In addition to its dedication to academic and professional excellence, the Temple University Department of Theater‘s strives to instill in our students an ethical aspiration to become true Citizen Artists. We hope our students become creative and informed individuals who commit to making a difference in our communities through applied artistry and who promote the use of artistic expression as a tool for creating a culture of compassionate citizenship and civility.
Senior acting concentration, Sarah Stearns, founder of the North Philadelphia Youth Advisory Council, and recipient of the Provost’s Creative Arts, Research, and Scholarship grant (CARAS grant), is a true example of the Citizen Artist. The mission of her program is to engage the youth of the North Phildaelphia community through arts and leadership. Under the mentorship of Robert Blackson, Director of Tyler Contemporary and the Department of Exhibitions & Public Programs, Sarah has developed program that works with five high students from the area, meeting weekly to discuss issues of importance within their communities and plan public art projects exploring these issues. Last spring, the group organized a poetry slam on the steps of School District of Philadelphia’s administrative building as a artistic, and peaceful, expression of opinions about budget cuts.
The Rehearsal Room recently spoke with Sarah about the work she’s doing with the North Philadelphia Youth Advisory Council and what receiving the CARAS grant means to her and the students.
Rehearsal Room: What is the North Philadelphia Youth Advisory Council? When did you start it?
Sarah Stearns: The North Philadelphia Youth Advisory Council was started last Spring. It’s a group of five high school students, all from different North Philadelphia Schools, who meet once a week to explore a problem or topic in their community through art. Their communities may include their neighborhood, their schools, their families, their churches, etc. and the students each bring in a topic of importance and then vote on one to pursue through the arts for the rest of the semester. The students are all paid for their work and the program is generously funded by a grant from the Fels Foundation.
The mission of the program is to involve young students with a passion for arts and community leadership in arts management. The hope is that the Youth Advisory Council members are future community and cultural leaders and the program may give them the tools to enact change, both through the program and in the future.
RR: Why did you start this group? What was your inspiration?
SS: I had just finished a semester away at Headlong Performance Institute [in Philadelphia] that really changed the way I saw my role as an artist in the world. HPI made me rethink why and how I want to make art. The reasons I came up with because of HPI very much echoed [Associate Dean and Artistic Director] Doug Wager’s statement on the Citizen Artist. I believe art is important because of the people it effects. I believe it can be a powerful research tool in exploring what it is to be human and that asking questions with art can bring people together like nothing else.
I wanted to pursue what I had discovered at HPI and, the December before I returned to Temple, I saw a job posting in an email blast looking for an intern to help with a project at Temple Contemporary. It sounded interesting, so I applied. It turned out to be exactly what I was hoping for. Rob [Balckson] and Sarah [Biemiller] let me completely create, recruit and lead the advisory council. It was the first time I’d ever been allowed so much responsibility and autonomy. It took a few weeks to get used to, but eventually I figured out that I could completely run with it.
When people ask why the council is important, this is what I usually say:
High School students will explore the possibility of a career in making art happen. All too often, the ticket prices of museums, theaters, and concert halls make art seem like it belongs to only the few people who can afford to pay for it. The people who can pay get to decide what art they want to pay for, so the art at major institutions often ends up being about and for an elite minority. In reality, art belongs to everyone. Art is a language. Art is how people live and feel and think. By exposing underserved students to the possibility of a successful job in arts management, we give a new generation a voice to make art for and by all people.
RR: What do you plan to do with your grant?
Sarah with members of last spring’s Council at Tyler Contemporary
SS: The grant will allow me to devote more time to the program next spring. The stipend it will provide me with means that I won’t need to take on as many hours working at outside jobs, and I can use that time to develop a written syllabus for the program. After working with these students for the past two semesters, I’ve slowly figured out what works and what doesn’t and what sort of time span it takes to create a community arts project. With this knowledge, I can refigure the program so that future councils get as much out of the program as possible.
This will likely include more fieldtrips to arts organizations around the city and more time spent developing and working on projects.
RR: What has the council done this year? What do you hope to do next year?
SS: This past spring we developed a project addressing the issue of budget cuts to the school district. This issue effected all of my students and there had been a huge amount of anger and frustration over this issue, particularly in that students, teachers, and families felt their voices were not being heard by officials. We decided to provide a peaceful, creative alternative for the parties involved to express themselves through. We held a poetry slam on the steps of the School District building on 440 N Broad Street called Voices @ 440.
We also explored the question of how viewing violence in TV, movies and video games effects peoples’ perceptions of violence in real life. We created a documentary interview series of various North Philly residents asking them all the same six questions about violence in real life versus in media.
This fall we are exploring the complicated, opaque mystery of how the government runs. The students were frustrated by the government shut down and fascinated by conspiracy theories. We talked about why the government seems so untrustworthy and mysterious and what information people believe and why. In an effort to inspire people to question what they believe about the government and why, we are creating a series of infographics that will be printed as postcards and handed out anonymously on the street.
We’ve also visited the Crane Arts building, the Leeway Foundation, and a plethora of galleries at First Friday in Old City. We saw a dance show presented by Boyer and Mural Arts at the Common Threads mural last fall. We’re planning a trip to the Arts Garage for early next semester. The students also saw The Crucible last year at Temple!
RR: What is the most rewarding part of the project?
SS: For me, it’s getting to hang out and talk about art once a week with these really smart, interesting, creative kids. The council becomes sort of a haven for all of us to escape from problems in our day-to-day life and talk about bigger things that we all really care about. It’s so great watching them all become friends. I’ll sometimes have really shy kids who suddenly have a ton to say, or I’ll have apathetic teenagers who find a place where it’s okay to really care about things in the council. I really love these guys. Sometimes we just talk about our lives or joke about silly things. They all bring in their sketch pads and we hang out and eat pizza and make art. I couldn’t imagine a better job, honestly.
Sarah Stearns will appear in the world premiere, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, adapted and directed by Douglas C. Wager, from the book by Rachel Simmons, at Temple Theaters this spring.