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Lights, Curtains, Activism

Voices Amplified, a performing-arts-meets-activism initiative, is setting the stage to make a change in Lexington.

The program started in 2011 as “The Girl Project” (TGP) after founders Vannessa Becker Weig and Ellie Clark met acting in the play “Pride and Prejudice” at the Kentucky Conservatory Theater.

Having grown up on stage and led reputable careers in theater, Weig and Clark said that American media culture tends to take a toll on young women. The underrepresentation of different voices and bodies in media, especially in the performing arts industry, can be damaging to girls’ self esteem.

“I lived in New York City for 10 years and I think I grew up a lot,” said Clark, having moved there from Lexington to pursue Broadway dreams. “I learned a lot about what I had been taught and how I had been taught, you know, what my place was, how girls were supposed to behave, certain expectations that are put on women. When I decided to move home 10 years later, I wished I had been taught certain things that I wasn't.”

This was where the idea for a program empowering female-identifying high schoolers through theater, movement and music-based workshops and performances came from.

Weig and Clark sought out to be the positive influence they felt they lacked as teens, hoping to cultivate increased media literacy, higher self-esteem, supportive social relationships and an understanding of advocacy for social change in their participants.

Their efforts were proven successful when research and advocacy director Margaret McGladrey led “evaluation efforts to understand the effects of participation in TGP on students,” according to Voices Amplified’s website.

McGladrey and her team of researchers found that TGP alumni reported “lower levels of body shame, high levels of self-confidence, increased ability to set boundaries in relationships, increased leadership capabilities, increased ability to plan for their futures” and more.

After eight years of steady growth, the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown gave Weig and Clark the perfect window of time to turn TGP into something more.

They decided to expand their mission to include all people who want to “break a leg” to break down barriers.

“We are interested in exploring and amplifying stories and voices that aren’t always being represented,” Weig said. “We decided to go ahead and take The Girl Project and rebrand it, give it the name Voices Amplified (VA) and start our own independent organization.”

Since then, they’ve expanded into what they are today. The Girl Project is only a part of VA’s programming, including numerous community collaborations, an annual full-scale production and ACTivate, a professional performing arts training program for 10-18-year-olds.

The spirit of activism is seen in everything they do at VA, including the acting, dance and vocal education they provide their ACTivate students.

“That program combines musical theater and it also has that spin of activism in it,” Weig said. “[We’re] training artists that are socially aware and understand the importance of giving back to their community and telling all the entire community’s stories, not just one particular sector of the community.”

One way they do this is by choosing a nonprofit in the area to benefit with their end-of-the-year showcase. ACTivate students choose a cause to support and dedicate a portion of the showcase to telling their story.

In addition to presenting the selected nonprofit’s mission to an audience, ACTivate encourages attendees of the showcase to donate to the causes. In previous years, they have worked with Brother’s Run, a local teen suicide awareness organization, as well as organizations supporting Ukraine.

For example, the company performed encouraging songs “You Will Be Found” from “Dear Evan Hansen" and “Make Them Hear You” from “Ragtime” for Brother’s Run.

These collaborations are reflective of the company’s culture of dedication, encouragement and unity. The space occupied by the 28 young artists is electrified by their enthusiasm and expressiveness from the first warm-up to the final bow.

“The kids are very attached, unbelievably supportive of each other,” Clark said. “It's lovely, what's cultivated, and you can feel the joy in the room with them. They're just, like, always thrilled to be there.”

Kennedy Moughamian, age 14, has been involved with ACTivate since it began and was excited to audition for this year’s production of “Disney’s Descendants: The Musical.”

“I’ve had so much fun learning and growing with the group,” Moughamian said. “ACTivate is a family to me and it’s just a place where I can come and be myself. I love it. It’s amazing.”

Luc Vanderbroek, an ACTivate alum, said his best friends in high school came from the program.

“Voices Amp’d, to me growing up, was a place for me to go that was safe,” Vanderbroek said. “I always found at school and stuff, I got bullied a lot just for being who I am. And so when I was at Voices Amp’d it was just like a safe haven because everyone loves everyone there.”

A freshman at Northern Kentucky University in the musical theater Bachelor of Fine Arts program, Vanderbroek said ACTivate molded him for a career on the stage.

“While you're doing activism, you're also getting the foundational musical theater skills that you need that, you know, they're preparing you for the professional world,” Vanderbroek said. “It showed me the good and the bad sides of theater. I think it's shown me how to keep going when things get hard.”

Despite graduating from ACTivate last May, Vanderbroek was able to stay involved with VA by being in the ensemble of their June 2023 production of “The Prom.”

“The Prom” was VA’s first full-scale musical outside of ACTivate, open for anyone to audition. It kicked off Pride month with its pro-LGBTQ+ messaging and started the tradition of a yearly pride musical.

The show follows high schooler Emma as she faces backlash trying to take her girlfriend to the prom in a small rural town. Four Broadway stars chassé to the rescue and teach Emma and her town a lesson of acceptance.

“Overwhelmingly, the cast felt like they had been through a healing process,” Clark said. “I think a lot of the young people involved had the opportunity to play roles that they identified with, you know, were they non-binary or queer in their representation. They felt like it was the first time that they were being themselves onstage.”

Audiences were inspired by the message of embracing oneself and one another according to Weig, who directed the show. She said many people thanked her for sharing the story after watching.

“Everyone that came to see it really felt a sense of celebration and victory and that we can all overcome hard things,” Clark said. “I think ‘The Prom’ has a very unique and playful way of exploring a really complicated topic that is not fun and not funny. What I feel like our audiences walked away with was celebrating a win for somebody fighting for who they are and what they believe in.”

Generating empathy in audiences for perspectives they might not otherwise understand is the essence of Voices Amplified, a superpower Weig and Clark believe only exists in the theater.

“Holding your story in and feeling shame around who you are, or your experiences, or where you come from or your identity [is] toxic in the body. Sharing those things in front of an audience who then has empathy and understanding and potentially joy around your story is a way of healing,” Clark said. “So I think theater is an incredibly unique medium. There's a lot to say about an audience who agrees to come and hear a story and potentially have their mind changed.”


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