South Dakota Up with People performance has former cast member reflecting on experience

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Posted: Wednesday, March 2, 2016 12:00 pm

In honor of their 50th Anniversary, Up with People (UWP) is performing ‘The Journey’ in Watertown March 7 and in Sioux Falls March 13. The performance acknowledges that UWP’s ‘mission is an ongoing journey, and is as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1965.’

Youth pastor Laura Cook was a member of UWP Cast A’94. From its beginnings in 1965, Laura says that UWP had grown to five casts of 120-150 students each by the time she joined the production. "My cast represented 23 nations," said Laura. "UWP was a year-long program. We were in Denver for six weeks to learn the show, and then we toured for another ten and a half months, so we were about seven months in the US and five in Europe. We performed in 90 cities in 9 countries, and stayed with host families in every city."

The stated mission of UWP is to bridge cultural barriers and create global understanding through service and a musical show. UWP "started in the 1960s with a bunch of students," said Laura. "At a time when everybody was protesting everything, some said ‘we need to say "Up with People"’ and they wrote music and started performing and traveling."

From the UWP website, ‘During UWP, our international participants travel in groups of 100+ people, referred to as "casts," to more than 20 cities on a multi-continent tour. While on tour they participate in community service projects, performing in a high-energy musical show and live with host families.

Cast members experience the sights, sounds and tastes of each community during their one or two semesters of travel with UWP. This one-of-a-kind experience changes the hearts and minds of participants, preparing them to embrace their roles and responsibilities as world citizens.’

Twice a foreign exchange student herself, Laura says that her experience "impacted my life maybe even more than being an exchange student," because as a student she was immersed in the host culture, but in UWP, "not only was I experiencing new cultures as we traveled, but I was living with 120 other like-minded people from 23 different countries, all working hard for a common goal."

The impact UWP made on Laura is evident in things she continues to be passionate about 20 years after being a member of the cast. "Since moving here, I’ve become involved in events to raise awareness of human trafficking and world hunger," said Laura. "Raising awareness about justice issues and working toward change is not a new mission for me. The majority of the songs in our show had a message, inviting people to reflect on issues like homelessness, AIDS, refugees, the environment, domestic violence, and war."

"My motivation for being in UWP was my love of cross cultural relationships and experiences as well as the goal of promoting understanding among nations. UWP has no political or religious affiliation. I didn’t necessarily agree 100% with everyone in my cast – of course I didn’t, but there were a lot of really important values and passions that we shared, and my foundation for participating was my faith. For others it was the humanitarian aspect. They didn’t necessarily believe in God, but believed in doing right for humankind.

Laura explains that the UWP show is just one aspect of the UWP’s mission. "A lot of people have the impression that Up with People is just a show, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Up with People was founded on the principle of using music as a means to communicate with and inspire people. In each city we visit, Up with People cast members perform a vibrant and inspiring musical stage show that brings the community together to enjoy a night of entertainment while sparking people to take action in meeting the needs of their communities, countries and the world. We worked together every day and performed together, and with our host families got an opportunity to break down prejudices and stereotypes." The cast put in long days and worked hard, but "nobody complained because we were all so passionate about the purpose" of UWP.

Anyone planning to attend an UWP production should expect to see an "energetic, positive, high quality entertainment production that will most definitely be inspiring." To apply to be a member of the UWP cast, visit their website https://apply.upwithpeople.org/, or travel to one of the two upcoming South Dakota productions to visit with UWP staff before and after the performance. "I’m trying to convince Karina to interview and travel with them next year," said Laura about Karina Familia Familia, the Sully Buttes foreign Exchange student from the Dominican Republic that she is hosting. "If anybody between the ages 18-26 is interested in this experience, admission is determined by an interview rather than audition. Your character is far more important to this program than your talent."

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