by Liberty Ferda

When seventeen-year-old Damon learned that a standard 700-watt light fixture for the stage costs $400, he was shocked. As a budding steel drum musician, he’d performed at venues plenty of times but never thought about the cost of stage lighting. In fact, before taking Kelly-Strayhorn Theater’s Up Next Youth Producers workshop, he hadn’t thought much at all about the production aspects of performing art—like creating a budget, staffing, sound, marketing, and ticket sales.

“Knowledge I can use to promote myself and my music in the future,” he says.

The Up Next Youth Producers program is a two-week intensive designed to introduce local teens that are interested in pursuing the arts to these “backstage” pieces of production. How to create a performance from the ground up, tackling questions like, If you want to put on a musical for the community, what do you need?

Based in the heart of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater (KST) is a non-profit performing arts center that mixes equal doses of cultural expression and community engagement. Up Next coincides with another KST project, the Youth Moves Hip Hop Dance Workshop, a four-day workshop for which teens learn different styles of hip hop dance, culminating in a final show and “dance battle” party on Friday, July 24. The Up Next students will use their new skills to help promote and produce the show featuring their peers.

It all started last year when New York choreographer Dean Moss, KST’s then-resident artist, requested a production team of local teens for his interdisciplinary show about the legacy of white abolitionist John Brown. Five students were recruited to learn about and help execute tech, video, and performance. The youth loved it—they learned practical skills while being part of something significant, and they brought their friends to the show. KST is always looking for ways to engage the community and wanted to do something like that again.

“With lots of programming aimed at either adults or young children, teens sometimes get lost,” notes Desiree S. Lee KST Education and Community Engagement Manager. Furthermore, sometimes adults put limitations on what teens can do. “If you give them a platform, amazing things can happen.”

For Up Next participants, KST tapped existing partnerships with youth empowerment groups that use KST’s studio and performance space: One Hood Media, Soundwaves, and Dreams of Hope. One Hood Media critically engages with media portrayal of oppressed groups and uses hip hop as a means to raise awareness about injustices. Dreams of Hope uses the arts to build awareness about lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and allied (LGBTQA) identities, and Soundwaves is steel drum music program for youth ages 12 to 18. They also received two applicants from the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, which seeks to provide opportunities for residents of the Garfield neighborhood.

With the support of a Hive grant from The Sprout Fund for the Up Next program, KST provides daily workshops, meals, funds for creating marketing materials, camera equipment, and $250 stipends for the students.

Justice, 16, a singer and jewelry artist, says the workshop has increased her understanding of the whole process of being an artist. Of special importance, noted nineteen-year-old Quan, is “knowing how you can make more money than you put out for a show,” which is necessary to sustain an art career. The students were surprised by how much goes into marketing—it’s not just Facebook, but newspaper ads, flyers, posters, and websites. During their Up Next program, they’ll learn about communication and promotional tactics like how to write a blog, how to interview an artist and compose an artist bio, how to choose colors when creating promotional T-shirts. They’ll also learn about sound tech and set design.

Through the program, a symbiotic relationship has emerged. While the students are learning about production, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater learns from their fresh energy and perspective, and what they, as potential audience members, value in art.

“It’s a two-way street, which is what it means to be a community organization,” says janera solomon, Executive Director at KST, who was inspired by the students’ ideas for potential projects at KST on just the second day of the workshop. One was to bring together all the artists who have ever performed at the Theater in a big weekend gala.

In the future, KST hopes to offer another program like this one where young artists can produce shows for their own creative projects—dance, music, stage plays, whatever is in their hearts.