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.

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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.

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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

A Fond Farewell

CAT is certainly an innovative organization. The impact it has had on the field of education is profound. By incorporating its integration of participant-centered pedagogy while simultaneously meeting the direct needs of all the communities it serves, CAT has played a huge role in the ever changing dynamics of how education is facilitated in and out of the classroom.

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Lexy, Rachel and family at CAT’s 2014 Holiday Party

What most people don’t see is the impact that CAT has on the people that work here. People in the “outside world” don’t get to see the support CAT’s leadership provides to its employees around family and self-care. People don’t get to hear the conversations of passion, anger, exhilaration around the various social issues we are all affected by. People don’t get to see the deep emotional connection CAT staff invest when developing their workshops. People don’t get to see the comradery that develops amongst us all working at CAT, making it feel more like family than just colleagues.

DSCN5643-s6 years ago I walked through CAT’s doors as part of the first cohort of the MA in Applied Theatre. I was excited about the new opportunity to apply what I had always been practicing (theatre for social justice) but never had a name for. Several months later I was blessed with the opportunity to be hired as a part time Operations Assistant where the incomparable David Mitnowsky was my supervisor. His eccentric ways and incredible humor automatically gave me a sense of belonging; giving me the space to just be me and not feel like I had to adapt to some sort of corporate way of being. After some time, I was able to move my way up and became a Program Manager supervised by Rachel Castillo, who taught me that the idea that participant-centered pedagogy not only applied to educators, but was a crucial practice for administrators and supervisors. She inspired me on a regular basis, helping me formalize and actualize my beliefs that women can be compassionate friends, mothers, and co-workers but also be super hard core impactful supervisors.

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Lexy (left), Kat (right)

During my time as a Program Manager, I developed many deeply committed and intricate friendships; a first for me as an army brat who never had opportunities to invest in long term friendships. One of my most profound relationships developed with Katherine Chua Almirañez, who continues to see my strengths and passions and always worked towards pushing me to get out of my comfort zone. She always encourages me to achieve the things I secretly dreamt but never voiced simply out of fear of failure. From facilitating poetry workshops, to dancing on stage, to writing a play, Kat has given me opportunities to achieve what I thought was the unachievable.

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Early Learning & After School Literacy Team

I finish my tenure here at CAT as the Early Learning & After-School Projects Director, where I have been able to work closely with Helen Wheelock and Brisa Muñoz. These amazing women have been incredible cheerleaders for me during the past year and, even in the moments I was struggling the most, they were there with bright eyes and big smiles to remind me “You are amazing. You are worthy.” Their positive attitudes and way of seeing the world has continued to inspire me and adapt the way I approach being a supervisor and overall human being.

DSCN8570sWhile I name specific people above, what I have come to realize is that I have worked in some capacity with almost every single person at CAT. I can identify a specific conversation with each of them that has literally changed my life. Every person here has helped shaped my view around parenthood, race, class, education, gender, and everything else under the stars. I certainly would not be the person I am today without the contributions of every person that I have encountered while working at CAT. And while I may be moving on to other opportunities, I know that I will always be carrying CAT and the wonderful lessons I have learned here with me. Thank you CAT for everything you have provided me. I will never forget any of you.

With the deepest of love and respect,
Lexy

Lexy NisticoLexy-Nistico
Until yesterday: Projects Director,
CAT Early Learning & After School Programs
Now: Program Director, Manhattan Youth Community Center

At a company picnic with her daughter and CAT and CUNY staff

At a company picnic with her daughter and CAT and CUNY staff

Lexy and other CAT staffers have become serious runners over the past few years

Lexy and other CAT staffers have become dedicated runners over the past few years

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Halloween 2014 (Lexy is the Jack Skellington in the center)

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

How Does This Work?  (A CAP Story)

Every Friday, Eboni Witcher, Eric Aviles, Priscilla Flores, and I run around a room of high school seniors yelling “How does this work?” We’re talking about the college admissions process, but we could also be talking about the College/Adult Program’s (CAP) process of engagement and learning.

CAP facilitates several contracts: Department of Corrections/Rikers Island (Skills for Life), STAR/ESI (Science, Technology and Research Early College High School/Expanded Success Initiative) 9th and 10th grade, At Home in College (College Access/Readiness), CTEA/TAP (High School of Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture/Theater Arts Program), Homes for the Homeless (Supporting Success), Black Male Initiative (Supporting Success/Retention/Work Readiness)—which services practically every CUNY campus—and year round SVP (School Violence Prevention) Parent Workshops. What a mouthful. In each contract we are focused on the transition to and the complexity of adulthood. CAP cares about that spark, the “why”, behind higher education. We challenge other adults to critically think about their access and their spark. How does CAP work? It’s all in the drama.

CAT's CAP Team: L-R: Priscilla Flores (Senior A/T), Keith Johnston (Program Director), Jerron Herman (Administrative Assistant, A/T), Eric Aviles (A/T), Eboni Witcher (A/T)

CAT’s CAP Team: L-R: Priscilla Flores (Senior A/T), Keith Johnston (Program Director), Jerron Herman (Administrative Assistant, A/T), Eric Aviles (A/T), Eboni Witcher (A/T)

The other actor-teachers (A/T) and I search our population for lines and characterizations; they are our script. Take our contract with Rikers Island, for example: five facilities and hundreds of stories. When we first begin a residency we will portray an ex-con dealing with readjustment, but over time we’ll start to develop scenes based on what we’ve actually seen. Senior A/T Priscilla and I were facilitating a workshop at one of the juvenile detention centers and were deep in a conversation about “the Box,” a solitary confinement hold for inmate infractions. Instead of explaining the inner workings of it though, we had a few of the incarcerated students simulate “Box” life. The result was three distinct portrayals of inmate/correction officer relations. The students portrayed COs and themselves with such reality and truth. They even included a percussive beat, an understood signal, which all inmates know to mean “I’m restless.” The discussion afterward was deepened by these concrete scenarios. How does Rikers work? Co-intentionally.

Whether we service the Black Male Initiative programs throughout the CUNY campuses, or finalize a residency with STAR High School, CAP’s presence is set up to affect student and facilitator alike. When the CAP team devises a drama, we leave a bit of room for the unexpected; we learn just as much as they do. Our work is about helping to identify social and personal skills which contribute to strong academic success. Those soft skills can’t always be charted, so we prep and devise for those sparks of understanding. We know we’re effective when we ask the question—How does this work?

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Jerron Herman
Administrative Assistant
Actor-Teacher Swing
College/Adult Program

From the Front Lines of the Festival

I’ve been participating in the NYC Student Shakespeare Festival since 2004, and I look forward to this phenomenal program every year! My students feel the same way – they can’t wait until our school’s drama club is offered, so we can delve into Shakespeare’s plays and make them our own.

 

InfoTech 2014 NYCSSF Scene

Info Tech’s 2014 scene: Inner angels & demons get involved with a murderous plot, taken from a mixture of Julius Caesar, Macbeth & Othello.

Once our drama club is formed in January, we begin by engaging in theater activities – much of what I learned in the professional development days provided by CAT. Then we explore genres and themes that pique my students’ interests, ranging from murder mystery, teenage love, betrayal and parent-child relationships. My students are given opportunity to take ownership – from choosing the central question which will guide the Shakespearean piece, to adding their own interpretations of characters, to choosing costumes and stage directions. They also love having professional teaching artists from CAT come to our school and guide them in developing their theatrical skills and preparing them for the big showcase at an off-Broadway theater, the esteemed Lucille Lortel Theater.

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Info Tech’s 2013 scene: A Zombie Hamlet!

Of course, my analysis of their experience doesn’t do it justice. Here are two of my students’ reviews:

“I have loved acting ever since I was about the age of 7. Shakespeare’s stories are incredible; my favorite play was Romeo and Juliet due to the fact that I can imagine it. Acting just makes me feel free, especially if it’s from an author like Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Festival made me open my eyes more to it. I like meeting new people and learning how to get better at acting, so I joined the Festival and will join again next year.” -Gustavo

“I keep doing the Shakespeare Festival because it’s fun. It allows me to meet new people. I can go up on stage, perform what I’ve worked so hard on and be proud of it. It also boosts my confidence.” -Demetri

Heather Conn (center) at an NYCSSF professional development workshop in 2008.

Heather Conn (center) at an NYCSSF professional development workshop in 2008.

Heather Conn
Teacher
Information Technology High School
NYC Student Shakespeare Festival Participant since 2004

Note from CAT: Heather Conn is not an employee of CAT, but an annual participant in our NYC Student Shakespeare Festival – we are grateful for her (and her students’) kind words here as well as her fabulous Festival participation!

Learning with CHERISH and Breaking Down the HIV Stigma

As an Actor-Teacher with the new educational outreach program, CHERISH (Changing Habits, Environments, & Relationships in Sexual Health), I was blown away by the Greater than AIDS: EMPOWERED video with Alicia Keys. It was not only informative, but was touching and authentic. Like Alicia, I have been working with young women to explore what it means to be empowered and how we can share our own stories in order to break stigmas and inform other young women about HIV/AIDS .  I hope that more women and men watch Alicia’s significant video and use it as a resource for critical conversations about HIV.

I was educated about HIV by our health educator, Briana McGhee, yet I was still surprised by the women’s stories in the EMPOWERED video. It’s one thing to know the facts and another to actually put faces to those facts. This video allowed me to see five beautiful women with hopes and fears just like myself. The truth is that HIV has many different faces. If we break the stigmas and stereotypes by informing ourselves and the people around us, we can “fight the silence”, like the women spoke about.

We have the power to make great change in our communities, including confronting the HIV epidemic here in the U.S. This Sunday, January 19, get your friends and family together at home or online at VH1.com for a #WeAreEMPOWERED watch party, featuring Alicia Keys in conversation with five HIV positive women. Let’s break down ignorance and stigma together. Visit http://greaterthan.org/campaign/empowered/ to learn more!

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Marisa Duchowny
Actor/Teacher
Project CHANGE, CHERISH