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Virtual Version of Kentucky’s Prestigious Youth Arts Program Kicks Off


The banner that appeared at the start of the opening ceremony held on Facebook Live for the 2020 Governor's School for the Arts. The three-week program is being held virtually this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Image from Facebook.


By Debra Murray

2020 Graduate, Pleasure Ridge Park High School


As Monday’s opening ceremony of Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts aired over Facebook Live as well as via Zoom to participating students, Gov. Andy Beshear gave students words of encouragement to make the most out of their virtual three-week GSA experience ahead of them and alumni reminisced on their memorable summers in the program.


Asha French — a creative writing mentor, Affrilachian Poets member, and 1998 GSA alumnus — shared a video during the ceremony relating the current protests against racial injustice and lethal illness began to shadow and shape lives more than a century ago.


“In a time of epidemic and racial turmoil, doctors and homemakers agree on one thing, sharing space with the other is dangerous,” said French. “I’m showing you how the past is the present.”


Kentucky writer and 1998 GSA alumnus Asha French gave a talk during the opening ceremony for the 2020 GSA program. Photo courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts/GSA.


While focusing on seemingly parallel events, she reassured students they can still have a great summer through this virtual GSA.


“I want to acknowledge our loss, but also to point out our gain. We are still together,” she said. “Our artists are stuck at home starting the task of exploring the third way — or what kind of freedom we can create in cyberspace?”


Founded in 1987 by Gov. Martha Layne Collins and The Kentucky Center, now Kentucky Performing Arts, GSA gives passionate young artists an outlet to develop their artistic skills and make long-lasting friendships and is held every summer for three weeks on a college campus. GSA now operates the program through a public/private partnership involving The Commonwealth of Kentucky and numerous private supporters.


For the last several years, the University of Kentucky has hosted GSA. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, on May 7 Kentucky Performing Arts announced the program would be held virtually for the first time from June 29 to July 17.


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During Monday’s opening, Gov. Beshear referred to this GSA as “a historic one, as Covid-19 has forced us to make a number of changes in order to keep our families, friends, and neighbors safe.”


But instead of a setback, he framed this virtual GSA as an opportunity for the students.


“Problem-solving and innovation are hallmarks of every great artist, and your ability to shift to this unique learning environment shows you have what it takes to be the next great generation of artists and community leaders.”


Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear speaking during the Facebook Live opening ceremony for the 2020 Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts. From Facebook.


The GSA staff has worked to include the same caliber of faculty and guest artists GSA is known.


“It takes vision and support to make GSA,” said GSA Director Nick Covault during the ceremony. “From unexpected challenge can come unexpected opportunity.”


Among the young artists participating in the program, the more than 40 faculty members, and the guest artists, such as Kevin Olsulola of Pentatonix, many are managing to make the best of this situation by focusing on creating genuine connections and learning during this virtual program.


“Although I was a little disappointed in not being able to be with all of the artists in person, I’m quickly learning that I can feel the overwhelming sense of family and acceptance through a screen,” said Breana Lovins, a 2020 GSA drama student from Breathitt County High School in Jackson. “We are gaining different opportunities that wouldn’t be as easy if we were in person.”


She talked about how the drama students are getting to meet more professional actors, actresses, and even more casting directors because they normally wouldn’t be able to travel to Kentucky and speak in person during the GSA because of their own work and schedules.


Governor's School for the Arts Director Nick Covault during the Facebook Live opening ceremony for the 2020 GSA. From Facebook.


Even GSA alumni hope that current students appreciate the opportunity, even if they are getting a virtual program that’s nontraditional.


“Understand that you are making history. It’s difficult and less than ideal,” said Alloria Frayser, GSA 2018 musical theater alumnus from Elizabethtown, “but the GSA spirit and the drive that the faculty and staff hold in their hearts has been driving this organization and its alumni for decades. You are a part of it and it will be worth it.”


During the opening ceremony, Covault told students, “Go forth and make great art.”

Singer, composer and GSA alumnus and GSA guest speaker Martha Redbone. Photo by Fabrice Trombert Courtesy SRO Artists Inc.


Students got started on that during these first week sessions. They began preparing for showcases where they can demonstrate what they have learned, organizing evening social events, and more. They even experienced Zoom sessions with nationally acclaimed artists like Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby. Redbone blends the traditions of blues, gospel, soul, Appalachian folk, and Native American music. She has garnered accolades and awards, including for music she composed for the 2019 revival of Ntozake Shange’s 1970s landmark poetic drama “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” that ran at New York's Public Theater.


“I loved the Martha Redbone session,” said Lovins.“I was happy to be educated about her experience as a person of color, especially with Native American descent.”


What is a day in a virtual program like for a student?


“We have a morning presentation from 10 to 11 a.m. My assembly with everyone in drama is 11 a.m. to noon,” Lovins said. “Then we split into three groups and do a rotation from noon to 1:15. Then lunch; rotation B from 2:15 to 3:30 p.m.; a five-minute break; and then the last rotation from 3:35 until whenever. Finally, we have an assembly again with a guest speaker.”


Each day there are different guest speakers for each art form, and musician, composer and educator Harry Pickens has been one of Lovin’s favorites so far. Pickens has been GSA’s artist in residence since 2006 and presents several sessions during the annual program.


Musician, composer and educator Harry Pickens who also has been an artist in residence at Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts since 2006. Photo by Ed Boomershine.


“His energy is just so pure and warm, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “As teenagers, we are all trying to figure out what we like about ourselves and push ourselves to keep negative thoughts away, but it is very hard. Harry showed us an exercise where we imagined our most confident selves on stage or on a screen; then to imagine ourselves as we are now on the stage or screen; then go back to watching (that confidence). Then we open our eyes and tell him how it made us feel.”


GSA 2020 sessions have already exposed young artists to a lot in the first five days, but there are many more moments and great lessons to come.


Debra Murray, a 2020 graduate of Pleasure Ridge Park High School who wrote for that school's newspaper, The PRP Paw Print. She enters her freshman year at Western Kentucky University as a journalism major this fall, already has a job with The College Heights Herald, the university newspaper. She was in Arts Bureau Edge's workshop covering Actors Theatre of Louisville's 2019 Humana Festival of New American Plays.


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