Celebrating its 13th year, Developing Artists’ REBEL VERSES Youth Arts Festival is partnering with the renowned Vineyard Theatre for their two-week event, July 27, 28 29 and August 3,5 and 5. Teen theater companies from across New York City and beyond rehearse and perform their own original works which encourage the development of new voices in the theater. This one-of-a-kind festival empowers young people to make their voices heard through application in the performing arts.

Developing Artists’ Executive Director Jinn Kim and Artistic Director Jill DeArmon recently discussed the festival, its performances, and the impact it has on its participants via an exclusive interview.

Theatrical and organizational inspirations

Meagan Meehan (MM): What prompted you to enter the field of performing arts and how did you gravitate towards your management positions with Developing Artists?

Jinn Kim (JK): I was one of those kids, an immigrant, 1.5 generation Korean-American who was an overachiever. I was on a completely different trajectory. I was a straight-A student, scholar athlete, President of the senior class, you name it. Then, I fell in love with movies. I felt the power of a great film to transport us, move us, connect us to this wonderful and strange shared experience called life. I wanted to know about creating art. It was a complete shift for me. It was such a big shift that I trudged through getting a BA in Business Administration from the University of Washington even though by then I knew I wanted to go into the theater.

When I graduated from college, I drove across the country from Seattle to NYC to study acting. I had no idea where to start, but I eventually began training at a 2-year Meisner Technique program at The Acting Studio, Inc. with James Price. While there, another student asked me to be his scene partner on his audition for a new theatrical company. I ended up being asked to join the company, which turned out to be LAByrinth Theater Company.

I discovered the same joy and beauty in the theater as I had with the film. In those early years, we were in residence in the same space (Center Stage, NY) as Developing Artists.

I got to witness firsthand the impact DA was having on these young artists. I never had a program like DA when I was growing up but I wish I did. I understand what many of our students discover, which is that for the first time they feel at home, safe and free to express who they are; to feel welcomed among the misfits and underdogs.

Jill DeArmon is a master teacher. I want to do whatever I can to help DA grow and reach more underdog teens.

Jill DeArmon (JD): I was always singing, dancing, and telling stories. My parents put me into many programs as a child, I had a very supportive family. When I was sixteen, our choreographer for the performing arts camp I was in went into labor early, and I ended up filling in for her. Teaching became an immediate passion for me. I felt like I learned more teaching than I had ever learned as a student. It was eye opening. I never stopped. When I moved to NYC in 1995, I started teaching at other institutions, but it became very clear to me that my students were being censored and not being heard as the artists I knew they could be. The Developing Artists organization was born out of a need for youth to be pushed to discover what they could be, to learn how to use the arts to help express what their experience is and share it.

MM: Why did you form the REBEL VERSES Youth Arts Festival and what kinds of responses has it received?

JK: REBEL VERSES had a huge response from the very get-go. Firstly, the idea came from two of our alumni. Like many other youth theater companies, DA was doing its own showcases and one-acts. Ben Snyder & Max Woertendyke approached us about inviting other young writers they knew and eventually other youth companies they wanted to invite. It was a brilliant idea, especially because there was nothing like it in New York. This was back in 2001. It was an opportunity for some of the best youth companies to come together and see each other’s work, and to provide young artists the chance to network and inspire their peers. It was a way for DA to show these young artists and companies that come from all different walks of life that they are connected to a larger community.

Even in those early years, our houses were so full we had to shuffle audiences in and out.

JD: The format of REBEL VERSES creates an environment that allows the artists and audience to engage in open dialogue. We encourage all of our artists to watch each other’s work and the line between performer and audience is slowly dissolved. By post show, the audience should feel like they are a part of the extended community, and they are welcomed to join the artists on stage to freely discuss the topics raised. Through REBEL VERSES, we want audiences to walk away from the festival understanding that youth theater isn’t just puppets and fairy-tale re-enactments. We want them to be moved and inspired by the original and quite incredible works created by these young artists who participate.

Participants, plays, and performances

MM: What ages of kids do you run the workshops for and can any kids attend or do you seek only low-income students?

JK: Developing Artists serves teens between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. We focus on low-income students, but our doors are open to anyone who may need us. We strive for a diversity of culture, gender, and socio-economics.

MM: Out of all the performed plays, have any really stuck in your memory?

JD: We’ve been around a long time - there are too many to choose from. All of the plays from REBEL VERSES have been amazing. What sticks with me the most is the process the students go through to create. It’s an incredible journey we all go on together. At Developing Artists, we form an ensemble, the students then write and perform their own pieces and plays.

Their growth and freedom to find themselves always shows in the work they present.

MM: What kinds of feedback have you gotten from the kids in the program and what have they gone on to do since leaving?

JK: We receive a lot of feedback that REBEL VERSES changed their lives! It’s as simple as that.

JD: Over 90% of DA’s students have gone onto college and continue to engage in the performing arts as professionals and/or apply the skills they learned into their careers, such as drama therapy and psychiatry. We’ve also been fortunate through the years to help a community of artists strengthen their craft. Artists such as writer/director/producer Ben Snyder (Washington Square Films’ 11:55), writer/actor Dominique Morisseau (Showtime's “Shameless,” Detroit 66), actor/writer Nilaja Sun (No Child, Pike Street), actor/writer Raul Castillo (HBO's “Looking”), Megan Mostyn-Brown (Fox's “Gotham”) and countless others were able to hone their skills through REBEL VERSES.

MM: What sorts of opportunities does this program offer kids and how do they most benefit from participating?

JD: To this day, REBEL VERSES offers a unique opportunity to unite an underserved segment of the theater community and empowers young writers, performers, and directors. The format of RV, which mixes at least one established artist performer into the lineup, also provides these young artists the chance to learn from each other and recognize that there is no delineation between themselves and the established artists...they are all artists!

Present projects and future goals

MM: How did you partner with the Vineyard Theater and what can audiences expect from the performances you will present there?

JK: We felt an immediate kinship with the mission and the staff of Vineyard Theatre - particularly their commitment to arts education.

Ali Skye Bennet, the Associate Producer at Vineyard, was keenly aware of what DA was doing and how we can mutually benefit from the partnership. She was instrumental in getting the two organizations to start a dialogue, but once we met with the staff, it was a no-brainer. Sarah Stern (Co-Artistic Director of Vineyard) is so smart and such a fantastic AD along with Doug Aibel. They are so caring about all the artists who step foot into their theater, regardless of age. I think they recognized the enormous creativity and energy that only young artists and audiences can bring during the two weeks of the festival.

Audiences who are new to the festival are in for a surprise. People often have a certain perception of theater associated with young artists.

It is immensely important to us that creativity remains uncensored regardless of age. These young artists have a lot to say and they require a space where they are free to express their ideas. Get ready! You will be blown away and inspired by these powerful performances. We are so excited to open up RV to a bigger audience and for the young artists to experience performing on an off-Broadway stage in the heart of Union Square!

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the Rebel Verses Youth Arts Festival?

JD: We hope to expand RV to become international. We would love to invite youth companies from around the world to engage in and participate with other young artists from the States.

MM: Can you offer any words of advice to aspiring playwrights and performers and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?

JK: Fall in love with the arts. See as much as you can. Work, get involved in creative projects as much as you can, particularly in the early stages of one’s artistic life. That’s why we encourage even our DA students to go work with as many different classes and seek out the best teachers and be in as many shows as they can. It’s all about putting in those hours - 10,000 hours, as the rule goes, to reach your goals.

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