UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 10 Summer 19 Library
Ézé Amos
Miller Arts Scholars

Bridging Communities Through Theater: Jessica Harris & Empowered Players

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Third-year Miller Arts Scholar Jessica Harris was bitten by the arts bug early, and it has never let go. She was five-years-old when her mother drove her in from their Fluvanna home to take part in the annual Missoula Theatre Company camp at The Paramount Theater. “I was cast as a seahorse,” she said, “but I was the only one in the play who had a line. Even at that young age, just watching everyone come together, then seeing the audience reaction, I just know that theater was something really important to me.” That passion only grew as time went on, and by the time she got to high school, Harris realized that her passion went far beyond dreaming of her own roles, but helping others find their voices. “It was so amazing to watch people from all these different backgrounds come together around something larger than themselves. I started thinking about something that has become my overall mission, which is to use art to build bridges between communities and individuals,” she said. “I was lucky enough to grow up with opportunities to explore my passions, but as I looked around Fluvanna, I realized that there were a lot of people who didn’t have those opportunities. I had discovered an ability to really connect with the world around me, which I found revolutionary, and I wanted to help other people have that too.” Harris began creating those chances through Empowered Players, the 501(c)-3 nonprofit she launched in 2016. “Empowered Players is built around the mission of empowering communities, and uplifting the human spirit through the arts,” Harris said. She was able to see the program’s impact right away. “We reached out to the Fluvanna Arts Council and were able to host a free summer camp. We had a small, but excited group of ten students, who came in not knowing each other and with, in many cases, no theater experience. I had written a musical built around a hodgepodge of Disney characters coming together, so it was relatable to them. The pride they felt and that showed on their faces the day of the show was incredible!” Almost immediately, what Harris had envisioned as an annual summer project became much more. “We started doing year-round programming in the fall, spring, and summer, including community classes and after-school sessions. We now have seven programs for ages 6-18, all free and accessible thanks to grant funding and donations.” The project now serves nearly 100 students per semester and performs for crowds of more than 300 people. The Miller Arts Scholar experience has been key to her arts success and leadership growth both on and off Grounds, she said. “I love being a Miller Arts Scholar. I think that interdisciplinary studies and programs are so important because we want to be well-rounded artists and make an impact more broadly rather than just focusing on a single area. The greatest thing about it for me is that I get the opportunity to meet so many talented scholars and artists across so many disciplines, and just seeing their passion for what they do makes me want to be a better artist and leader.” The Miller Arts Scholar grant program has also been instrumental to her growth, sending her to New York last summer to participate in the Broadway Teachers Workshop. When asked how, as an Echols Scholar and Miller Arts Scholar, she finds the time to handle a rigorous academic load in addition to running the program, Harris laughs. “I guess I would say by the grace of God, and possibly a little caffeine from time to time.”

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