YoungArts winners descend on Miami with big dreams and big talent

Carl Juste / Miami Herald Staff

Adrian Grenier, a 1994 YoungArts finalist in theater, parlayed his YoungArts experience into a leading role as Vincent Chase on HBO’s buddy comedy Entourage for eight seasons. On the eve of The National YoungArts Foundation’s YoungArts Week in Miami and its series of free performances, Grenier reflects on the role YoungArts has played in his career.

“Specifically for me,” the effect of YoungArts “has been immense and profound and subtle,” says Grenier, who will be honored at this week’s YoungArts Gala. “A lot of times it’s not exactly calculable, not necessarily measurable like test scores and the like, but it’s important nonetheless.”

Grenier, also a musician who directs and produces films, gives an example of how this early support boosted his confidence and business sense.

“Thinking outside the box,” he says. “I have a couple businesses and YoungArts helped me in business as well as to problem solve when there is not an obvious solution and no one there to tell you what the answer is. You have to process to find a solution and sometimes have to think abstractedly.”

The YoungArts nod has similarly given lift to the careers of actresses Vanessa Williams, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington; Tony nominee Raúl Esparza; American Idol’s newest judge, rapper Nicki Minaj; and jazz musician Terence Blanchard.

With this year’s roster of 2013 YoungArts winners, the world might soon welcome the likes of Jessica Darrow, a musical theater finalist from Coral Reef Senior High in Palmetto Bay; or spoken theater finalist Nile Harris from Miami’s New World School of the Arts; or Miami Arts Charter School senior Lizza Rodriguez, a finalist in the writing field.

YoungArts week

These and 149 other finalists chosen from 10,000 applicants will participate in YoungArts Week at various Miami locations beginning Sunday. The 15- to 18-year-old finalists are the top tier of 685 total YoungArts winners in visual, literary and performing arts. As part of the 32nd annual YoungArts Week, the finalists will join master classes and workshops led by previous YoungArts winners such as actors Grenier and Marisa Tomei, jazz musician Bobby McFerrin and choreographer Bill T. Jones. Capping the week is an awards ceremony and performance gala honoring Fame choreographer Debbie Allen, violinist Joshua Bell and Grenier.

For arts lovers on a budget, the week promises many free events, including vocal jazz, theater and dance performances Monday through Wednesday at New World Center. The Miami Art Museum hosts visual art and photography exhibitions on Thursday. The Adrienne Arsht Center features writers’ readings on Friday along with a ticketed event, Jazz and the Philharmonic — featuring McFerrin, Chick Corea, Dave Grusin and Blanchard.

For the youngest honorees, the week promises exposure and education.

Darrow, a senior at Coral Reef who turns 18 a day after the gala, evokes Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl in her zany turn as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone, a role she played two years ago with Miami Children’s Theater.

The bright, rising talent already has her future in the arts mapped out three years before she can legally drink a toast to her success.

“My little dream, my goal, is hopefully to be cast in Saturday Night Live because I love comedy. That is my forte. From there I’d like to get recognized from SNL and have someone ask, ‘Can you sing?’ Actually, I can sing. I’ll whip it out of the back of my pocket,” she says with both longing and respect.

“So then, they will put me in some movie musical because I have the look.

“And then I can have a great dramatic part and then end my career with a great Broadway show, like the great Carol Burnett. She is my idol,” says Darrow, who lives in Cutler Bay.

Judging talent

Passion like Darrow’s is one of the hallmarks YoungArts looks at when judges make their annual selections from the applicants.

“These are the most talented young artists from around the country, and there’s a reason they’ve gone on to be the Kerry Washingtons and Viola Davises and Vanessa Williamses and Josh Grobans,” says Paul Lehr, the foundation’s executive director. “These are the next generation of great American artists.”

Supporting such talent emotionally and financially was the goal set by Ted Arison, the late founder of Carnival Cruise Line, and wife Lin, when they established the foundation in 1981. Since then, it has granted 16,000 students with more than $6 million in monetary awards and facilitated $100 million in college scholarships. Harris, 17, a member of that next generation who lives in Miami Shores, still can’t believe he has reached this position.

“I wasn’t expecting to hear back so soon,” the New World senior says. “It’s nice to be rewarded for hard work. … I’m excited to meet other young people who share the same interest as mine and the same community of artists I’ll live with and grow with through my life, and I will take in everything I can.”

Rodriguez, 17, hopes the YoungArts victory opens college admissions’ doors, especially those at Kenyon College in Ohio, her dream school.

“I can consider schools I would never have looked at if it weren’t for YoungArts giving me that push,” Rodriguez says.
Grenier, 36, offers a message to the up-and-comers: “I would say you have a friend in YoungArts. They are there to support you. That’s not to say you’re necessarily going to be able to make a healthy living at being expressive in the arts. But it’s a cultivation of creative expression that is a tool, a tool everyone should develop and use in order to express what is inside you and utilize for your everyday work.

“I think supporting the arts and cultivating it in young people is invaluable in society,” Grenier adds. “You’re creating holistic, expressive young people who, I think, will grow up to be better members of society ultimately. It’s so easy for people who are anti-arts funding to make arguments over the math of it, but the importance of the arts is more profound than meets the eye.”

Miami flash

For some YoungArts alums, reconnecting with their fan base reminds them to keep a focus on the skill set that led to their award. Last month, dancer/musician and Nickelodeon How to Rock star Max Schneider, a 2010 YoungArts alum, drew hundreds of excited kids to the new YoungArts headquarters and multi-disciplinary campus at the converted Bacardi building on Biscayne Boulevard so they could see how a YoungArts finalist rolls.

Though the new $10 million, 3.3-acre converted Bacardi property won’t be featured among this week’s public arts events, the site got an early workout when Schneider performed a flash concert on the grounds for his fans.

“I love singing and acting, love performing and making people happy. YoungArts was a huge part of making me realize that’s what this is all about. I’m coming back to perform at the gala and am so excited,” Schneider says. “Everyone at YoungArts, we reminisce with each other, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have an incredibly special week in Miami for YoungArts.”