By Southwester Staff

Now in its 18th season, Arena Stage’s Voices of Now (VON) ensembles, ages 11 to 24, have provided a vital theatrical platform for youth and young people to use their personal experiences to investigate the world around them and pose questions vital to their communities. 

Friends of Southwest DC (FOSW) has supported Camp Arena Stage Scholarships and VON Jefferson Ensemble for over a decade, making it possible for students from Jefferson Academy, the only middle school located in Southwest DC, to engage with and learn through the arts.

This year’s production, Waiting Room: A New Film by Arena Stage’s Voices of Now Ensembles debuts on June 26, at 7 p.m. on Arena’s website.

Waiting Room follows VON’s first film in 2020, Inside Voices, which was a moving time capsule exploring the lives of young artists as they navigated the immediate impact of the first few months of the global pandemic. Waiting Room expands on the exploration of Inside Voices. Student artists document their lives as they navigate the rules of a temporary world while waiting for something better.

These two films serve as a theatrical archive for this unprecedented moment in history. This year VON had 10 ensembles with a total of 80 participants.

We spoke with Autumn Drake and Lucea Matuszeski in this year’s Jefferson Ensemble. We asked each to introduce themselves, give their history in Southwest, talk about their favorite hobby, and what they planned to do next.

Autumn: I’m in 8th grade at Jefferson Middle School Academy. I have lived in Southwest DC my entire life –14 years. I joined Voices of Now three years ago when I entered 6th grade. My experience with Voices of Now led me to apply to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where I was accepted and will be starting this fall. My hobbies are taking long walks, watching anime, and reading mangas.

Autumn Drake; Courtesy of Author

Lucea: I’m finishing 6th grade at Jefferson Middle School. I’ve lived my whole life in Southeast DC. This was my first year doing Voices of Now, although I learned about the program last year, and it was one of the main reasons that made me want to go to Jefferson. 

I love dance and acting, and I go to a local dance studio in the neighborhood, Momentum Dance Theatre. The studio puts on two performances a year that are a combination of both acting and dance, which is how I got introduced to acting.

What was your experience of making this film?

Autumn: Making this film was a very rewarding experience. It let me share my creativity through writing about the impact COVID-19 had on me and my family, online school, and how I dealt with learning online while dealing with many technology issues.

Lucea: It was weird to film something during the pandemic, but everyone was really supportive and I think the end product turned out great. I’m excited to continue Voices of Now next year and see what it’s like doing it in-person.

Autumn, who had been with VON before, explained how it was different this year.  

There was a big difference between the first filming of Inside Voices and the new film.   

First, rehearsals were started in-person and had to switch to the computer because the pandemic required everyone to stay home. Second, the conversation was completely different since we had to figure out the technology challenges, as well as how we were feeling since we could not meet in-person or get together with other people outside of our home.  

During the first film, we had more of an understanding of what was going on, how technology worked, the basis of what we talked about, and what was going on in the world. During the second film, we were still learning how technology worked and what was going on in the world was still a big question mark.

What did you learn from VON? What is your favorite part about this program? 

Autumn: I learned how to express myself and became comfortable letting my voice be heard. I increased my knowledge of technology. My favorite part of this program was meeting people [and] creating monologues that let me express myself without being judged by others or the community. What I loved most about this program was how positive and supportive all the members and the mentors of the ensemble were.

Lucea: I learned about how to do multiple takes in different voices or tones, and then see which one I liked the best. 

Lucea Matuszeski; Courtesy of Author

I like how much individual attention each person gets from the instructors and how nice people are, even when you don’t know them yet. 

How did you prepare yourself for this project? 

Autumn: I prepared myself for this project by arriving at rehearsals on time with an open mind and a positive attitude. 

Lucea: I’ve been doing acting and dance for about 3 years now, but it was nice to meet people who had been doing it for longer and had more experience

What do you hope people take away from this film? 

Autumn: I hope what people take away from this film is a better understanding of the challenge and stress young people face, which is caused by online school and how much additional stress [was] caused by technology issues during online learning.

Lucea: I hope people realize the important perspectives that students have about virtual learning and the pandemic.

What advice would you give to others who would like to be part of this program next year? 

Autumn: Make sure you have an open mind, believe in yourself, and, most importantly, have fun. Voices of Now opens huge opportunities for you and allows you to make lots of friends.

Lucea: I would advise keeping an open mind about it, because even if it isn’t what you expected it can still be fun.

If you want to know more, check outFriends of Southwest DC at https://friendsofswdc.org  and also visit Arena Stage at https://www.arenastage.org/tickets/von-film-launch/.

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