Tim Sievert's motivation for applying to the Quad City Arts Metro Arts program
was pretty simple: "I was looking for a summer job," said the 18-year-old.
That statement is a bit surprising, because it's easy to forget that these 75 teenagers playing music, dancing, painting, and writing and acting are getting paid; the Metro Arts spread in The District of Rock Island resembles a summer camp.
But money is an important component of the second-year program, which closes this Friday with a celebration and public performance from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. One goal of Metro Arts is to give participants job skills, stressing everything from punctuality to teamwork to problem-solving. "You have to show up every day," said 17-year-old Jessica Hiatt.
Just as crucial, the program shows teens that there are opportunities to make money in the arts; they need not be merely labors of love.
The 75 teens in the program this year, from 15 to 19 years old, were selected from nearly twice that many, and they get paid minimum wage for their 8:30-a.m.-to-12:30-p.m., Monday-through-Friday jobs. (The program was expanded from 70 students and four days a week last year.)
Students selected their preferred program and were then divided into five sections: multiethnic dance, playwriting and performance, jazz composition and performance, painting wooden benches, and batik painting on fabric. (The programs change each year, although each component of the arts - literary, visual, and performing - is represented.) Experience is not required except for the jazz-composition section; the people choosing participants are looking for an interest in the arts more than proven aptitude.
Many of the disciplines allow Metro Arts participants to explore different facets of their crafts. The playwriting and performance section requires the teens to not only write and revise their scripts but act in them. The multiethnic dance group has explored the traditions of many cultures but has also choreographed its own work and performed in local schools.
And there are opportunities for collaboration. On July 13, the dance group was improvising to the music of the jazz section.
Aside from the public performance, works produced in the visual-arts programs will probably end up on public display. Metro Arts leaders, for example, are working with The District to install the painted benches in downtown Rock Island, and it's expected that the batik-painted banners will also be on public display. That prospect - that their work will be around for all to see for a long time - is a motivator for some Metro Arts participants. "It does raise the bar for them," said Jamie Lange, an intern with Metro Arts.
Hiatt is in her second year in the program, having done the show-choir curriculum last year. She's in the multiethnic dance section this year, and although she takes dance classes, she's still learning a lot. "This is different cultures," said she. And she hadn't done much choreography before.
"We have a lot more freedom than I thought we would," said Sievert, who was working on his Bix-race-themed bench. ("It's going to be people running at you," he explained.)
While participants are given much latitude, they're also learning about restraint. "Some of these [scripts] are quite controversial, politically," said Melissa McBain, who is leading the playwriting and performance group. Subjects range "from home ec to homicide, from blind dates to psychoanalyzing the devil, ... from car accidents to cancer."
Because five of the 15 scripts by Metro Arts teens will be performed publicly - outdoors, no less - the issue of censorship has come up. "You have to consider venue," McBain said. She has encouraged the writers to fashion their scripts with the audience in mind, and she's reminded them that they can continue to develop edgier versions.
If this kind of summer job is different for the students, it's also unique for the faculty. McBain is used to teaching college students for an hour a day, three days a week. "I've never taught under these circumstances before. ... What am I going to do with high-school students for four hours?" she said she thought before the program began. "Where do I go to hide?"
McBain condensed an established playwriting course into three weeks, and it was very intensive. Within the first hour of Metro Arts, the students in the section were writing two-minute scripts. They've also crafted monologues based on photographs, written based on music, and scripted rejection letters to learn how to develop conflict.
Even though these are young writers, McBain said she's been impressed with the breadth of scripts. She said that through the editing process, she's helped writers understand that they should show audiences thoughts and emotions rather than telling them about them. "Take what you wrote as the dialogue and bury it," she said. She's also
pushed them to incorporate gestures and other visual information in the scripts, rather than making everything verbal. "I'm seeing a lot of growth in the editing process," she said.
And in the end, McBain said, this is more than a summer job for her. "I've gotten very close to them," she said.
And the students are similarly wistful about the end of the summer program. As Sievert said, "It's almost over."
The final celebration and performance of Metro Arts runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday, July 20, and will feature performances by the dance, jazz, and playwriting sections. Batik-painted shirts and flags will be available for purchase, and painted benches will be on display.