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!

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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

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

Growing Up in CAT (Kat edition)

Youth Theatre era Kat

Youth Theatre era Kat

At 35 years old I have spent half of my life as a member of the CAT family. The beginnings of which started with my combat boots roaming the halls of CAT’s NYU corridors of an office in the East Village as a CAT Youth Theatre member. Three years later I found myself no longer a minor with a curiosity about the impact of CAT’s work beyond the walls of the Youth Theatre. With the unwavering guidance and enthusiasm of Helen White & Chris Vine as directors of the CAT Youth Theatre and mentors, I have had the privilege of working with over 20,000 young people, from the Bronx to Staten Island, as a teaching artist for CAT. For 11 years my feet traveled the veins of the City to work with young people, teachers, and administrators to share my passion for using theatre as a tool for social and academic learning.

Kat as Actor/Teacher

Kat as Actor/Teacher

It has been 4 years since I have regularly turned off a 5am alarm, to spend 2 hours commuting to the beautiful faces of the young people of New

York. I miss it terribly. However, I have continued my tenure at CAT as an Associate Program Director and now as a Program Director. Although my new role doesn’t have the daily immediate satisfaction of being in a classroom, it is an opportunity for me to work with other practitioners in building and expanding this work. It has been 15 years since my membership to the Youth Theatre and I still continue to draw upon the subtle and graceful intentionality of the Helen and Chris’s choices and actions in directing the Youth Theatre. Their teaching and training of other folks enveloped my learning for nearly 2 decades. Every aspect of my experience as a CAT Youth Theatre member

Kat as Associate Program Director

Kat as Associate Program Director

prepared me for my work as a teaching artist, activist, artist, friend, and human being. There is electricity in my spine that incites me to ask questions and to think critically*.

To add to a quote that has been traveling the depths of the internet that reads, “What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who can’t afford an education?” Well, “what if theatre as a tool for learning is one of the keys to freeing that cure?”

*Critical thinking, in my case, was not a natural and instinctual action to take. I was raised to accept my circumstance, get by, and avoid eye-raising activity. Critical action is a privilege that individuals trying to survive on a daily basis do not have easy access to.

Katherine Chua Almirañez
Program Director
Adolescent Literacy Initiative

CAT, CATT, KAT, ALP, ELP, ELA & “B”-yond

Acronym is the name of this game.

CAT = Creative Arts Team
CAT was the first acronym I was introduced to as I was plunged into the world of ‘Educational Theatre’ in October 2013. I am a CUNY Service Corps member, who was placed at CAT to learn from Actor Teachers and their commitment to public service. The CUNY Service Corps is an organization dedicated to giving undergraduates an opportunity to work at sites in NYC that are positively impacting the community.

A day at CAT: Rolling like dice into a room with grown adults acting like twelve-year-olds, never knowing what to expect or what would happen next. It was a perplexing experience. Suddenly, I felt like the adult in the room, which is ironic since I am the youngest. Being the newbie, I was convinced that I was being hoodwinked. After 45 minutes of making random sounds, creating tableaux and playing name games, I finally realized I was plopped into the middle of an Actor Teacher rehearsal session.

CAT is unlike any other NYC office environment. In the midst of a bitter NYC winter, the CAT office is filled with the warmest atmosphere. Everyone is friendly, energetic, and sarcastic; most importantly everyone loves their job and is passionate about their contribution to the community.

CATT = Community Action Theatre Troupe
KAT = Katherine, Actor Teacher
CATT’s pride leader Kat, alias Katherine Chua, welcomed me into the pride lands of educational theatre at the after-school program in Brooklyn. A cat learning how to swim is analogous to my first days at CATT.  Now, you call me a “catfish” because I finally understand how tongue twisters, name games, and playing detective is related to learning and education. Tongue twisters help students with their pronunciation and enunciation skills, name games help enhance their memory and improvisation helps them think on-the-fly, which is useful when taking a multiple choice exam.

Melissa-ALPMelissa (center) with ALP students

ALP = Adolescent Literacy Program
ELP = Early Learning Program
ELA = English Language Arts
ELL = English Language Learner
“B”KY = Brooklyn YMCAIS 347/IS 349
“B”ECA = Bronx Early College Academy
Like a tidal wave the acronyms started crashing in around me; it’s a good thing cats have nine lives. Gasping for air I began to see beyond the pride lands of BKY and its twin at BECA. ALP and ELP are the larger programs at CAT focused on engaging students throughout NYC in interactive drama strategies that help ELLs enhance their ELA skills.

Most importantly, beyond the acronyms, are all of the students who are breaking out of their shells and expressing themselves through theatre techniques, and the tireless Actor Teachers, who take on the CATT challenge with alacrity.

Melissa-Rambavan

Melissa Rambaran
CAT Adolescent Literacy Program Assistant
CUNY Service Corps Member
Queens College ’14