Performing their way out of a vicious circle

Gen Verde’s workshops show how the arts develop teens’ self-esteem 

Photo from GEN VERDE

5 min read

Imagine a group of teenagers, self-conscious, going through all the transitions and mood swings that are typical for that age. Ask them to go on stage after just a few days of preparation and dance, act, sing, play music… sounds impossible?

Not with Gen Verde, the international performing arts group made of 19 women from 14 different countries. With their “Start Now” workshop project, they have students take a lead role in their own experience — showing how the arts can be a gift to others and help overcome shyness and other obstacles.

“It’s basically three days of workshops,” explains Marie Kudo, who is originally from Canada. “Every day, we take a phrase from one of our songs to put into practice. The first day is ‘There’s a light within’, trying to encourage them to look inside and see what they have. On the second day, it’s ‘I believe in us,’ to build that spirit of teamwork.”

The members of Gen Verde also share their own firsthand experiences of how they overcame stage anxiety and increased their self-esteem.

“We try not to focus on our insecurity, but to find courage together,” says Christina Wang. “For instance, I used to do the body percussion workshop. I would try to encourage the young people in the workshops not only to focus on their own performance, but to help others.

“One participant had problems, so we asked another young person to practice with him. In essence, we gave trust to both. You encourage them to look outward.”

Another idea they share: “Thinking about the message that you are conveying to the audience — that helps you to overcome your fears.”

The group has been around now for 55 years, starting in Loppiano, Italy, when Focolare founder Chiara Lubich sent two drum sets as Christmas gifts to the young people of the international little town so that they could express the Gospel message in an artistic way, in a modern style.

It wasn’t long before both Gen Verde and Gen Rosso — the other performing arts group based in Loppiano — discovered how working together through the arts spoke especially to young people, and eventually they offered workshops to include teens and young adults in their performances.

Discovering yourself

“Art and creativity in general are a really powerful way to discover the inner beauty that each person has inside,” explains Nancy Uelmen, a composer and member of the group since the 1990s. “If you live that as a gift, then it’s even more powerful. And it’s also scientifically proven that creativity helps to harmonize your mental health.” Performing arts workshops, in her opinion, are powerful because they are a collective experience, an opportunity to be creative together.

Christina remembers one participant who used to go to a train station every day and always saw a woman traveling on the same train. “After the workshop she found the courage to go toward that woman, and offer to help her, because she was carrying heavy grocery bags. So, these workshops helped her to go outwards and become a protagonist in society.”

“It’s all about overcoming yourself,” says Colomba Bai, who witnessed another transformation of a girl who was suffering from selective mutism that hindered her to talk outside close family and friends. “She signed up for the choir workshop, and of course, at first, she didn’t sing. The change took place over days but one evening she went home and told her parents, ‘I have found my voice.’

“She felt this unconditional love among us. And seeing her at the end interacting with the other participants, all the teachers were moved to see her free from this burden.”

Society’s pressure

Colomba grew up in South Korea, a society where young people feel a lot of pressure to perform well and be perfect. “I had exactly the same experience that many teens have today when they see perfect images on social media,” she shares. “When I watched TV or bought some fashion magazines, I wanted to be exactly like them. I changed my hair color, but I could not stand it if someone else had shoes that were more modern than mine. It was a vicious circle. I felt that whatever I did, I would never be enough.”

This experience inspired her to write a song where she describes how she erased herself to be someone else yet was able through her encounter with her faith to discover her beauty. “I am beautiful because God created me like this.” It helped her to accept herself and discover her true personality.

“I completely agree,” says Marie. “Nobody is perfect. That sounds obvious, but it’s okay that we are not perfect. Accepting our imperfections is a first step to accepting other people’s imperfections. To be at peace with ourselves.”

Being accepted

The 19 women of Gen Verde are very different from one another. They notice that their diversity can also be a source of encouragement for the young people who participate in the workshops.

“They see that it’s clear that we don’t go on stage to show off,” says Nancy, “but it’s because we want to transmit a message. This makes it easier for them to go on stage with us too.”

Personally, as a teenager she loved playing and studying music, but her struggles with stage fright made her doubt that she could be a professional performer in the future.

“One thing that really helped me to overcome this was to try to live my experience of performing music as a gift for others. When I joined Gen Verde, this was even more powerful because I felt I was there to give voice to the experience we live together. The desire to express what I really believed in gave me even more courage. And I think the young people who work with us sense that.”

Christina, who was born in Malaysia, adds, “The definition of beauty today can be rather stereotypical. If you only take into account what appears in social media, then it becomes very narrow.”

The journey to self-esteem

Christina shares how she eventually found freedom through making mistakes. “Confidence and self-esteem are a lifelong journey! As a teenager, I thought, once I’m grown up, I will be confident, but now I discover that I continue making mistakes. Today however, I see them as great teachers in life. For example, I used to be terrified of playing the wrong notes, but this process of accepting my mistakes and not being afraid of doing them again has helped me transform them into opportunities to grow.”

Marie recalls how Christina once launched into the wrong song. Suddenly, the whole group realized that they had to do something.

“I felt like all 19 of us, we became one. What are we going to do now? And so, we went along and sang this song that was supposed to be later in the concert, and we adjusted the whole flow… It was such a strong experience, and I think the audience really felt this energy.”

Now the group aims to continue workshops in person as soon as the pandemic allows — and reschedule the workshops and concerts in North America that were canceled due to Covid.

“We plan to come to North America in the Fall of 2023. We’re still working on our tour schedule but we’ll let you know more about it soon!”

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.