Theatre workshop challenges youth to find their voice

Theatre workshop challenges youth to find their voice
Vocalist Renee Benson, spoken word poet Zaccheus Jackson and actor/writer Reneltta Arluk will be on tour performing and leading theatre workshops for youth in Yellowknife, Fort Smith and Hay River starting Oct. 15.Photo: Reneltta Arluk.

Artists in theatre, singing and spoken word are teaming up with Northern youth starting this week to build a foundation for self expression through several free, four-day workshops in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith.

Northern actor Reneltta Arluk of Akpik Theatre is bringing vocalist Renee Benson of New York and poet Zaccheus Jackson of Vancouver to the Northwest Territories from Oct. 15 to 29 both to perform and work with youth aged 12-17 on script, song and slam poetry.

While Arluk has done youth theatre workshops in the NWT before, this year’s program got a bit of a boost from the NWT Arts Council.

“I want to create a model that can work successfully in each community, so I thought it would be best if I pulled together a group of artists that can offer diversity,” Arluk said.

Benson and Jackson were immediate thoughts because of their energy and experience working with at-risk youth.

“We’re all indigenous and diverse. It’s like a trifecta of Art Awesome,” Arluk said with a laugh.

The focus of the workshop, “What’s Your Story?”, asks youth to perform their own story at the end of the four days, whether it be through theatre, song or spoken word, as an individual or with a group.

Arluk said the workshops fit with Akpik Theatre’s mandate to present, develop and produce Northern and/or indigenous scripts.

“I quickly realized that to keep with the mandate, we have to foster and develop Northern-based stories,” she said. “It makes sense that we do this with the youth. The workshop also provides a way for a young person to have a voice in their community through the arts. There is so little to offer youth in the communities regarding the arts. It’s what I believe in and live by. Just want to share it. It’s grassroots and it’s positive growth, so why not?”

Benson, who met Arluk six years ago while working together for the Caravan Stage theatre company, said the two of them had been conspiring to do some kind of project together for years before she got the invitation.

As it’s her first time coming to Canada’s North, she said she is overwhelmed with excitement and ready to get the youth comfortable with expressing themselves.

But first, she said, she intends to share a bit of herself with them.

Each of the three communities will be treated to a performance by the three facilitators – a mix of both pre-written and original works – before launching into the exercises. Benson said it’s simply about respect.

“Especially for me, when you’re coming into a community, there’s a respect that you have to have,” she told The Journal. “There’s that moment when someone opens the door, especially when you’re working with youth for a short period of time, I have to share my house with them before they share their house with me. I show them who I am.”

Throughout the workshops, Benson said she hopes to introduce the youth to the most powerful tool they have: their voice.

“No matter what level that any of the youth are at, the way that I see myself is being able to lend them some tools that they can use to be able to broaden their scope of thinking about themselves as musical performers,” she said. “We all have a set of instruments, which is our voice, and it’s amazing to me that more people don’t feel comfortable in their voices…It’s emotional to use your voice, because it’s probably the most powerful tool that we have.”

Through a range of vocal exercises – many of which will be “silly,” she said – Benson said the youth will be able to free their voices, as a way to complement the other performative techniques being taught by Arluk and Jackson.

The youth workshops run Oct. 15-18 in Yellowknife at the YWCA, Oct. 20-24 at Uncle Gabe’s Friendship Centre in Fort Smith and Oct. 25-29 in Hay River at Diamond Jenness High School.

A pay-what-you-can concert by the artists will be given on the first night in every community. The Fort Smith performance will be joined by local storyteller Ria Coleman and throat singer Lucy Tulugarjuk.

The youth will also have the option of performing for the public or an invite-only audience at the end of their workshops.

To sign up for the workshops or attend one of the concerts, contact Arluk at

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