Voices of Now (VON) is a drama and writing program run by Arena Stage that devises autobiographical plays with ensembles of middle-school, high-school, and adult artists. Fast-paced, physical, and collaboratively written, the plays pose challenging social questions relevant to the artists and their communities, and investigate these questions through the artists’ personal stories.

In this interview, Winta Habtemichael, long-time school VON ensemble member, VON mentor, and now Arena Stage School Programs Fellow and VON Mead and Kilmer Middle School Ensemble co-director, offers a glimpse into her artistic and professional journey with the program. Winta shares how they discovered VON, how the program connected her to her own creative voice, and what continues to inspire her as an artist. Winta’s wise words are sure to inspire other young artists and creatives seeking to honor their true voice.

How long have you been with VON?

I started my VON journey in 2013 with the Key Middle School Ensemble. I completed two seasons there before moving to the Mentor Ensemble (the Mentor Ensemble is a select group of artists who have previously participated in the VON program and are committed to enhancing their skills as VON artists and leaders). During high school, I had to pause my participation, but from 2019–2024, I’ve been fully involved with the program! In addition to being a mentor, since 2022 I’ve had the opportunity to direct as a VON teaching artist as well!

How did you first get involved with VON?

I had a lot of fear as a sixth grader preparing to move to a new school. In the months before starting classes, I scoured the school’s website for any information that would make the change less scary. On the afterschool page, there was a section about Voices of Now and what the program was about. I watched the Key Ensemble’s play from the 2011-2012 season and knew that the first chance I got, I was going to sign up.

How has VON impacted you personally and artistically?

Voices of Now has solidified my belief in the value of everyone’s voice and perspective and has taught me what my responsibility is to teach that value to others as well. My directors at Key Ensemble were the first people to tell me I was a strong writer, after years of receiving poor marks on creative writing assignments for school. At 13 years old, that encouragement completely turned around the way that I saw myself as a student and as a creator. But learning that my voice has value was only the first step. Voices of Now has always emphasized how much we can learn from one another if we ask the right questions. More recently, what I’ve learned is how to create a space where others can tell their own stories not just without judgment, but with celebration. This lesson has applied in the way I interact with the artists I direct, but also my friends, family, and strangers.

What do you aspire to as an artist and/or mentor?

When I think about my favorite pieces of art, what makes them special to me is how they inspired me to create my own art: my favorite video game inspired me to learn to code, my favorite soundtrack to study piano, or my favorite podcast to write more. As an artist, I want to inspire others to take up their pens and react back with art of their own. As a mentor, I know I can give other artists the tools to create and find their joy in art.

One little-known fact about me:

I’m also a Color Guard instructor for a marching band! People ask me what instrument I played for the band in high school and my answer is always ‘the flag.’

One piece of advice I would give to young artists:

I used to be afraid of taking up too much space in a room. During conversations, I’d hear people speak and think, “They’re so much more interesting or funnier than I could ever be,” which is just not true. You have to remember that you always have something to add to a discussion or story. If you relate to something someone has said, tell them; if somebody tells a story that reminds you of your own, tell them your story! Your perspective has the power to change the way people think and interact, and it is your responsibility to share it!

Thousands of artists from all over the world have had their lives changed by their Voices of Now experience in the last decade alone… and you could be next! Sign up here to be notified when registration opens for the 2025 Mead Ensemble.

And save the date for the 2024 Voices of Now Festival at Arena Stage, running May 15-18, at Arena Stage.