The Unexpected Path

Yes that’s right. It’s been 10 years. I can’t even believe it. Ten years working at the CUNY/Creative Arts Team. I think six of those years as the Senior Actor-Teacher for the College and Adult Program. Who would have known? I surely didn’t. And not even during my senior year at Hunter College. See what’s funny about my story is that all of the life-changing paths I’ve come across seem to have come up unexpectedly. And then again, I also feel that these paths and turns have been divinely inspired by a much higher power than human circumstances.

P&K

Doing a scene with Keith Johnston, CAP Director

Theatre was never a field I’d ever imagined myself doing. I was actually going for Pre-Med under the Pre-Professional Programs at Hunter College. But, during my junior year at Hunter, I had to take Intro to Theatre as a pre-requisite. This wasn’t your typical Intro to Theatre class, the Professor for this course was extremely interactive and always encouraged her students to participate by reading out scenes to get a feel for how actors work; to see plays; do improvisational activities, and so on. I remember getting annoyed when she would push us to do activities that required us moving around or working with others. I was a big introvert back then, and still am a bit, in certain moments. I preferred to keep myself behind the scenes. Well, in one of those evening sessions, the professor wanted us to play with Shakespeare. I don’t remember which play we were doing, but I do remember her asking for volunteers, and once again the students were silent, either because they were scared to participate or just didn’t care. Our Professor looked rather sad and I couldn’t bear the awkwardness in the room, so I got up and did the scene with another student. After the mini-performance, I realized how much fun I actually had. And my Professor was so impressed with my work that she suggested I take a Basic Acting class, to which I responded that I was not interested in Acting. My motivational Professor insisted, saying that it would help continue to enhance my presentational skills. I took that Basic Acting class.

Ever heard someone say, “He got the Acting Bug”? Well, I thought that was fake—until I took my first class of basic

With Actor/Teacher partner, Temesgen

With Actor/Teacher partner, Temesgen

acting and noticed how my way of thinking and my expressiveness was evolving. Growing up, being in touch with your emotions was not something I learned as a sign of strength; instead, I saw it as weakness. I learned to walk around with a poker face, to hide my thoughts, and keep my guard up, in order to not get hurt. I considered this coping mechanism a sign of power. What I failed to realize was that I was actually getting sick. I was creating an unhealthy form of dealing with my family, personal, and school problems. Since I learned to keep myself guarded, closed, and emotionless, I developed an explosive personality that would burst out at the wrong time, and became voiceless when I needed my voice the most. In the end, I created a wall that seemed impenetrable. As the acting classes progressed, my wall and guard was coming down. I learned the importance of being in touch with your feelings, but also to have control of them and your body. I learned the power of taking effective risks, voicing your concerns, and being vulnerable when needed. I also listened when the theatre Professors at Hunter would tell me that I was a natural—why not pursue Theatre? I wondered if I could take such a leap from Pre-Med to Theatre. What would my grandmother say? How can I justify such a change? And then it hit me: THE ACTING BUG! That’s what I have! And not like the one you think that needs the spotlight all the time. I mean the acting bug that sees how acting—performance, theatre—can be a great tool for healing! It healed me! I’m a walking testimony to it! And so I changed my major to Theatre and Psychology (two fields I love, that happen to go hand in hand).

P-conflictBut my journey did not end there; on the contrary, my journey was just beginning. Now that I was studying Theatre, the world began opening doors and networks that helped me exceed in my craft in various ways. And one of those open doors and networks is the CUNY/Creative Arts Team. The first time I heard of CAT was straight from my undergraduate advisor’s mouth. At the time, I was unemployed, doing odd jobs here and there, but I always prayed to God that He could help me find a job that would allow me to grow, be flexible, be surrounded by other talented artists who I could work with and learn from, and help people using theatre. At first I asked my undergraduate advisor if the company did drama therapy, to which she clarified: “no, they are more like an education-based theatre company. They are hiring, I spoke with the Executive Director who is a good friend of mine. I can put the word out for you so they can schedule an interview with you.” I have to confess I was scared. There was a part of me that did not want to call CAT. But I also learned in Theatre the importance of taking risks, of taking advantage of opportunities when you see them, so I called CAT and spoke to Rachel Castillo, who was then the Operations Manager, now the Director of Operations and Administration. We spoke, had an interview a week later—which I remember being very warm and inviting with much laughter. And, to this day, Rachel is that way. Although I did not get hired for an acting role which is what I originally thought (good thing I brought my Acting resume and my Administrative Resume), I was hired as CAT’s new scheduling assistant. A position I envisioned as not only the key to helping me get into one of the programs as an Actor-Teacher, but also taught me valuable lessons and skills in the logistical and operational structures of the CUNY/Creative Arts Team. It may not have been drama therapy, but it is education, and if there is one thing I value greatly it is knowledge and knowing how to use that knowledge to help or guide others in life’s struggles.

P-handsOver the last ten years, I have worked and continue to work with this awesome company. I have grown so much and have had the pleasure to work with diverse programs (Elem/JHS-Afterschool, Special Projects, Early Learning, High School, and College & Adult Program). Each one has shaped my craft and character differently, making me a stronger and more versatile performing artist and educator. I see it every day when I’m out in the field, visiting a new site (whether school, shelter, or correctional facility), meeting a new face, working with different people… I see their engaged eyes, the connection the participants make with the characters my fellow Actor-Teachers and I portray, or the issues we’re presenting at any given moment. Each curriculum we have devised for the needs of the population… the audience gets it, they understand, they see their struggles in the lives of these characters. And then we freeze the scene at its most heightened moment to open the floor to them—allowing ideas to be shared in a safe space, where our participants can speak their minds about the issues they saw and their relation to their own world, and how we as a collective can come up with practical solutions to every day challenges. I hear the testimonies when I’m stopped by strangers who seem to know me, and feel the need to thank me because of the work I did with their group. I hear it when a student says: “I thought college wasn’t for me, until I saw what your character went through. I’m now in my second year at Hostos Community College,” or when a parent says: “Thank you, I wasn’t aware of how even my smallest actions can affect my child,” or, “I didn’t know bullying can also start at home.”

Yes, these ten years at the CUNY/Creative Arts Team have had their ups and downs, and yet contained great blessings. CAT is my second home, an unexpected home away from my immediate family. It is where I have realized the many potentials God has given me in crafting my career and affecting lives in such an impactful way. It is here where I have devised my motto in life—my purpose while I have breath on this earth—to Create, Inspire, and Motivate people through the power of Theatre!

Priscilla FloresPriscilla-Flores
Senior Actor-Teacher
College & Adult Program

Behind the Scenes

TessaTech

Tessa in the booth, 2013 CAT Youth Theatre show

I’m used to working behind the scenes. Long before I joined the Creative Arts Team (CAT), I was a member of my high school drama society’s stage crew. In the months leading up to our biannual productions I would help to build and paint the sets, hang lights, and test the sound equipment. During the productions I helped move set pieces, and then I worked as one of the Assistant Stage Managers eventually becoming the Stage Manager. In college, I focused my energy on lighting and sound. I could often be found operating a light or sound board, being the Assistant Lighting Designer, or being the Light or Sound Designer on a show. Eventually I decided to move away from technical theater and began pursuing my MA in Applied Theatre which is where I first became familiar with the Creative Arts Team.

With her supervisor, Rachel, Director of Operations & Administration

With her supervisor, Rachel, Director of Operations & Administration

Over the course of two years I became immersed in Applied Theatre and educational theater as a facilitator, actor, and scholar; which included having the opportunity to apprentice with the CAT Youth Theatre. I also had my thesis project partially advised by Helen Wheelock, Director of the Early Learning Program, because my group spent four days doing interactive, educational theatre in a 2nd grade classroom, and we felt there was no one better to help guide our project. In my second year of the MA, I began working part time at CAT as the administrative assistant for the Operations Department. Operations is pretty far away from the theatre. We live in a world of paperwork, data and scheduling. But as a lifelong backstage person, I know the immense importance and value of the behind-the-scenes work. Much of my work in Operations reminds me of my years working backstage, of being the less-visible aspect of the production, but playing a vital role nonetheless.

MA in Applied Theatre 2013 Graduation

MA in Applied Theatre 2014 Graduation

I graduated from the MA in Applied Theatre in the spring of 2014 and, in the fall, I was hired full time at CAT to continue my role in the Operations department and take on a project of my own, as Program Coordinator for the Cultural After-School Adventures (CASA). I’ve also come back to my technical theater roots working as the sound board operator for the CAT Youth Theatre’s 2014 show, In Truth, and the upcoming show, See-Saw, which starts this February.

I have found it incredibly fulfilling to support the life-changing work that CAT does every day with young people all over NYC. Ever since I was a teenager, I have wanted the theater that I make to matter, to have a positive impact on the world around me. I am proud to say that the work I do at CAT helps to facilitate theater that truly fulfills my goal of making a positive impact on the world. My time here at CAT has been, and continues to be, invaluable in all of the ways it enriches me as an Applied Theatre Artist. I have no doubt that I will continue to grow both professionally and personally at the Creative Arts Team, whether I’m working on or off “stage!”

Tessa PantusoTessa-Pantuso-s
Operations Assistant,
CASA Program Coordinator

Ready for Anything

When it comes to theatre, devising new work has always been the thing that has excited me most. Yet past attempts to create plays in professional theatre settings often ended with lackluster results. What was I doing wrong?!  It wasn’t until I became a Master’s student in the CUNY/SPS M.A. in Applied Theatre program, that I began to learn how to work from the ideas of participants – using their assets, skills, and interests to make original theatre. And now I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, because I get to do what I love, full-time, with the young people of the CAT Youth Theatre and Junior Youth Theatre.

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Last fall, Kevin Ray (my collaborator in running the Junior Youth Theatre program) and I decided that we wanted to share some of the work we do with middle-school aged students in a conference setting.  Kevin and I had been working together for some time and had been striving to think about how to make theatre activities and devising prompts accessible to this age group. Through our work we had constantly been exploring the question: how can we, as practitioners, support middle school youth in sharing their ideas, navigating group dynamics, and using theatre to say something about the world? We thought that actively examining this question in a room of professionals would generate a rich dialogue in which Kevin and I could share some of our ideas, and hear from others about what approaches they use.

Face-to-Face-2

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Kevin and I designed a workshop during which attendees could wear two hats—one as a participant, engaging in some of the practical exercises that we do with the Junior Youth Theatre; the other as a reflective practitioner, considering how our approach may—or may not—speak to some of the challenges of working with this age group.  An emphasis was placed on collectively exploring different ways that facilitators can guide youth through the creative process so that all of us could learn and grow.

Face-to-Face-1

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Our session proposal was accepted by two different conferences. First stop was the 2014 NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable Face-to-Face Conference held on the beautiful City College campus last April. The 32 NYC-based participants in our session jumped into our activities – and had a lot to say about them.  One participant expressed how she found the flow of our questioning useful in the way it gradually encouraged youth to think about the world in which we live. There was a general excitement in the room about how we, as educators, can begin to create potential opportunities for youth to delve more deeply into content.

Face-to-Face-3

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Exploring content in a meaningful way with middle-school youth is an area that I continue to circle back to in my practice—how can I really take their ideas seriously and “get underneath” them to begin to understand what they want to say? And once I do—how can this content be developed both intellectually and theatrically? Participants in the Face-to-Face session had a lot to offer on this topic. Several spoke about how we might expand images we had created in our practical session together through different approaches. Others stressed the value of metaphor as a way to get inside issues. One participant described how she uses writing prompts as a way to expand work.

In July, Kevin and I traveled to Denver, Colorado to present at the 2014 American Alliance of Theatre and Education (AATE) Conference, a much larger conference than Face-to-Face, featuring educators, professionals, and practitioners from all across the country. Our session for nearly 30 AATE participants was similar, but further developed using the discoveries made at Face-to-Face – and the post-session conversation was strikingly different. Rather than the sharp focus on developing content that occurred at the previous conference, this discussion moved quickly towards the political implications that may emerge as a result of exploring content.

AATE-session

AATE Denver 2014

Several participants in the room questioned whether the way we gave youth freedom to address real-world topics could actually create a political divide amongst them. One young woman brought up the issue of gay marriage, and how when her youth brought it up, a huge debate ensued. As a result she averted the issue and made the choice to not pursue it in the rehearsal room. She explained that she couldn’t have angry parents calling and chiding her for teaching “hot topics” to the youth. Her response was not what I had been expecting. My surprise continued when others in the room went on to express similar concerns. One young man offered that he would have opened up such a dialogue with youth, but would only include issues they face in school; another said that youth this age are only expressing what they hear at home from their parents—so we have to be really careful in dealing with what comes up.

The young people from the Junior Youth Theatre wanted to make a scene about gay marriage in a recent show. And while nearly all of our youth expressed being pro-gay marriage, when creating the scene they felt it important to include a perspective that wasn’t in favor of the issue. At CAT we encourage youth to explore different perspectives; we aim to create theatre that is not message-driven or preachy, but rather seeks to open up a dialogue about issues and the world we live in. When talking about this at AATE, a participant in the room mentioned how lucky I am to live in NYC where “everyone is so liberal”. The conversation that was taking place continued to catch me off-guard—how could one session yield such different responses?

In reflecting upon the session, I realized that while I may be able to lead similar sessions with different groups, what emerges in the room will inevitably be dissimilar. While I went in to the AATE session understanding this in theory, the reality of it emerging in practice reminds me that I always need to be “on my game” and continue to sharpen my listening skills. For not only will there be different responses from various groups, but within these responses there will almost always be difference of opinion. If I had thought more consciously about this in advance of AATE, I could have put my surprise aside, been more present and asked questions to interrogate what the participants were bringing up.

I understand it’s not a question of whether anyone is right or wrong when it comes to multiple perspectives. Rather, it’s about how I can facilitate a dialogue between participants where all of them can offer their opinion, listen to others, and think critically. In such a process, all—including myself as a facilitator—have the potential to learn and grow.

JYT

Winter 2014 Junior Youth Theatre dress Rehearsal

My experience during the conferences—and my work with the young people of the Junior Youth Theatre, who have radically different opinions—affirms that I can’t make assumptions about how this work will land or what will emerge. I have to be ready for anything. And while this thought can be kind of scary, it’s also what makes this work so exciting to me—that it is living and breathing, and thus always changing.

Joey-Schultz

Joey Schultz
Associate Program Director
CAT Youth Theatre

Follow CAT Youth Theatre on Facebook

‘Tis the Season to be… Forty!

Lynda in 1977, part of a CAT cast photo

Lynda, 1977, in a CAT cast photo

Forty years ago, I never imagined that my fledgling creative efforts would help seed an entire field, give birth to a Master’s degree program and become a leading force in the world of arts in education.

Back then, I was an NYU graduate student looking only as far ahead as the next semester. My perspective soon changed to a 5-year plan, and then a 10-year plan. It grew to a 30-year tenure at NYU, followed by our wonderful move to CUNY, where we are now celebrating our 10th Anniversary! I couldn’t envision a better “marriage” for CAT, joining forces with CUNY’s commitment to serve young people across campuses and neighborhoods throughout NYC.

CAP-team-2

CAP team L-R: Priscilla Flores, Eboni Witcher, Keith Johnston, Eric Aviles, Jerron Herman

Yes—I will take a long breath to celebrate…but also to reflect on how CAT will go forward for the ‘next’ 40 years. During this holiday season, I’m asking for your support to build a strong base – not just for now, but to fund this wonderful organization as it grows and adapts to the challenges that arise beyond my tenure.

Why is it important to have CAT around for the next 40 years?

Picture a room full of East Harlem youth from local housing projects gathered at the community center with local police representatives. Who is asked to create a workshop to break through the tension and entrenched perceptions held by all the stakeholders in the room? Our CAP (College and Adult Program) team engaged both teens and officers in thinking and interacting about the issues. Not “my” issues or “your” issues, but human issues – things that affect all the players.

CAT-treeThis is just one example of how CAT uses drama to change lives. By turning the ‘what is’ into the ‘what can be.’ By helping young people be the best they can be by tapping their potential, and developing their academic skills and resiliency to negotiate challenges in classrooms, in careers, and in life.

Building an organization like CAT is not about me. I have nurtured the CAT “tree.” But it remains vibrant and alive because of the talented and visionary people – including the students and adults we serve – who have built a collective vision for success, and continue to look forward to what else can we be doing? Our “tree” thrives thanks to public and private sector partners who so generously support CAT with donations, contracts, advice, and advocacy. I hope to count on your ongoing support as we lay the groundwork for another 40 years of extraordinary achievement.

My thanks for your ongoing support of CAT’s past, present and future!

Happy Holidays,

Lynda Lynda

Lynda Zimmermanfacebook_logoSupport CAT button
Executive Director
CUNY Creative Arts Team

Applying Applied Theatre

Doe-eyed and fresh out of college, I realized I still had quite a bit of learning to do. I wanted to find a purpose for my art-making and knew I wouldn’t be able to do that without first understanding myself in relation to the world around me.

Brisa 2I grew up twenty minutes from the Mexican border, an area in South Texas called the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). I was raised by artists – my parents ran a dance company together that specialized in Mexican folkloric dance. I helped start a theatre company at the young age of 18, a company that is still growing, eight years later. I researched and applied for the M.A. in Applied Theatre at The City University of New York because I wanted to better understand how theatrical conventions might engage communities in dialogue. I was particularly interested in implementing this concept in my home community – an area that struggles with poverty, obesity, the cartels, immigration and “machismo,” among other issues. In graduate school, I recognized for the first time in my life that my perspective was not merely valuable, but necessary.

Since joining both the MA and Creative Arts Team, I have worked with young people from elementary to college students, social workers, educators, adults with developmental disabilities, and peacebuilders. I have presented at conferences on the local, national and international level – including a recent applied theatre workshop held in Dohuk, Iraq, addressing the importance of the analysis of personal histories and experiences prior to engaging in conversation with divided societies. CAT offered me a home in which to hone the facilitation skills essential to the work of applied drama.

Brisa 1I have since applied these skills within my South Texas community. Since my time in the MA Program and CAT, the theatre community in the RGV has created an original play with music, identifying what RGV culture is, and how it is influenced by living between two countries. We have partnered with farmers, nutritionists, economists and policy-makers to create a participatory event which used theatre to engage audiences in conversations around the current health climate in the RGV, and allowed audiences to reflect on their personal relationships to food and health. And in March of 2015, my New York colleagues and I will begin a project that uses originally devised performances to partner artists with communities impacted by the influx of Latin American and Mexican people onto United States soil.

In cultivating an understanding of my unique perspective as a woman of Mexican-decent, who now also identifies as an applied theatre practitioner, I have been able to use the skills fostered by the MA in Applied Theatre and Creative Arts Team to continue working with the community I know and love.

Brisa MunozBrisaAreliMunozHeadshot
Actor/Teacher

 

My First Steps at CAT

Nothing dries out my tongue, churns my stomach and makes my palms sweat as much as the prospect of starting a new chapter in my life. Heading towards the Creative Arts Team office, I was mortified at the thought of meeting anyone there. Now, I’m not a shy person; I consider myself to be pretty outgoing actually, but there’s something about a completely new environment that kicks me out of my comfort zone. Even with Google Maps on my phone to navigate my journey, I walked past the entrance at least five times before a city worker took pity on me and directed me to the right building. I could hear my heart beat furiously in my chest as the lobby clerk took my I.D. and sent me on my way to the 6th floor. A kind face greeted me as I exited the elevators, pointing me towards the meet-and-greet; whom I later found out was Nancy Clarke, Director of Finance & Administration.

You see, I wasn’t here for an interview; I was meeting my future coworkers and supervisors for the first time as an intern. My school, Queens College, is one of eight schools currently involved in the CUNY Service Corps, a program dedicated to contributing to communities throughout New York by working with a vast number of organizations, as well as providing work opportunities for college students. I wasn’t completely sure what to expect here at CAT, even with all the training and prep in order to accomplish every task handed to me. What worried me was much more simple: What if I make a bad impression? What if they decide I’m not cut out for the job? What if I mess up? These questions and more raced through my mind as impressive introductions were made about everyone involved in CAT, from administrators to actor-teachers, and directors of entire departments. I never felt as inexperienced as I did hearing all the accomplishments and job titles of everyone around me, making me realize I was the only intern there that day. My face must have been devoid of color as my supervisor, Lexy Nistico, called my name for my introduction. As I looked out onto all my coworkers giving me curious looks and polite smiles, I swallowed my fear and made my introduction, which was followed by applause. Afterwards, many came up to me curious about my position and my fears ebbed away with every new person I talked to.

CAT All Team Breakfast - and Natalie's first day at the office!

CAT All Team Breakfast – and Natalie’s first day at the office!

Looking back on that first day, it’s silly to think I was so scared. Everyone here has been the epitome of support and kindness; working together seamlessly on projects for the betterment of kids in the NYC area. Learning more about the specific projects such as Project CHANGE, and CAT’s Youth Theatre program (which I’m proud to say I am a part of!) gives me the initiative to push forward and work hard with such great people who are doing the same. I can’t wait to see the effect of CAT’s involvement with the schools of New York will do, and how it will impact our communities, starting with our students. I intend to use this entire year of service to see it through.

Natalie BernabeNatalie
CUNY Service Corps Member
(working with
CAT Youth Theatre,
Early Learning, and
After-School Programs)

Play On

I am getting old, and my feet hurt.  This is a big problem because I like to run.  So I was very cranky the other day when I was taking off my Asics and putting on my swim cap.  As I hit the pool wall over and over again, the rhythm brought forth a sonnet I memorized as a child:

Since brass, nor stone, nor Earth, nor boundless sea
ShakespeareBut sad mortality o’ersways their power
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Oh, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty shall forbid?
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Funny that Shakespeare inserted himself to drive home the fact of disintegration I was trying to work around. Maybe it’s because I just started working for Creative Arts Team this month, and my drama neurons are being reawakened. But why do I even have that poem in my memory banks in the first place?

My mom is a Shakespeare enthusiast, a cosmopolitan culture fiend, and generally a force to be reckoned with.  She carted all five of us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a regular basis; she stuck Post-Its in French on kitchen table items (sucrier, pomme, saler); and she instituted an annual tradition of celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday.  On April 23, we would at the least memorize sonnets or soliloquies; at the most we’d produce full-on performances with one sibling playing her newest viola piece, another baking a cake, and another staging a skit using the dining room louvered doors as a “curtain” and the young ones as “actors.”  (As the smallest, I usually got to do the sound effects.)

Having art and culture at the center of my childhood gave me a broad life perspective. Making various kinds of art made me feel able to do things.  And living with art constantly proves to me the value of seemingly ephemeral things – poetry, music, drama; emotions, morals, spirit.  In the pool, my inner resources bubbled up to comfort me with beauty and resonance, and to ask: If 450-year-old Will can swim with you, is it really so tragic that you can’t run today? Are there other things you thought were not possible that in fact are?

My feet might forsake me but I still have Will – as an integral part of me.  My mother gave me a tremendous gift that feeds me no matter how much I earn, or how long my to-do list is, or what else is happening in my life.

I am thrilled to be part of a team that brings these questions and gifts to thousands of children and adults each year.  And I’m looking forward to stocking up on new resources this work will undoubtedly bring to me, too.

Chris TokarChris-Tokar
Director of
Resource Development

Editor’s note: We are very happy to welcome Chris to the team – her love for the Bard will come in handy during our annual NYC Student Shakespeare Festival!

The title of this post comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on!”