everything."

Near West Theatre's youth production, "Rise: The Isolation Project," goes virtual Saturday through October 18.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.