New Haven Students Get Unique Behind-the Scenes Look at the Arts


Simone Zamore Curbelo leads her fellows during a May seminar leading up to the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven.
By Ana Arellano
Six months ago, Milton Coburn had never been to a play. Today, the high school student from New Haven can proudly say that he has not only experienced a live performance, but interviewed several actors, cast members and a director. In a few weeks, he may even get the chance to speak with Spike Lee.
Coburn, who identifies as both Latino and African-American, is one of ten top students from local high schools who were selected to take part in the prestigious fellowship program, which is part of the  International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

The festival, which was established in 1996, has been offering the full fellowship program for the past four years.
The multifaceted fellowship program allows a diverse group of student to experience the arts while forming critical thinking skills. The program has ten participants, all of whom have demonstrated outstanding potential and economic need. About half of the students are Latino, and all members are deemed fellows, because the program considers them full members of the organization, equal to the staff leaders and the board of directors.
“Fellows are expected to become interns in future festivals, and then after interning, be eligible for the staff positions that [run] the festival,” Curbelo said, adding that these types of leadership positions are critical ones that Latino students should have greater access to.  One of the greatest benefits of the program is that all fellows are given opportunities that they may have never encountered in their own scholastic and economic environments, she said.
Learning through doing
In both a lesson on critical thinking and preparation for June’s festival, program manager Simone Zamore Curbelo took her fellows to see “Hamlet”, starring Paul Giamatti, at the Yale Repertory Theater and had them interview the director and cast members.
“They met the actors, interviewed the director, and were given a backstage tour,” Curbelo said. “They learned that the stage was not level but inclined forward for greater audience visibility, and found out how the trap and flies worked to raise and lower actors and equipment.”
During a mid-May class, in preparation of meeting Spike Lee, filmmaker and director of the Michael Jackson documentary “Bad 25”, which will be screened at the festival. The students created a brief video advocating for an arts program, examining the question “If you were given one million dolalrs to spend on the arts at your school, what would you fund?”
They began the class by studying storyboarding. Before them were individual action pictures with characters from a western. They were told to invent a sequence of related events to form a story based on the images.
Lizi Taracena-Bowen appeared confident as she contributed to the exercise. “I guess it’s because I’ve seen a lot of Westerns!” she said.
Tackling cultural assumptions
For the festival’s fellows, their art and their culture go hand in hand. During a seminar leading up to festival, they discussed profiling related to their art, something the Latino students had especially strong feelings about.
Several of the Latino fellows said they hoped to share their own cultural experiences through their work, in hopes to instill understanding across many different races and ethnicities. Their art should speak for itself, without having the association of a Spanish-sounding last name, they explained.
Curbelo took on the issue during a seminar, beginning the class a discussion of cultural assumptions. “For example, we discussed gestures,” she said.  “Something that may seem innocent in one culture may be taken in the wrong way in a different culture.”
Learning these types of lessons, she said, will leave a lasting impact on the students well beyond the thirteen weeks of immersion in the arts and critical thinking skills that she will direct.
Fellowship lessons live on
Not only will fellows gain experience in the arts, the program offers real life experience, too, Curbelo added.  By the time they are accepted to the program, fellows are likely to have gained confidence from the entire application procedure.  Getting into the program is akin to being accepted into college, she said, even though the applicants are sophomores and juniors in high school.
To apply, students must submit an essay, a resume, have one or more recommendations, have a personal interview, be sponsored by a mentor, have the support of their parents or guardians, commit to mandatory weekly classes, and have performed well in school.
Sponsors are always needed in the program, Curbelo said, and encouraged adults in the New Haven area to participate.
The festival runs from June 15 to June 29.  If you attend, you might see a youth taking careful notes or being led backstage to meet the performers. He or she may just be a program fellow, a member of a select group of students themselves hard to top for scale of talent and variety of understanding. There may be high school students looking tired from attending events non-stop, and writing about their experiences. But despite the long hours and hard work, their experiences will be wonderful preparation for becoming an impresario, and an unforgettable preparation for life.
For more information on felowship program events or becoming a mentor, visit:
For information on the program for this year’s New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas which runs from June 15 – 29th visit: