Words & Photography By Dustin Kagan-Fleming

“The self-building that we did was really crucial. It was something I didn’t know I needed,” said Nicola Saffren. “It was just a really diverse group of women and girls. Everyone was really different. I learned as much from the girls around me as from the mentors.”

Saffren, 21, is describing her time with Artista, an artistic mentorship program centered around performance and collaboration.

Run by Imago Theatre, Artista has been giving young women 16 to 21 a chance to work with artists from Montreal’s professional sphere for free for five years now. The program runs for 16 weeks and they meet every Monday for dinner and three-hour workshops with their mentors and invited artists.

These workshops have the participants working on everything from movement and voice, to mask work and writing. The work eventually becomes compiled into a presentation by the participants, showcasing the different elements of performing that they’ve learned to work with.

It was Imago Theatre’s Artistic Director, Micheline Chevrier, who brought the idea of the project to Joy Ross-Jones, now the program director of Artista.

“I love teaching, I love teaching theatre,” said Ross-Jones. “I had enjoyed working with groups of young women in the past and I’d actually mentioned that in my interview.”

Five years and about 50 participants later, Ross-Jones has created much more than just a training ground for young artists.

When Saffren joined, she expected technical workshops and training. What she found was a community.

She was suddenly surrounded by young women with the same artistic dreams and desires as herself, along with mentors that were living the experience of professional artists.

At that point in my life I really needed that community and all those people believing in me.

For Saffren, who is now working and studying in New York City, the pre-workshop dinners became a time to celebrate this community while simultaneously getting to know the participants she was working with.

“The community was the best part about it,” said Tiernan Cornford, who was part of Artista in its first year. “We were able to establish the connection between each other personally and figure out where we were coming from and [what we were] working on. We could easily ask certain questions and get the vibe of what it would be like to be a working artist.”

Cornford and Saffren both said this community encouraged self-esteem and taught them to make space for themselves as well as help them grow artistically. The program always put emphasis on bonding and community building which tends to make the end of session’s collaborative presentation of the program’s work much stronger.

The connections that Ross-Jones and the mentors fostered within the group nurtured a safe space for the kind of creation that the program encouraged, according to Cornford. Participants regularly produce very personal work, drawn from their own lived experiences.

But that safe space extends beyond what the women of Artista create. It provides a support system and a group of people who are ready to offer advice in trying times, something Saffren and many other young artists are more than familiar with.

When she started Artista, Saffren was fresh out of three years of theatre school and, despite her best efforts, was having trouble booking work. It’s a common difficulty in a tough business where there are plenty of artists but few jobs and even less money.

“At that point in my life I really needed that community and all those people believing in me,” said Saffren.

It was that community that eventually pushed her to take a job working as an assistant to a talented actress working on a show from out of town. Saffren would end up following that actress to New York where she now studies at a high level and continues to pursue her dream in an environment that excites her more than ever before.

Saffren was at a crossroads that so many young performers reach and where many choose to give up on their dream. She felt stuck in limbo until pushed by those around her in Artista to take a risk and jump at a new opportunity.

Ross-Jones loves seeing former members of Artista finding success and taking chances like these.

“I’m so happy to see [any] participant diving headfirst into life,” she said. “I think Artista might have given that person a platform and the confidence to raise their voice.”

The participants and mentors discuss each other’s monologue work, taking turns presenting.

The program director stressed the importance of determination and inner strength to succeed in this field and how helpful she believes it is to have strong mentors who work in the arts themselves.

Those mentor-participant relationships, as well as the connection to the program as a whole, are certainly lasting.

Saffren still speaks with and sees Felicia Shulman, one of her mentors, whenever she has the chance and credits mentors like Alex Haber and Jane Wheeler with helping her continue to grow as a writer and performer.

Cornford still looks back on weekly meetings with her mentor France Rolland outside of workshops when she was with Artista. It’s these kinds of relationships with both mentors and participants that makes Artista special.

“It’s specific moments where you feel safe and comfortable enough with these people that it opens stuff up. It’s [more free]. There was a lot of power in that,” said Cornford who is entering her final year of theatre school in the fall at Concordia.

After leaving Artista, Cornford said that realizing just how unique it was, she’s learned not to take any opportunities for granted as an artist because this one gave her something truly special.

“It gave me the safety and comfort to [know] that I can do it, and that I should do it because I really love doing it,” said Cornford.