Most of the cast of Check Out, this year’s production of the AMY Project.
One by one, the 12 girls sitting on the edge of the stage introduce themselves: Shannon, Tharnya, Shellie, Ana Maria, Grace, Lola, Mercedes, Noelle-Najnaah, Nicola, Alia, Emma, and Sukey.
“And we are AMY.”
Sometimes it’s easy to assume that youth automatically equates with inexperience. No matter how many times we hear or see evidence to the contrary, every time we realize that it’s not true is shockingly eye-opening. Such were our feelings toward the sixth annual performance of the AMY Project (Artists Mentoring Youth) this past weekend.
The AMY Project aims to help girls from a range of backgrounds and experiences engage in artistic self-expression, practice performance skills, and connect with an expansive network of creative and social mentors. For any teenage girl this provides a rare sense of agency, but for many AMY members—many of whom have serious obstacles to overcome just to participate in the project—it’s often an entirely new world.
Their performance this weekend was the culmination of four months of reflection, brainstorming, sharing, writing, and creating by a community of female performers, youth leaders, and mentors. The original show—called Check Out—is set against the backdrop of the More Frills Super Mega Ultimate Extreme Shopping Centre Place where they accept cash, credit, or soul. In it, we not only watched the young female performers explore their challenges dealing with body image, acceptance, love, parents, sexuality, mental health, drugs, and rape, but also saw the strength that comes from it.
Nicola Bennett (centre) mid-dance as her costars provide the beat.
“A simple act can be an enormously transformative act when [girls] are allowed to tell their story the way they want to express it,” says Toronto actress Claire Calnan (at Tarragon now in After Akhmatova and NOW Magazine‘s top theatre artist in 2009), founder and co-artistic director of the AMY Project. Every year since 2005, over 12 weeks, Calnan and an ever-expanding network of artistic mentors have worked with 12 to 16 young women from all areas, backgrounds, and experiences of Toronto to create a performance they can truly call their own: they’re in control from the initial brainstorming, to cultivating a theme, to refining a message, to the final bow.
“It’s about breaking barriers⎯financial barriers, family problems, all kinds of different things,” says Calnan. “It’s about networking, and connecting to communities that’s beyond what’s right in front of them.”
Though there are inevitably circumstances out of their control, the AMY Project also tries to be as accessible and welcoming as possible, even providing bus tokens and a meal to start every rehearsal.
For 22-year-old Nicola Bennett, her AMY costars even become babysitters. Despite studying classical piano at York University, volunteering for Toronto Public Housing and her building at Jane and Sheppard, starting a new job as a fundraiser at People Against Youth on Drugs, and parenting a four-year-old son with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, she still found time to make the two-hour-plus trek from York to rehearsals at Main and Danforth, stopping to pick up young Kayshaun on the way. These are just a few of the obstacles that AMY and Calnan try to overcome, but it’s also clear that Bennett was not about to let any inconvenience stop her from spreading her words.
“I have a story to tell,” she says in the Theatre Passe Muraille lobby, a couple of hours before Check Out‘s final performance. “My story is about rape, and I feel like people pass judgment. I’m hoping women will be moved by it. Telling my own personal story is a way to tell people how to deal with it.”
Nicola speaks the same way she writes⎯in rhythm and rhyme, and with conviction and maturity beyond her years, especially when discussing the private and delicate issues surrounding her history with rape and sexual offences. “I feel freedom, freedom that my voice can be heard and people can understand it. And not in sympathy, like ‘Look at that poor girl.’ [When it happened] I just wanted it go away, but now I realize the importance of speaking out. People need to know, people need to know. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
Noelle-Najmaah Nedrick struggles to speak in Check Out.
It’s hard to believe it when Bennett says she’s a shy person, being able to leave her story on the stage through spoken word monologues, dance, and song in Check Out, but apparently it wasn’t easy warming up to her bubbly costars right away. However, that changed once she delivered her first piece. “A lot of girls were like ‘Wow, did that really happen? That helps me because I went through something like that.’ That makes me smile, that makes my heart smile, that’s what I’m here for.”
Joining the group as co-artistic director in 2006 was “a no-brainer” for Weyni Mengesha (director of Soulpepper’s A Raisin in the Sun, Theatre Passe Muraille/Mirvish’s ‘da Kink in my Hair, and Stratford’s Hosanna this summer), who knows first-hand the impact that the arts and mentorship can have on a young girl.
“It saved me for sure,” says Mengesha, who still maintains contact with the mentor that brought her away from a path of drugs and trouble with the police. “It’s a reaffirming thing when you realize people are in the same situation as you. It chips away at the feeling of being a failure.”
The program’s success, according to Calnan, lies in the high return rate for AMY alumni. This year, seven former performers took up several behind-the-scenes roles like stage manager, assistant director, and script supervisor (script supervisor Michelle Green actually had a last-minute role on stage when one of the girls fell ill). Other grads have gone on to pursue careers in the arts, and help spread the AMY Project through word of mouth, which has “grown exponentially.” Calnan and Mengesha now receive about 50 to 60 applications each year, only about 15 of which they have room for.
As the girls sat along the stage, their AMY experience drawing to a close, the majority also expressed a desire to pursue bigger and better artistic projects, including Bennett, who has rediscovered a love for piano, singing, and a newfound desire to act.
“I haven’t felt vulnerable, if anything I feel strong. I’ve risen above it, it doesn’t hold me down. I’ve taken it and I stand on top of it,” she says. “I feel like I can move mountains.”
Photos by Kasha Cheong.
We originally described Weyni Mengesha as suffering from a drug habit. Though she went though a period of experimentation and was headed down the wrong path, her situation did not ever progress to that point. Our apologies to Mengesha for saying otherwise.