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Offstage, Young Actors Guild provides youth development for Memphis students

The Young Actors Guild performs "Rolling on the River" at Club Paradise in August 2017. (Andrea Morales)

The Young Actors Guild opened its first brick-and-mortar location one year ago, but founder Chrysti Chandler is no stranger to the intersection of arts and youth development in Memphis. 

Located at 619 North Seventh, the Young Actors Guild Uptown Family Arts Resource Center works with children from ages 3 to 17 in performance skills including dance, singing and acting. 

Chandler founded the program in 1991. Classes and performances have been held all over the city — and in a Southaven, Miss. satellite location — but moving into 2,000 square feet of space in Uptown poses new opportunities. The arts organization works with 450 children per year and performances fill larger venues including the Cannon Center and the Buckman Center for Performing Arts. 

Recently, Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization, named YAG as one of nine cultural groups to participate in an 18-month capacity building initiative. The Artspace Immersion: Memphis cohort is led by Wendy Holmes and Anna Growcott of the Artspace team with local Memphis consultants Gretchen Wollert McLennon and Emily Trenholm.

For Chandler, the recent development was a "blessing" to hear.

"I am appreciative to have us selected for this innovative project," she said. "Being selected makes me look back over my 28 years of serving the youth and finally seeing the light of hope that one day I can fulfill my lifelong dream to bring children of all walks of life and communities together in one space to sing, dance, and make music together."

Chandler, who has roots in Whitehaven, has been involved in the arts since she was a child. 

“Since I was eight years old I was always a performer,” she said. “I loved to put on a show for the neighborhood. I remember one of the first plays I performed was Little Red Riding Hood.”

After graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Chandler moved back to the Memphis area. She felt a need to revive a dying curriculum in the public school system.

“When I moved back here, the community was full of gang violence and drug abuse,” Chandler said. “I saw that more and more schools were getting rid of their art programs and I felt I need to do something about it. After that, I started volunteering to teach kids in neighborhoods.”

That volunteer work grew to afterschool and summer programs and wraparound academic support. The YAG estimates that 10,000 students have benefitted from its programs.

Members of the Young Actors Guild prepare backstage at Club Paradise for an August 2017 performance. (Andrea Morales)

"We have student connect programs and also career development and job readiness programs,” Chandler said. “We also do things like ACT workshops and other test prep. We not only want to teach them skills in performing arts but life skills as well.”

Within the past year, YAG has enhanced the music program and added classes in music production, instrumentation, musicianship and a boys' music academy. 

Chandler said the new Uptown location is student-run, meaning that students are in charge of organizing events and fundraisers for the space, which is open for classes weekly on Wednesday and Saturday. Although as an organization YAG reaches the whole city, the Uptown location primarily focuses on the surrounding community. African drum shows, art galleries, and talent shows have taken place in the venue.

YAG students have performed for such figures as Maxine Waters, Oprah Winfrey, and President Bill Clinton. YAG graduates who have gained star power include Charles Streeter, Kris Thomas, and Evvie McKinney, winner of the show The Four. Students from the program have also gone on to become part of shows like the Apollo Theatre, The Voice, BET Sunday’s Best, and American Idol.

Alongside Chandler is Sabrina Norwood, a longtime friend and YAG's current executive director. Although there are additional personnel that assist with day-to-day operations of teaching classes and directing, Norwood heads the program with Chandler. Unlike Chandler, Norwood says she was not always involved in performing arts, playing sports instead in her youth. She said that meeting Chandler 14 years ago through nonprofit work was "magical".

At an August 2017 performance, graduating members of the Young Actors Guild address the audience of Club Paradise wearing their incoming college t-shirts. (Andrea Morales)

“I just believed in the vision and the mission she [Chandler] had for the youth in the community,” Norwood said. “She is someone who believes in real community work, and I share that belief. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. We both wanted to establish something that’s on the ground in the area and making a positive change.”

YAG has developed partnerships with other community organizations such as Memphis Music Initiative, Community Outreach Policing program of the Memphis Police Department and Girls Inc. This past summer, Memphis Music Initiative placed five interns within YAG classes to teach violin, vocal and piano lessons and participate in YAG summer camps. 

"The evolution of Young Actors Guild over the past several years has been one of building and redevelopment," said Norwood, adding that she believes that having a physical location in Uptown will open the door to more partnerships.

One student that was greatly impacted by YAG programs is 22-year-old LaBreshia Taylor. The Whitehaven native recalls meeting Chandler as an 8-year-old during a summer workshop. Taylor said the two have remained close ever since.

"That's like my second mom," she said. "She wanted to see you reach your potential as a performer but more importantly, she was always concerned about you and your future beyond just the arts." The current St.Jude intern credits Chandler for receiving her internship.

Taylor, who describes Chandler as a no-nonsense instructor, recalled a humorous encounter when Chandler was going on stage to deliver a speech in front of a church crowd.

"She tore my speech up," Taylor said, laughing. "I had this sheet of paper ready but she just ripped it up. I remember her telling me just to speak from my heart. I'll never forget that moment."

"She still has the ripped paper somewhere," Taylor said. "She always talks about how she's going to give it to me next time she sees me."

Chandler’s vision to heal a community falls under her belief that all children have the power to learn, are curious and creative and can achieve great success. 

“It has been amazing to see the growth over the years,” Chandler said. “To help the youth of the area through the arts has been truly gratifying.”

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