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Did Changing Lives really change lives this year?

If you’ve never attended a Changing Lives performance, you’re missing a depth or insight to the young mind that you will not find anywhere else.

That’s because Changing Lives empowers young artists with a chance to find their voice and share it with the world. And because it’s a collaboration of many students from diverse backgrounds, there are ideas and dreams expressed that make you remember how exciting and complicated and overwhelming being a young person can be.

We talked to Nitra Gutierrez, the Changing Lives Artistic Director, as she wrapped up this season.

1. This is your fourth year working with the Changing Lives ensemble. What makes each year different?

One of my favorite things about working with Changing Lives is that there is a different mix of people every year.

This year’s group was amazing. They came together with a strong sense of a shared purpose from the very beginning of our process. Right away, I could tell that my biggest challenge of the year would be shifting a group of 16 vocal leaders into a room full of collaborators who would be able to give and take with each other. Having diverging points of view and the willingness to be open and honest about our experiences led us to create a piece that we’re all very proud of.

Ensembles grow very close over the course of the year and this group seemed cohesive from the very beginning. We were really lucky to be blessed with great students this year.

2. So much emotion goes into each performance. How do you feel at the end of a season?

My favorite part of the year is three-quarters into the year when the students have enough confidence and ownership of the work to motivate each other. They know what they need to do to get the job done and they help each other meet those goals as a team. They also are at the point when they know their roles well enough to really play on stage and enjoy themselves. That gives the show a new vitality, where kids are taking big risks onstage and owning them. I love that part.

The end of the year is great. We have celebrated each student’s accomplishments. We do fabulous reflection exercises that offer us a real sense of completion of the process.

As far as how I feel now, it’s complicated. I already miss the students that I’ve said goodbye to. We become a part of each others’ lives, it’s hard not to be a little sad. I get nervous that next year’s group will be different (even though I’m certain that they will be). In between ensembles, there is a sort of leap of faith that we’ll be able to move forward with the work and maintain the energy we’ve built up. It’s all very uncertain and dangerous and exciting.

3. What are you most proud of?

We’ve cultivated a much larger group over the last few years than when I first arrived, retaining almost 1/3 of our group from year to year. This leads directly into the creation of the play. As students become more critical of their own process and confident in their strengths, I see them creating more sophisticated work. I see them opening up and becoming more vulnerable, which is one of the hardest things about being an artist!

One component of the program I’m very proud of is the peer leadership team. This was the pilot year for us to create leadership positions among returning ensemble members. These peer leaders mentor incoming students, field questions about day-to-day operations and support each other to problem solve when issues come up. I can see this shift propelling this group into an even more student-led phase, where students with more experience lead the others in the process as equals. It’s an amazing way to extend what they learned as performers and help them become leaders.

Are you moved by the work we do with Austin young people? You can be a part of it — and every donation helps. Thank you!

ALSO – Changing Lives has its own blog! Check out their work here.

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