Q&A: Interviews with Students and Staff Members of Summer Program for the Performing Arts

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Volunteer reporter Unnati Bhat spent an afternoon interviewing members of the Summer Program for the Performing Arts.

ALL PHOTOS BY STEVE SHERIDAN.

How long have you been at SSPA, and what makes you come back every year?

REBEKAH RUIZ (rising 7th-grader) This is my second year at SSPA, and just being with other people and seeing how we all love theater together definitely brings me back every year.

SARAH BURDEAU (rising 10th-grader) This is my fifth year it SSPA and it’s just been really fun, hanging out with everyone and we all share something in common somehow, everyone’s just super positive and optimistic.

ANNE MARIE MATTILA (rising 10th-grader) This is my fourth year at SSPA and I keep coming back because we all share a similar interest and just get to bond over it, and really have fun and learn theater at the same time.

ANANYA DESIKAN (rising 5th-grader) This is my third year at SSPA and what brings be back here is just- I don’t have many friends so here is just like a nice supportive community where I can be myself.

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What is the best part of SSPA for you?

REBEKAH RUIZ (rising 7th-grader) — I think personally it’s rehearsal because we get to learn about each other and learn about our characters.

SARAH BURDEAU (rising 10th-grader) — I’d say definitely the people because everyone is just so fun, and I also really love going to rehearsals because you really get to learn more about yourself and the people around you.

ANNE MARIE MATTILA (rising 10th-grader) — Yeah, definitely rehearsal and just being with people because in rehearsal you get to hang out with people but also experience the world of the play at the same time.

ANANYA DESIKAN (rising 5th-grader) — For me, just being around people who have the same interest.

How has SSPA impacted you as a person?

REBEKAH RUIZ (rising 7th-grader) — It’s shown me how to be my true self, and how I can express myself through theater.

SARAH BURDEAU (rising 10th-grader) — It’s definitely shown be how to be a better person altogether just because of the community that it brings together.

ANNE MARIE MATTILA (rising 10th-grader) —  It’s definitely shown me how to do healthy risk taking and just be the best version of myself.

ANANYA DESIKAN (rising 5th-grader) — It has shown me that I have a helpful community to help me.

JESSICA MATERAZZO (rising 8th-grader) — I feel like it has made me a better person, opened my mind u to new things and taking risks. Kind of just learning to be myself and explore who I am as a person. I feel like it’s made my life easier to look around and be able to express and explore things that are different.

ZACK DICTAKIS (Staff Member) — Well, actually I was never a camper here, so my first year was as a counselor and that was about 8 years ago. I don’t know- It just had such a huge  impact on me, in seeing how I can give back to this community and I can help foster the experiences of others, the learning of others. I think it’s just such an important part of our community here in Westford.

MICHAEL TOWERS — (Director) — Well it’s made me a better director, better educator and a better human.

KYLA BLOCKER (Staff Member) — So SSPA has been my artistic home I was a rising senior, I was obviously at Westford Academy Theater Arts, but this place is where I really got to stretch skills outside of that acting world, this place is where I learned how to direct, this place is where I learned how to teach. This place is where I learned how to manage a large project, so really it’s so many things that I, in my adult life am using to this day. And I’m so grateful I am able to start to develop those skills at 17, at 20 , you know, 25. And really SSPA is the reason that I am a theater teacher now, because I was finding so much and learning so much about myself and the students that is the reason I decided to make that my career path, so really SSPA has shaped every aspect of who I am as a person.

What types of programs go on at SSPA and what are your favorites? 

ZACK — What types of programs? So my favorites are- we do- we put on a bunch of shows each 3 week or 4 week term, really. But other than that during the days we’re spending most of our down time doing electives and recreation stuff and so I’d say my favorites- well the one that I teach is my story cubes one and I like to teach kids to use them in order to have agency over their own ability to tell stories and their own input in something, and another activity that I like that we do would probably be, there’s a lot of different acting workshops that happen across the campus and so there’s different counselors with different training from all these schools across the country, come here and teach little workshops and you know, how to you know pick apart a scene how to pick apart a song, there’s directing there’s dance workshops, there’s even a scene painting workshop which is actually our most popular elective which is pretty cool.

How do you feel SSPA has prepared you for future opportunities and helped you in your current life?

ZACK — In the future, I definitely feel confident walking into a room of- filled with children. I definitely feel confident I can command that space. I can help create a safe positive environment for people to learn in and I think that’s something SSPA teaches everybody across the board, students and counselors. You know, the things that we really push are saying yes to opportunities saying yes to things that we’re scared of, as opposed to blocking yourself off and keeping yourself safe from growing. I think that that mindset has prepared me to take risks that I wouldn’t have taken that have gotten me to better opportunities that I wouldn’t have had.

Why do you work here at SSPA?

ZACK — I work here because I really really enjoy spending time with other people and collaborating on a project and seeing how their input can just be tinkered and tweaked and teach them how to tinker and tweak their own ideas. I think that a huge thing in the process of learning theater and certain stuff like that is having agency over your own input, and feeling confident you can add in to what’s going to happen.

When and Why did SSPA start?

MICHAEL TOWERS — We wanted to start to develop students in  younger grades. There wasn’t much theater happening for students of Westford, was our chief concern when we opened so we wanted to start developing theater artists at a young age, as I said off the record before. There was less than 20 kids in year one. But we were planting seeds and growing deep roots so that when students ultimately they would have so many years of experience and opportunity prior to having been here. And then somewhere along the line we attracted students from Chelmsford, Littleton, Nashua and Groton, and our mission definitely changed from something that was westford centric to something that was open to students anywhere and everywhere, in the 14 years since we have students from Florida, Connecticut, Colorado, China, Austria, Sweden, for one reason or another we have been able to attract people because, it is a good place not only to study and learn and grow as a theater artist, but to come together and collaborate with people who are from a variety of places. It began as a training ground and hat i know is just its a place for all of us to come together and collaborate and grow

Why do think theater is so important and influential? Not only to you but the students here.

TOWERS — Yeah Well, It’s an expression, It’s an art form and its very very important that we continue to champion our students and our cities expressing themselves, we have a slogan here: “I am an artist and I have something to say, but I know that before I am heard I must learn to listen.” So teaching confidence, teaching voice, teaching connection, communication. These are important skill sets and I fear that these particular skill sets are not the ones that necessity being championed everywhere but for hee this is our principal focus and that is to reinforce the idea of voice and using art to make connections with the world around us.

KYLA — To me theater skills are life skills so everything that you can learn in a theater classroom, in a theater rehearsal, you can then take and directly apply and translate to your life outside of that room, so not only is it amazing and exciting to create fantastic art but then there is also that connection of well now I take this and I bring it somewhere else. I bring it to my math class, I bring it to my conversations with my family at dinner, I bring it to my interactions with friends, and bring it meeting somebody new. Because those skills that we are learning when we are putting on a production, we’re learning communication, we’re learning collaboration, we’re learning empathy, we’re learning self expression, self confidence, all of these things that aren’t important for young people but are important for us to practice our entire lives. For me, I was super shy as a kid and theater is where I found my place and developed these skills as a kid and was able to grow as a human. For every kid that was involved in theater, whether they go on to a career in the arts or not, they’re learning something that they’re going to be able to take with them through their entire life.

It’s just been so amazing to see it grow from the small humble beginnings to what it is now and to see the fantastic staff that keeps coming back and the amazing kids that keep coming back and new faces every summer and just getting to make those connections too.