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‘Sharing Our Stories’

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This summer, the nonprofit Southern California Indian Center and its multimedia training and production initiative, InterTribal Entertainment, collaborated with the professional Acting Company Native Voices at the Autry to sponsor summer workshops for Native American youth in the Los Angeles area. The program was called “Sharing Our Stories: Young Native Voices Acting/Writing Workshops.”

The workshops were designed to give Native youth the opportunity to pursue acting and/or playwrighting in a supportive and professional environment. Students could take part in one or both tracks, depending on interests and availability. The month-long acting track took place in June, classes were held at SCIC’s downtown Los Angeles location.

“We saw a need to develop and to increase the pool of Native American acting talent as well as the need to provide summer programming for kids here in L.A.,” said James Lujan (Taos Pueblo) SCIC planner and ITE director. “This summer, ITE partnered with Native Voices at the Autry to join forces to serve the community.”

Located near Hollywood, ITE’s primary goals are “to provide training and employment opportunities for Native Americans in the entertainment industry and to develop, produce and market film, television and multimedia projects which contribute to a greater understanding of the American Indian experience.”

Students in the acting track had workshops in a variety of situations including: Theater Training, Commercial Acting, Auditioning, Acting for TV Sitcoms and Acting for Film. Each student who completed the program received a professional headshot and acting resume. The Summer Acting Workshop was facilitated by professional actors including Elena Finney (Mescalero Apache, Tarascan) and Andrew Roa (Shasta, Aztec).

“Participating in the program as a teaching artist was an amazing experience. I get just as much out of it as the kids do,” Finney said. “It is so important that these young artists are nurtured and have a strong Native identity in their work. All the teaching artists wanted to be involved, not only to offer writing and performing opportunities but to be positive role models for the youth.”

Other guest artists included professional actors Shishonia Franchesca (Navajo), Happy Frejo (Seminole, Pawnee) and Jason Grasl (Blackfeet), who all served as guest speakers.

Also located in Los Angeles, Native Voices at the Autry is devoted to developing and producing new works for the stage by Native American playwrights. Established in 1999, Native Voices at the Autry was created to provide a supportive and collaborative setting for Native American playwrights and actors from across the U.S. and Canada to develop and produce their work. For several years, Native Voices at the Autry has sponsored the “Young Native Voices: Theater Education Project” which has provided workshops for Native American youth.

“Native Voices at the Autry believes in the spirit of collaboration, we wanted to partner with ITE this summer to maximize our programming efforts for youth,” said Rich Deely, interim senior manager for Native Voices at the Autry. “In addition, part of Native Voice’s commitment is to foster young Native voices and instill in the youth a sense of possibility. The workshops allow the young people to build a performing or writing skill set and expose them to professionals in the field.”

This summer’s playwrighting track sessions occurred in July, with classes held at the Autry National Center. Students worked side-by-side with professional Native writers to build original storylines, learn professional formatting, develop dialogue and create a short one-act play. Professional writers Princess Lucaj (Gwich’in Athabascan) and Larissa FastHorse (Lakota-Sicangu Nation) served as principal teaching artists for the workshop.

Guest speakers for the playwrighting program included Jason Gavin (Blackfeet), Steven Judd (Choctaw, Kiowa) and Travis A. Wright (Cherokee). The principal teaching artists and the guest speakers all belong to the Writers’ Guild of America and the American Indian Writers’ Committee.

“The first mandate of the American Indian Writers’ Committee is outreach and mentorship for the next generation of American Indian writers,” said FastHorse, AIWC member. “The AIWC is also committed to proper representation for Natives.”

Kalani Queypo (Blackfeet, Hawaiian) and Brian Wescott (Athabascan, Yup’ik), both professional writers and actors, served as mentors to the students.

The workshops concluded with a staged reading of the one-act plays written by the students. The plays were read by members of the Native Voices Acting Company at a publicly-staged reading in August at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry Museum.

The kids in the program ranged from ages 12 – 17. Students who completed a detailed application were offered scholarships to participate in the program free of charge. To be eligible, students displayed a strong interest in writing, directing, or other forms of storytelling. Students also had to be willing to work with others; the participants were also required to be motivated, reliable and creative.

“We have had nothing but positive feedback from the students and families,” said Pamela Peters (Navajo), assistant to ITE director. “The students learn a lot in workshops but they also gain a lot of self-confidence during the process. We are interested in expanding the program to tribal communities.”