After-School Theater Adventures

After-School Theater Adventures

When I was a student, the after-school theater program was a large part of my life. I spent many hours working on plays, musicals, and other showcases as part of my high school’s drama club. My school didn’t offer any in-school theater classes, so any involvement was extracurricular. It wasn’t always easy balancing my schoolwork demands with club responsibilities, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The drama club members were “my people,” they liked the offbeat things that I did and we had enormous amounts of fun together. I was a member of the stage crew- building and painting sets, hanging stage lights, setting up speakers and microphones, and moving set pieces during performances. The stage crew became a second family to me, a place where I felt like I could be myself. I was also good friends with many of the performers and musicians in the drama club. We were bonded by similar interests and shared experiences. A large part of who I am as a person comes from my experiences after school in my high school auditorium. The value of my after-school participation is difficult to measure, but easy for me to see.

Fast forward 10 years. I now work as a Program Manager at the CUNY Creative Arts Team (CAT), administering our “CASA” (Cultural After School Adventures) programs. Funded by the NY City Council through the Department of Cultural Affairs, CASA brings after-school arts programming to schools across the City. CAT is delivering CASA programs to 22 schools this year. It’s no easy feat working with that many schools in one program, but I find great satisfaction in making this program successful at CAT, especially from my own experiences participating in an after-school theater program.

casapic2

The work we do with our CASA students involves using theater in ways I didn’t even know were possible when I was in drama club. We work with students from 1st through 12th grades, inviting them to learn about theater, about one another, and about themselves. They learn theater games that teach them performance skills while also building a sense of community. They learn about improvisation and storytelling, and they create their own theater with their thoughts and ideas at the center. Program Director, Helen White, and Project Manager, Shamilia McBean, train and support the Actor-Teachers as they develop curriculum and work with their students. The young people have opportunities to learn, create, have fun, and express themselves in a program that is free for them and their school. Our CASA program is sometimes the only after-school program a school has, and sometimes we integrate ourselves into a school’s larger after-school structure by working with the school staff. No matter how different the needs of each school may be, we find a way to make amazing theater with their students.

casapic1

I was always drawn to the backstage roles, but I know that if I could have participated in a program like this, I would have been hooked, especially in elementary and middle school. I am motivated daily by my own memories and feelings of belonging as well as hearing from Actor-Teachers and school contacts about how much the students enjoy being a part of the CASA program. It is fulfilling to know that the work I do at CAT helps bring young people together in an after-school theater program, like the one that meant so much to me.

TessaTech

Tessa Pantuso
Program Manager
CAT CASA Programs

Showing, Telling, and Interacting: Presenting Theatre-In-Education… Theatrically

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS  Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS
Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Marrying content (the subject of inquiry) and form (the artistic discipline) remains a central value in my endeavors as a theatre/film artist, educator, and cultural worker. This value solidified for me as a graduate student in the M.A. in Applied Theatre Program at CUNY SPS, and special credit goes to my applied theatre mentors: Chris Vine and Helen White, who offered a deep and practical study of what marrying form and content may look and feel like in practice. Moreover, as I continue to move forward in my work, I often return to the following quote by theatre scholar Anthony Jackson: “theatre that aims to educate or influence can truly do so only if it values entertainment, the artistry and craftsmanship that are associated with resonant, powerful theatre, and the aesthetic qualities that – by definition – will appeal our senses”. This quote, found in Jackson’s book Theatre, Education and the Making of Meanings Art or Instrument?, reminds me to never lose sight of the theatre form when sharing and implementing the work. It reminds me that the effectiveness of any artistic experience, regardless of the end goal, is directly related to the integrity with which one approaches the artistic form. In other words, it reminds me to wholly embrace the “theatre” aspect of the term theatre-in-education.

Mfoniso Udofia

Mfoniso Udofia

This past March, my co-facilitator Mfoniso Udofia and I had the honor of representing CUNY-CAT at the AATE New York Theatre in Our Schools (TIOS) Conference 2015 hosted by New York University. We presented a session outlining the Bronx History through Theatre: Resistance and Renaissance (BHTRR) curriculum which we created under the direction and guidance of CUNY-CAT‘s Artistic & Education Director, Gwendolen Hardwick. I spearheaded the TIOS application a few months prior because I felt immensely proud of the work we did on the BHTRR curriculum; I wanted more people to experience the work. BHTRR continues to be particularly significant for me because it was built on a collective passion to creatively, and theatrically, bring local history and culture into high school classrooms. BHTRR was intended to not only support the learning goals of the 10th grade English classes we serve in the Bronx, but also to integrate content that is more reflective of the culture and history of the students we serve.

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS  Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS, Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Our session at TIOS, “Cultural Relevance in the Classroom: Integrating Local History (Social Movements and Hip Hop) through Theatre in the Bronx,” offered attendees a practical investigation of key selections of our curriculum. In attendance were students, educators, and others members of the broader theatre-in-education community. Aligned with the concept of marrying form and content, Mfoniso and I facilitated and performed samples of our curriculum, which engaged our attendees in various capacities. We asked our attendees to not only assume the roles of observers and peers, but also, at times, as student participants. We felt it was important for our attendees to have a “lived-through” experience because it would be the most effective method of clearly explaining BHTRR.

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS  Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS
Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

We closed our session with a short, insightful Q&A with our attendees. An educator from NYU seemed quite appreciative of the commitment that Mfoniso and I brought to the work as both facilitators and as performers. Another attendee, a public school teacher, shared how she was able to identify a good number of learning standards in our work and seemed quite interested in seeing history and theatre used in that fashion. Perhaps even more compelling was something that happened a few weeks later, at the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s Face to Face Conference. A graduate student stopped me in the hall, introduced himself and said he’d attended my workshop at the TIOS conference. He said: “thank you for that work. I’ve never really seen anything like that. You all were really performing.” I was very thankful for such positive feedback. Hearing his words reminded me how marrying form and content became, and continues to be, a central value to my practice; his words also reminded of the power of theatre and its ability to leave a mark on the memory of audiences and participants. As I continue to reflect and refine my practice, these reminders help support my view that the aesthetics of theatre is directly related to its effectiveness as a learning tool. I therefore continue to strive to create the kind of theatre experience that doesn’t compromise the aesthetics of the theatre discipline. I strive to make the type of theatre that is wrestled with and crafted, and I strive to do so no matter what circumstances I am working with.

Claro de los Reyes

Claro de los Reyes
Actor/Teacher
High School Program

Editor’s note: CAT heard from one of the TIOS staffers that Claro & Mfoniso’s session reminded her of how powerful and effective it is to have a team of two teaching artists in the classroom, rather than one, which has been a long-standing CAT practice. Congratulations to the team for making an impact on conference attendees and organizers alike!

Discovering My Purpose and Passion… via CAT

Before the Parent Program, LCP was in the Early Learning Through the Arts Program (1994)

LCP in the Early Learning Through the Arts Program (1994)

It was 1992 when I received the invitation from the esteemed Creative Arts Team to become a full time Actor/Teacher. Little did I know how taking on this role would change my life. Like many actor/teachers at CAT, I was a theatre artist working towards that “big break” but needed to pay rent in the meantime. CAT opened up a new world for me, by showing me how drama can be used as an educational tool to explore social issues and enhance critical thinking. I became a sponge and wanted to learn everything I could about educational theatre. My purpose and passion for learning and teaching continued to grow as I watched the power of this work manifesting in classrooms all over the city and witnessed incredible “light bulb” moments and awareness from the young people involved.

CAT's Parent Program, with Keith Johnston (Director of the now-titled College & Adult Program)  on the left

CAT’s Parent Program, 2004

I had the privilege of working in many of the programs at CAT, while spending the majority of my time as the Director of the Parent Program. What I loved about CAT is that I never felt stagnant. CAT provided an environment that continued to push me out of my comfort zone. There was always space to grow and new opportunities to grasp. In addition to starting and building the Parent Program, I, along with other colleagues, participated in the Seeds of Peace program—working with groups in conflict—and I later became the Coexistence Director. I was also honored to be a part of a delegation to South Africa, using educational theatre to deal with issues around HIV and AIDS. These are just a few highlights that only scratch the surface of the boundless opportunities that I experienced with CAT.

Article about CAT's work in South Africa; The Natal Witness, 2000

Article about CAT’s work in South Africa; The Natal Witness, 2000

In 2005, after thirteen wonderful years at CAT, I decided to spread my wings and open a new chapter in my career. I transferred my skills into the corporate arena, and I am now at the top of my game, working as a corporate trainer. I attribute so much of my success to the richness of the training and experiences I received at CAT. Those years are simply unforgettable, as it was a time of accelerated learning and growth. However, what I remember and miss the most are the people. I had the privilege to work with some of the most talented, creative and passionate people ever. I am eternally grateful to everyone at CAT who generously shared their knowledge, talents and passion with me. I would love to list everyone, but I don’t want to miss anyone.

1998 CAT Staff Photo (LCP is circled)

1998 CAT Staff Photo (LCP is circled)

Linda & Lynda

Linda & Lynda

However I must acknowledge and thank Lynda Zimmerman, aka “Mama CAT,” for giving birth to this extraordinary organization.  An organization that continues to create a nurturing environment for artists to grow and be given a platform to impact change in the lives of many. Because of your vision, and because my skills are rooted in the strong foundation of CAT, my journey continues to expand. It is through the Creative Arts Team that I have discovered my purpose and passion to teach and have an impact on the lives of others. CAT will always have an indelible space in my heart.

Happy 40th Anniversary and may you continue to spread your wings for decades to come.  The world needs you!

LCP with Carmen Kelly (Director of CAT's Special Projects)

LCP with Carmen Kelly

Linda Carole Pierce
CAT Alumna, 1992-2005

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

‘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

 

CAT & CUNY Service Corps: the Partnership Continues

Congratulations to CUNY Service Corps. This is their second year providing work opportunities and experience for CUNY students, and CAT‘s second year of participating in the CUNY Service Corps participant training week launch. Last year we presented an original three-person production on 7 campuses, using 21 actors and 5 directors to inspire students at the beginning of their Service Corps training.

Mfoniso Udofia

Mfoniso Udofia

This year, we have been contracted to write an original one-act play to celebrate and inspire the participants at the end of their training, which will be held at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at BMCC on Sept 5th; and our very own Mfoniso Udofia has been commissioned to write it.

The play, entitled Global. Service. Alliance., tells the story of an elite group of students tasked with bettering their community. This elite group overcomes personal and team-related obstacles to provide dynamic community service and remind us all that being a superhero is as simple as being truly human.

Mfoniso is a brilliant playwright and I have the honor of directing this production, so I was able to cast some brilliant actors to bring it to life: Priscilla Flores, Temesgen Tocruray, Eric Aviles, Eboni Witcher, Lynda Defuria and Anthony Roman.

"Global.Superhero.Alliance." rehearsal

Global.Superhero.Alliance. rehearsal. L-R: Priscilla Flores, Eboni Witcher, Lynda Defuria, Eric Aviles, Temesgen Tocruray

TPAC is a beautiful theatre holding nearly 1,000 people.  We will be presenting the production in the midst of the CSC culminating program, so while we are not sure of the exact time we will go on, it will definitely be between 10am and 12pm that morning.

CAT had five wonderful CUNY Service Corps students in our office last year, working on everything from marketing to adolescent literacy to HIV prevention, and we are excited to welcome this year’s group.  Congratulations to CUNY Service Corps on the completion of their successful first year and the beginning of their second! We aim to bring the CAT fire once again. Rooaarrrr!!!

Keith JohnstonKeith Johnston
Program Director
College and Adult Program