Recently, Mya Gary and Fhrynée Lambert met with Julie Lichtenberg and James Arana– the co-directors of the Performance Project. The Performance Project is an organization that aims to bring people together to create theater and visual art through multi-generational collaborations. Their performances engage audiences in dialogue about oppression and liberation, placing a strong focus on rigorous artistic training, intergenerational mentoring, and leadership development for underserved youth in the community. Here’s some of what we discussed:

  • Introductions

James: Good afternoon. I’m imagining that we’re sitting in the same space, and I’m looking at each one of your faces and saying hello with my eyes– that’s the way that we do all of our meetings. So it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m James Arana, and I’m one of two co-director of the Performance Project. And I’ve been with the Project for more than 15 years in a variety of capacities.  

Julie: Hi, I’m the other co-director of the Performance Project, and my name is Julie Lichtenberg. Thank you for inviting us to have this conversation. I was one of the two artists that started this project 23 years ago and have been part of the evolving and shaping of this work.

Mya: Wow, 23 years ago. 

Fhrynée: That’s like our lifetime! [all laughs]

  • How did the Performance Project begin?

Fhrynée: Well, I would love to hear a little bit more about the origins of this organization and how it’s grown from the original vision. 

James: Before Julie goes, I would like to say how glad I am to hear the desire to expand on the relationship [between Smith and the Performance Project] that we have. It has been as an ebb and flow over the past couple of years from having interns from Smith who have been truly committed and still maintain a strong relationship and affiliation with us. It is really nice to be reconnecting in this way, and I’m hoping that it’ll be a consistent, fluid relationship where the learning and sharing goes both ways, whereby you learn from us and we learn from you. So I just wanted to say how much I appreciate this. 

Mya and Fhrynée: No, thank you!

Julie: So, the Performance Project really started as a theater and dance workshop in the Hampshire Jail in 2000. I had been doing work in what we call devised physical theater* in a prison in Connecticut with another theater artist – Elsa Menendez. We had developed a process of creating performances and movement pieces with community members who didn’t necessarily have any experience performing but had an interest. At some point, someone reached out to a dancer in this community; her name is Amy Dowlong– she was actually working on her masters degree in dance at Smith– and she was asked to do a theater workshop at Hampshire jail. She hadn’t done any theater, so she reached out to me, and we collaborated on this 14-week workshop at the jail, combining her methodology of movement and choreography with my theater and physical theater background. We created a piece, and the jail kept asking us to return and do more work at which point I always said 14 weeks is not enough time. I’ve never been someone who just wants to come in and do a workshop and leave. I’m more about relationships and community building. The art’s a very important part of it, but the relationships are equally as important. So we asked for more time. This went on for a few years where we were creating performances in the Hampshire jail. Then we started an outside company because guys were asking us, “How can we do this when we get out? What kind of theater options are there?” And it didn’t feel like there were a lot of theater opportunities in this area, especially for devised theater or creating your own theater in your own language. 

We had this outside company for a couple years, and then I started to hear our members say that they wished they had had something like this when they were growing up. It was very healing to sit in a circle, share stories from life experience, and then hone a performance based on sharing those stories. And the storytelling was never in isolation of one’s own personal story; it was very much touching upon the systemic oppression that people of color and people who are incarcerated continue to experience. It was always in connection with family, community, culture, and larger systems. 

James: I was talking to one of our ensemble members last night about a certain kind of privilege that I want to share with you: When they were performing in the jails, community members were invited to go and see performances. Before I worked with the Performance Project, I went to see the work that was being done, and I was supposed to be on the list to go into the jail. I went to the desk, but my name was not on the list, so I couldn’t go into the jail. The person right next to me was also supposed to be on the list, and I thought, “Look at these two scenarios.” So now this person is like, “My name should be on the list, and I need to get into that jail!” I was like, “What the bleep is wrong with this man?” [all laughs] Because my name was not on the list, so I’m like, “Okay, I’m going home.” I was glad to not have to go in, but this person was fighting to get into the jail. I just knew that if I made it in and something happened, I might be one of the people not let out. It was humorous, but it’s really about privilege, access, and what’s wrong with this picture. So I just wanted to share that.

Julie: Yeah, there’s so many stories about that work and how community members were drawn to it. And then, the members of the outside company really wanted to see this be available for young people and mentor younger people in their community. That felt like the next step. And it was really the experiences of our members– one from Jamaica, two from Cambodia, and several from Puerto Rico– who talked about the disconnect of moving to the [mainland] United States. They talked about the challenges of being a young person who has a different family culture at home, and you know, the language of code switching and intersectionality and all that didn’t exist in the 90’s and early 2000’s when we were doing this. But we recognized that young people were getting in trouble and growing disconnected from their families because they were struggling to fit in at school or being bullied since they were rooted in their family cultures. Plus, I’m first generation on one side of my family and second on the rest and never really felt American, so I really identified with the first generation theme. 

So we started to talk about starting a youth community and theater program that was called “First Generation.”  We didn’t want to limit it to just immigrants and refugees, so we expanded that definition back in 2008 to include a young person who identifies as first generation in their family in some way. It can be first to grow up in this country, to speak english, to be openly LGBTQ, to be a feminist, to be an artist, first to break a silence. We had one member who was the first sibling to not be born while his mom was using crack. So they decide what their “first” is. And that’s how “First Generation” started. 

Right alongside of it, “Ubuntu Arts Community” started, and that is where our team mentors our gems– our Ubuntu gems, and they’re ages 6 to around 12. So there’s this kind of multigenerational mentoring piece. And when James came on board, I had always been very passionate about community building through the arts. My background is physical theater and visual art, but there was a great deepening of how we build community through James’s experience. He brought a big part of that with him into this program. 


*Devised theater is a method of theater-making that heavily relies on the collaborative vision of ensemble members, choreographers, composers, writers, and other members; productions are often based on the combined talents, backgrounds, and experiences of members 

  • What would say is the biggest success(es) of the Performance Project? The biggest challenge(es)?

Mya: Now that we have the origin story of the Performance Project, I imagine that that did not come without its challenges, so what would you say have been the biggest challenges and the successes of the Performance Project so far?

James: We’re at a very beautiful and challenging point in our performances [right now] where our current cast– we have three who are in their first year at Hampshire and three who are high school seniors– they’ve been with us for 5-6 years. This group is transitioning, and they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. You know, they’re going to school, they’re successful students, they’re finding themselves as artists. Because of this transition, we’re bringing in new ensemble members and having one or two of the older ensemble members begin to train this new group. It’s a beautiful place to be, so I’m holding it as a success and a challenge at the same time.

Julie: I think that to me represents all success. The only challenge is, from a more artistically ambitious point of view, it would be nice if Mother Tongue (their current production at the time) could continue as a production. But that’s the beauty of what we’re doing.

  • Could you outline your performance preparation process?

Mya: Would you mind outlining your creative process more in depth? I’m thinking about smaller high school productions, and those are four months tops, but I know that your process takes much longer. 

Julie: Yeah, we have five creative phases of our artistic process. The first phase is group building and training. And we say it’s 10-12 weeks, but this is ongoing from the moment we’re together. We spend a lot of time doing group building, exercises, conversations, writing prompts, bringing in visiting artists, and going on retreats and field trips together to see theater, dance, cultural festivals, and other performances. We also host a Family and Community Celebration during that period, so they become hosts of community events, and they learn how to welcome people into a space.

James: The first five months are really spent developing strong relationships through skill building. Many times, we think that relationships just happen by accident, but we believe that you have to work on building healthy relationships by learning how to listen, paraphrase, reflect, pick up on feelings, peer mentor each other, and hold each other accountable. A lot of work goes in, up front, in really building strong connections so we can hold each other accountable to create the community that will help us grow. 

Julie: Yes, take it very seriously. [laughs] Our community agreement is really long, and anytime someone joins, we go back into our agreement and ask if there’s anything missing. And it may sound corny, but at the top of the list, we really stress the value of kindness.

Mya: Not corny at all.

Julie: I mean, you don’t hear that a lot. Young people are coming from schools where kindness is not really appreciated– it’s considered a weakness. But when people come through our door, we’re really practicing kindness. We’re talking about how important connection and interconnection is and how one of the biggest lessons we can learn as humans is that we don’t have to do it alone. People are trained in this country to not ask for help, to be independent and self-sufficient. And maybe that’s not how human beings are supposed to be living our lives. 

But then we enter phase two very intentionally and think about the creative development of a performance. At this point, we’re spending a lot of time together, so stories are coming out. This is where it gets really interesting! I put up a huge piece of paper, and I ask the group, “If you had an hour to speak to the world, what would you want to say?” And they just brainstorm. Sometimes its a big theme like, “No more genocide.” Everything from that to, “Don’t have children unless you want to raise them.” Or they’re very personal things, like some of them just want to tell their story. We also brainstorm more playful things like, “If you could play any character, what would you want to play?” That can generate a lot of ideas for a performance as well. They also think about what kind of experience they want the audience to have, and what kind of experience they would like themselves to have. Just really thinking ahead about the idea that this is a way of communicating with the world. 

As people identify their personal themes, I start to develop some writing [and spoken] prompts, and they share their stories. So a lot of the script comes directly from transcribed conversations or individual sharing of a story. And then it gets edited. Often we have writers who write a monologue or incorporate their poetry or lyrics into a piece. But by the time the script is finished– it’s been shaped and molded and edited– I would say it’s 95% their words and their language. What happens is, as we’re talking, certain common themes and language will emerge. In our last show, Mother Tongue, language and educational experiences were a really big theme, so we started to develop group pieces around that. And while we’re thinking about text and language, we’re also improvising physically and thinking about choreography and movement.  

James: And we’re also taking them to see a variety of different styles of performance so we see what we’d like to take in. 

Julie: Yeah, even though we want to use the talents, gifts, and interests that the youth come with, we also want them to explore new areas and disciplines. Then, we have a script! It usually gets printed out, and it’s like 100 pages. Scenes get moved around, and we look for an overarching structure to the script rather than it being a collage of stories. We don’t want it to feel like sketches. We want it to feel like there’s a cohesiveness to it. 

And then we start our rehearsal process. We say it’s 6 weeks, but it really takes three months. [laughs] And then it’s production week. Usually, our production weeks* are 2 weeks. For Mother Tongue– they wanted to kill me [laughs] – we met almost everyday for at least three weeks leading up to the first performance. 

Mya: Wow, tech month* almost!

Julie: It wasn’t only a new piece that was changing as we were working on it, but it was also their first performance ever in their lives. 

Fhrynée: So that makes sense. 

James: More than anything else, they get to see and hear the results of peoples’ experiences from their investment of their time and stories.

Julie: There’s been a thing that I always said when we were performing in the jail about those people that James was talking about knocking down the door to get in. Great, there’s this sexy idea of going into a jail to see a performance– something thrilling about that. That always really pissed me off. I wanted to make sure that, when they left, it wasn’t because they got to see inmates perform – it was because they got to see theater that blew them away, and they learned something both artistically and about the world. I’ve always stressed that the performers are teachers and artists, and we don’t want people to love the work because it’s young people doing something cool. We want them to love it because it’s really great art with a powerful message. 


*Production week or tech week are terms for the week prior to or the week of a performance. This week is usually characterized by several dress rehearsals, consisting of full costumes, lighting, etc, and it’s generally VERY stressful.

  • What is one thing you’d like Smith students to know about the Performance Project?

James: I would love to encourage the opportunity to get off campus and get into the community so you’re not talking about, but you’re experiencing and sharing through a relationship. We want the students to know that this is not a voyeuristic experience. Smith is not separate from the communities that they are sending you to, and I would hope our organization and your community would hold that. 

Julie: What James said. [laughs] Also, what we do is so unique in terms of the equal commitment to community building, the wellbeing of our youth, the interconnectedness between families and youth, and the artistic piece. There’s a ton of social service organizations out there that “work with people,” but they turn off their phones at 5:00, and everyone talks about how important boundaries are and all of that. But coming from the model of community work that James has done in south Brooklyn and from my natural constitution, we’re pretty unique in how we build community.

Mya: That’s wonderful! I think that’s one of the main reasons why we really wanted to reach out to you guys. We’ve talked to maybe 5 or so partners since we started this project, and when we ask them this question, and a lot of them are very adamant about the fact that Smith students exist in a bubble, and it makes it really easy for us to turn a blind eye to things happening literally right outside of campus and sometimes not even outside of campus. And through this project, we’re really hoping to bridge that gap.

  • Closing Remarks

James: So usually we end our sessions by taking a deep breath and saying one thing we appreciated about our time together and if there was anything that was challenging. Then we say goodbye. [everyone takes a deep breath] So it was a pleasure reconnecting with Smith, and I’m looking forward to hearing about the direction you’ll be going in after your Smith dance. And I’ll pass it to any of you.

Fhrynée: I really appreciated the articulation of your process and the ways that the Performance Project has developed. I think it really restructured the way that I see community work– especially with young folk. I really appreciate the perspective of intentionally creating community and preparing them for the future which I personally believe is often lacking in that transition space. So thank you!

Mya: I really appreciate the emphasis that we’ve been placing on connection and interconnectedness literally through the meeting we’re having right now albeit over Zoom and through the work that you guys do. Going back to what you were saying, sometimes in our culture, we overemphasize the value of independence and individuality; this might be to the point where it’s maladaptive and harmful, and people are isolated, which we kind of see happening more and more in our country and other western countries as well. So I really appreciate that vision, and I hope that the Jandon Center and the Performance Project also stay connected! 

Julie: I really enjoyed meeting you both! It’s always a little challenging trying to capture the layers of what we do, but I feel like you got us. 

We’d like to express our sincerest appreciation to Julie and James for this amazing interview, and we hope to see many of you become volunteers for this lovely organization. To learn more about Performance Project volunteer placements, head to the Performance Project page, and if you have any further questions, please email

“The Performance Project brings people together to create theater and visual art through multi-generational collaborations. Our members participate in artistic training, inter-generational mentoring and leadership development. We claim a public voice, engage audiences in dialogue about oppression and liberation, and celebrate our humanity and connection through the arts.” 

-The Performance Project, 2023