Hilltown theater group gives youths a boost

  • Several members of Hilltown Youth Theatre rehearse one of its performances. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Mayzie Whitaker rehearses on the trapeze. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Hilltown Youth Theatre members rehearse in Shelburne Falls.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Members of Hilltown Youth Theatre with a lion puppet they created for a performance. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Two performers rehearse on the trapeze. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2019 12:09:00 AM

SHELBURNE FALLS — When the young members of Hilltown Youth Theatre gather, it’s not just to learn or rehearse a performance, but to support each other through thick and thin.

Director Jonathan Diamond, who founded the program, said the innovative, year-round after-school and summer performing arts program’s mission is to build supportive, creative communities — and put on some pretty darn good shows.

Diamond started the program in 2010 in an effort to help children who were struggling but also to instill in them a sense of place and appreciation for rural hilltown life. Much like Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, the youngsters use all sorts of props, including a trapeze and circus silks.

So, it’s no surprise, once you’ve seen Hilltown Youth Theatre perform, that it works with Double Edge. It also collaborates with Chrysalis Theatre, Knighthorse Theatre, Homunculas Mask Theatre and more.

“We stretch our young performers beyond their boundaries,” Diamond said. “We give them experiences outside their home areas by providing intensive training, artistic and professional skill building and leadership development.”

Diamond, a consultant, writer and practicing psychotherapist in Shelburne Falls and Northampton, said performers of all types, including musicians, actors, artists, set designers and more are welcome. Programs include the Hilltown Youth Theatre Summer Workshop, Theatre Enrichment Program and Recovery Theatre, a performing arts experience for young people overcoming trauma, addiction, anxiety, depression and other behavioral health challenges.

“This really is just fun, while building community,” Diamond said. “We’re getting people connected.”

Zach Arfa, 21, is the artistic director for the group. He lives in Shelburne Falls and is attending his fourth year at Oberlin College in Ohio. He spends his summers with the drama club. He said he became familiar with Hilltown Youth Theatre when he performed in “The Hobbit” at Mohawk Trail Regional High School.

“I learned about the Recovery Intensive programs and wanted to help one winter,” he said. “It’s a faculty-driven, student-led program and I thought it was interesting. I ended up the music director and decided to use the entire Academy at Charlemont campus as an instrument.”

So, the group performed at the top of Berkshire East, where it took the audience to watch. He said performers used sticks, rocks and just about anything else they could to make music and create a natural symphony.

“I was so excited about the outdoor show — there were 70 kids all working on the same thing,” Arfa said. “It was full of improvisation.”

Jaden LeBreux, 18, of Shelburne Falls said she started in the group almost 10 years ago, when it was first formed.

“I was an incredibly shy kid,” she said. “I needed help with public speaking, so I’d feel comfortable. This has really helped. I just had to do things and in this environment, I didn’t feel judged.”

LeBreux said being with a group outside of her comfort zone has helped her grow tremendously.

“I’ve just exploded in this group,” she said. “I’ve tried just about everything and that has stretched my art skills.”

Mayzie Whitacker, 12, of Heath said she is just simply inspired by the other students and the faculty, while Alex Schmitt, 17, of South Deerfield said she was having trouble in school, when he turned 14, because she had anxiety and depression.

“My therapist and I were trying everything, and nothing was sticking,” she said. “I came here and fell in love with the trapeze. From the moment I jumped off I said, ‘I’m in!’”

Schmitt said she loves that she is so accepted by the group — and it happened more quickly than she had expected.

“There’s a positive energy here,” she said. “It’s a safe space where you can enjoy what you’re doing.”

Schmitt even co-directed a play with Diamond recently.

“I’m very proud of the creative control and freedom he gave me,” she said.

Sam Picone-Louro, 16, of Wendell, started with the Recovery Intensive Theatre four years ago.

“I heard about it through word-of-mouth,” Picone-Louro, now a student director, said. “I came from an experience where I had lost all contact with everyone close to me. I felt overwhelmed, but realized here, that wasn’t such a back feeling.”

Picone-Louro said the program has helped them get out of their shell.

“It’s great to be part of something that offers so much opportunity,” Picone-Louro said.

‘Novel and effective’

Tara Mason is one of the very involved parents. She said she’s more than happy that both of her daughters decided to join Hilltown Youth Theatre.

“We found the group through the public school,” she said. “It’s unique, novel and effective.”

Her daughter Anna Whitacker, 8, of Heath said she joined because her sister Mayzie was doing it and it looked like it was fun.

“It’s awesome,” she said.

Jeremy Forbes, 17, of Charlemont has been with the group for the past five years.

“I saw an ad in the paper and decided to try it,” he said. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Since he started, Forbes has become one of the youth leaders in the theater group and said that has done wonders for him.

“You are the mortar,” Diamond told him.

Gussie Smith, 15, of Shelburne Falls said she likes to help the other youth.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “I feel so happy for all of the kids who participate.”

Diamond said Hilltown Youth Theatre is a lot of work, both mental and physical, for its participants, but they tend to thrive.

“These kids are on fire,” Diamond said. “And if any of them ever have to hit reset, everyone else is there for them.”

Laura Iveson, another involved parent, said she loves watching the youths rehearse and perform. She said she sees no fear after they become comfortable, which doesn’t take very long.

“It’s a different experience,” she said. “It’s a wonderful experience.”

Diamond said he is grateful for the parents and other adults who help, but it really is all about the youth.

“None of this is about teaching kids how to play an instrument or perform or build a set, it’s about teaching them how to love and cooperate and be the best human beings they can be,” Diamond said. “It’s about giving them the safe space and experiences to do just that.”

Nonprofit

Hilltown Youth Theatre has partnered with and is receiving some funding support from the United Way and will be performing at its annual fundraising kickoff in August. The group is also on its way to becoming an official nonprofit organization, and Sen. Adam Hinds and Rep. Paul Mark were able to secure $15,000 for the Recovery Theatre in this year’s budget.

Diamond said the group is happy with its new space in a former Lamson and Goodnow building. He said they are also pleased with the gradual transition from the program being staff-driven to student-led.

“We have such a supportive community,” he said. “The supportive, creative and inclusive community we’ve built for students in recovery from trauma, addiction, anxiety and depression and the LBGTQ youth, is extending to other marginalized groups overcoming other obstacles and challenges in their lives posed by physical and developmental disabilities.”

This summer

The six-day pre-workshop SUMMER Recovery begins Monday at Hawlemont Regional School, 10 School St. in Charlemont.

Hilltown Youth Theatre Summer Workshop starts Monday, July 15, and runs through the end of the month. The theater group will present, “Princess Bride,” an outdoor traveling summer spectacle,” at Berkshire East Mountain Resort, 66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont. Times will be announced at a later date. The show will begin Aug. 3 and run through Aug. 7.

Hilltown Youth Theatre accepts donations to help with its costs. To donate, make checks payable to Hilltown Youth Performing Arts Programs or HYPAP, care of Mary Lyon Foundation, P.O. Box 184, Shelburne Falls, MA 01370.

For more information about Hilltown Youth Theatre, including admission and available scholarships, call Jonathan Diamond at 413-387-8783 or 413-625-2100 or email him at: jonathan@crocker.com. Also, visit: www.hilltownyouth.org.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 269, or afritz@recorder.com.


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