NICOLE S. COLSON
Andy’s Summer Playhouse board and staff provide full access to programming—but it’s the kids who are running the show.
“They are running tech boards during the performance, they are building the set and gathering costumes,” said artistic director Jared Mezzocchi.
As its website explains, Andy’s is a youth theater in Wilton that produces original works each eight-week summer season. Local artists aged 8 to 17 perform with direction and mentoring by professional artists from New Hampshire and beyond.
Andy’s encourages unique expression in kids
Mezzocchi, a professional director and projection designer mainly working in New York City—was an Andy’s kid, enrolled in both its writing and apprenticeship program.
“It meant a lot to me because Andy’s changed my life,” he said. “I’m always focused on making work outside of the box and a challenge. That (way of working) is embodied at Andy’s.”
While providing full access to everything Andy’s has to offer, the summer program also affords each artist freedom to create and express themselves in whatever way they choose.
“(Andy’s) is using theater as a form to help young artists find their voice without trying to silo them in a specific direction,” he said. “What comes out of that is not only incredible artistic voices but really good humans. They may go on to do theater but also recognize theatrical arts help them be better people.”
Andy’s Summer Playhouse responds to pandemic
Accessibility to an expressive platform was considered life-saving during the pandemic, when kids were unable to socialize.
In June of 2020, Andy’s launched the Digital Renaissance Project, an innovative response to a very uncertain time. The website connected youth in southern New Hampshire and beyond with adults of various artistic disciplines from across the country.
“In order to continue providing children with what they need now more than ever: empathy, empowerment, engagement and expression,” wrote Mezzocchi about the project on the website, which happens “when adults and children alike discover their voice, deepen their empathy and engage daily in creative problem-solving and self-expression with people of all ages.”
The Digital Renaissance Project
The online platform offered kids the opportunity to work with other children of similar ages. They were able to work eye-to-eye with adults who are leaders and innovators within their artistic field in site-specific performance. This is a type of performance created in response to the environment and architecture of the space that the performers and audience inhabit.
The structure wasmuch like a bulletin board at a cafe. Firstly, either adult or youth artists proposed a project. The artists posted their ideas for people to inquire about, sign up for and show support. Once a project gained enough support to be selected, it moved into the theater’s weekly schedule. Once it became a part of the schedule, the project had access to video conferencing, text documentation and sound/audio recording. Consequently, the focus became how to create an environment and an experience that can involve an audience. Everything created is available for the public to access in the archives.
“We learned a great deal during the pandemic,” said Mezzocchi. “We had to figure out how to maintain support for those kids (who participated in the Digital Renaissance Project) and those who tapped out during that time and how to welcome them back (once we re-opened). We always need to make sure staff represents as many points of view as possible so the kids know there is someone to talk to. We are not trying to define the young artist. It’s about whether our support net is wide enough should a child show up with an inspired idea, and do we have a space to point them to.”
The Toolshed Program
This year, Andy’s added a new program called Toolshed. The program gives young artists the chance to work eye-to-eye with professional artists. Additionally, youth learn different ways they can be part of theater making.
“It’s an open-door makerspace for professional artists working on their own projects,” said Mezzocchi, adding that new work like that produced at Andy’s is the company’s DNA.
“There is a vitality to theater as a format to tell good stories, to find interesting in the mundane,” he said. “Andy’s does that.”
The cherry on top, said Mezzocchi, is that for the past three years, the summer program has been tuition-free.
“We’re nearing 100 kids this year,” said Mezzocchi of 2023. “That’s the largest number we’ve had in a very long time.”
Andy’s expands outreach through community partnerships
Word has spread about Andy’s eliminating tuition fees.
“Nothing beats waiting in line (at the grocery store) for word-of-mouth,” he said. “As enrollment surges, so does ease of marketing. It also helps over the last couple of years our relationships with local businesses, getting them involved.”
This summer, the Bean Foundation awarded Andy’s a mini-grant for educational enhancement. This will allow the program to bring one of its shows to Manchester.
“It’s about creating partnerships and keeping relationships in those communities,” he said.
Those relationships include ones with other arts organizations.
“We always want them to know our structure and borrow from it,” he added. “We can create a network—like trees do—to bring health to one another instead of bringing everyone to us.”
Mezzocchi credits associate artistic director, Shoshanah Tarkow; design and engagement manager, Andres Poch; and production manager Tori Schuchmann along with key board members for making that outreach possible.
“They are doing grant writing and community drives and thinking about the building’s upkeep,” he said. “They take the reins and run with it so I can be a spokesperson in this capacity. I stand on the shoulders of all of them.”
Andy’s Summer Playhouse empowers young artists
For audiences, Mezzocchi believes they experience theater in a way unlike any other at Andy’s.
“If they come to open rehearsals, they witness the faces of young artists from those on-stage to those selling raffle tickets to those helping with concessions, at the box office and in the tech booth, in leadership roles,” he said. “When the lights go down it reminds you that from that point on everything you see artistically is operated, performed and told by young artists.”
For those young artists, the benefits of the theater-making experience reach far beyond creating.
“When they feel confident and important and look at their work in an agile way, and can respond to the environment and be a good citizen in that environment—that’s the best feedback,” he said. “Kids now know themselves and will always support theater-making—even if they don’t participate.”
For more information about Andy’s Summer Playhouse, visit www.andyssummerplayhouse.org. To find out more information about upcoming public events, including MOTH storytelling events and trivia nights, email email@example.com
For more information about the Arts Access Project: opening doors to the arts, visit Arts Access project and resources.