Growing Up In CAT: Parent Edition

The CAT family prepares to welcome the newest member...

The CAT family prepares to welcome Laz…

When I lay down at night with my almost-6-year-old son Lazarus, I read to him, making sure to infuse each story with life. I give each character a distinct voice and add physicality to each line of dialogue. Sometimes we infer what will happen next by looking at the pictures. When bullying emerges as a theme, we identify where it is happening and what the reasons behind it might be. Sometimes we imagine the back-stories and create possible alternative endings. And yes – you’d best believe – open-ended questions are posed throughout because, more often than not, my son comes up with better answers and possibilities that neither I nor the author could have ever imagined.

I thank my parents first and foremost for planting the seeds that inspire the interactive and liberatory learning that takes place with Lazarus. My parents grew up as children of the 50s and 60s in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, where children were rarely, if ever, asked what they thought or how they felt. Neither graduated college but both organically, instinctually, and brilliantly infused participant-centered strategies and practices into my education and social-emotional development. Note to academia, you have nothing on my mom and dad.

Lazarus participated in many office meetings...

Lazarus participated in many office meetings…

While my parents laid the roots for the learning that takes place with Lazarus, my 9 years working with The CUNY Creative Arts Team has helped me to grow into the best thinker, educator, and mother that I could possibly be. In spite of my behind-the-scenes role as Director of Operations, I have had countless opportunities to experience the brilliant work that takes place both within our office and out in the field.

Getting some CAT love at the company picnic

Getting some CAT love at the company picnic

I have watched little children light up when Program Directors and Teaching Artists have brought a book to life with the aid of a simple costume or prop. I have witnessed the shyest child in a classroom replace one of the Teaching Artist at the height of a dramatic scene, and masterfully encourage the remaining Teaching Artist (in role) to make more informed and healthier decisions. I have watched Teaching Artists develop workshops in which parents are sensitively encouraged to push the theme of Bullying inwards; to identify where they may have been bullied as a child or adult, and when they may have been the aggressor in their role as parent. I have been fortunate to be exposed to the Common Core standards when they first emerged and actively engaged in workshops and activities developed by CAT Program Directors that have helped me navigate Common Core in my own child’s education. I have watched young college students in our adolescent sexual health peer education program tackle some of the hardest, most provocative and important conversations both with their peers and adults.

I have witnessed all of this and have walked away with a tool-kit – or, rather, a grab bag – of strategies, techniques, materials and resources that I weave into my parenting each day. I couldn’t figure out a way to express my gratitude to each of the talented, bright, and loving individuals I am blessed to work with at the Creative Arts Team but hopefully this writing will serve as a small token of my appreciation.

 

Rachel & Laz

Rachel Castillo
Mother of Lazarus
Director of Operations

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?

Jerron-Herman-CAP

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

From Hampshire (College) With Love

“If you don’t go to Creative Arts Team, I’ll kill you.”

That’s what my professor told me after I announced that CAT was one of the five places I would be interviewing at for my spring semester field study. Coming from one of the warmest and most nurturing people I have ever known, I knew she meant it.

Sigal-with-studentsI am currently a junior at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA  (or a Division II student in Hampshire vocabulary), studying arts integration and specializing in theatre as a teaching tool. As a young person who struggled with the traditional educational system, I found myself through the arts. I am passionate about using the arts to teach and learn, experiencing first hand how the arts can change lives.

I stumbled upon Creative Arts Team while researching field study opportunities. I knew I wanted to be in New York City and have hands-on experience working with young people doing theatre. I reached out to many organizations and, by some amazing stroke of luck, found myself at CAT.

Here at CAT I mainly work with the Adolescent Literacy Program (ALP). I work five days a week. I am either in the office assisting on projects, or in Brooklyn with Actor Teacher Katherine Chua, supporting her and the students’ work in every way I possibly can. I don’t know if I have ever worked with a group of youth as open and welcoming as the ALP students are. The idea of joining a community halfway through the year was a bit intimidating, but it was a challenge that I was obviously more than thrilled to take on.  I received a few goodbye hugs at the end of the first day, and I left knowing that all I had to do was be the best self I could be, and that would be enough. The openness displayed by the young people powerfully attests to the positivity and beautiful mentorship of the actor teachers (Kat, Andre, and Brisa).

Sigal-with-students2If I have learned one thing from my two months at CAT and working with ADL, it’s that this work is HARD. During one of my conversations with Kat she told me, “Despite the long hours I work, I have never felt so rewarded.” This work is exhausting. It’s about being on your feet for many hours and opening up your heart. It’s about the process. And it’s about allowing these young people to realize and practice all of their amazing abilities.

Ultimately the work is all about giving. And I can’t thank Creative Arts Team and the ALP team enough for giving me this incredible opportunity to join them in doing their beautiful work.

SigalSigal Kadden
Student, Hampshire College

2014 Intern, CAT
Early Learning/Adolescent Literacy 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.

InfoTech2013

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!

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

See You at the Show…

Coming from a musical theatre background, I’m quite used to what happens during production week of a show. Long days and nights at the theatre, bringing together all of the elements of the show that have been worked on in separate corners, seeing everyone in costume for the first time, and the excitement (and some nerves!) going from the dress rehearsal to the first performance. Though it’s always a jam-packed time, it’s also very exciting to see everything come together into a full-fledged production.

As the CAT Youth Theatre begins production week for IN TRUTH, the excitement is more palpable than ever, and the process is that much more exhilarating because the show is entirely original, created by the members of the company. The group – 37 young people from all over New York City – has been working together to create an original show examining a range of questions and themes about truth. IN TRUTH will begin performances on February 21st and I can’t wait to share this show with audiences.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with the CAT Youth Theatre for the past two and a half years, working alongside directors from the MA in Applied Theatre, Associate Program Director Kevin Ray, and Program Director Helen White, who founded the Youth Theatre 18 years ago. As Program Manager, I’m very proud that, 18 years later, the program is still free for the young people, and that there are no auditions – just a commitment to be an active participant of the CAT Youth Theatre community.  New members are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. The collaborative theatre process gives young people the opportunity to make new meanings from the material of their lives. Members engage in theatre games and exercises, improvisations and scene work, rehearsal, critical reflection, and group discussion. It inspires creativity, builds self-esteem and resiliency, broadens horizons, develops social awareness AND it’s free to the young people who participate. Together, the members create and present original, artistically sophisticated works on topics they consider relevant. It has been a tremendous experience for me to learn more about the world of devised theatre, see Youth Theatre members grow from year to year, and be a part of the consistent production of new work. If you’re interested in creating original theatre, or working with young people, or seeing some exciting new theatre, I’d highly recommend coming to see IN TRUTH.

 

IN TRUTH will be performed at the Baruch Performing Arts Center and the TriBeCa Performing Arts Centers. Public performances begin Friday, February 21st and run through Sunday, March 3rd.  In addition, we will present an afternoon program for school and community youth groups on Tuesday, March 4th. If you work with high school students and are interested in bringing a group to come see a show, please contact the Youth Theatre office at 212.652.2828 or Maureen.Donohue@cuny.edu. See you at the show!

Maureen DonohueMaureen-E-Donohue-(2)
Program Manager
CAT Youth Theatre

____________________________________________________________

CUNY Creative Arts Team • CAT Youth Theatre
IN TRUTH
Spring 2014 Original Production

About the show:

From childhood, we are told to tell the truth, believe certain truths, and be true to ourselves and to each other. But how do we know the truth? Whose truth dominates and how are we misled? IN TRUTH asks audiences to consider their own relationships with truth. Within our families or within our society, what are the stories we are told and those we choose to tell? Why are certain things harder for us to talk honestly about? Through a variety of lenses and themes, the CAT Youth Theatre examines these questions and more in an entertaining and provocative original production.

Performance Schedule:

Performances at Baruch Performing Arts Center:
55 Lexington Avenue at 25th Street, New York, NY 10010
    Friday, February 21st                          7:30pm
    Saturday, February 22nd                   2:30pm & 7:30pm
Sunday, February 23rd                       2:30pm

Performances at BMCC-Tribeca Performing Arts Center
199 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007
Friday, February 28th                        7:30pm
Saturday, March 1st                            2:30pm & 7:30pm
Sunday, March 2nd                             2:30pm & 7:30pm
Tuesday, March 4th                           5:00pm*
*Youth Groups Only

Tickets: $15, $10 students and seniors, group discounts available.

Contact the CAT Youth Theatre for more information at
212-652-2828 or maureen.donohue@cuny.edu

Looking Back, Looking Forward…

I recall quite distinctly when I got hooked on this thing called “Educational Theatre.”

In 1993, after a decade or so of being a stage manager, scenic artist, director and producer in Boston, I had come to New York to get a Master’s degree that would prepare me to teach high school drama — acting, set design, directing the annual musical, etc. You understand: a “traditional” theater job.

And then I took this class taught by Nancy Swortzell: “Drama in Education,” during which she led a session that left me wondering, “What on earth just happened?” and “How do I do that?

I remember it unfolding as follows:

Nancy set up the students in the class to enter into role — that is, not act, but take on the characteristics and sensibilities of highly skilled and respected artists of a large city. The time period was Egyptian-esuqe, and Nancy took on the role of the top Adviser to the city’s ruler.

As the king’s Adviser, she told us, she had been charged with bringing the finest artists of the realm to the palace. We were all now entered into a competition: create a piece of art – a blazoned shield or royal coat of arms, if you will – that celebrated the magnificence and benevolence of the king. The winners would get fabulous prizes and they and their families would live free and easy for the rest of their lives.

She then proceeded to outline in great detail the various deeds and achievements to be celebrated.

Through her words and actions, it became clear that the ruler led with an iron fist. Some of the “artists” did grumble amongst themselves about being the king’s “puppets” and having their “artistic spirit” being so constrained. But any hint of bowing out of the competition or possible resistance, including “subversive messaging” through the art work, was quickly quelled by the Adviser’s subtle, and not so subtle, threats to family and friends living outside the palace walls.

I recall working in small groups, poster board and magic markers in hand, earnestly creating these pieces of “art,” carefully crafting the message each symbol would send. As we worked, the Adviser would check in with each group, asking them to explain the reasoning and significance of their choices. As she moved amongst the artists, the Adviser offered suggestions and expressed approval or disapproval.  Finally, all the groups were asked to stand up and prepare to share the results of their work.

As we all awaited the “unveilings” and the Adviser’s decision on which pieces would be taken to the king, Nancy broke role and spoke as a narrator: “Time passed,” she said – and as she continued the narration, she walked to each piece of artwork and ripped it into small pieces.

It was a visceral shock hearing the paper tear. Seeing what I – what we had created be so heartlessly destroyed.

Nancy continued the narration, moving time forward to the present day. We were to stay in the same small groups, but now had a new role: that of esteemed archeologists who had uncovered intriguing artifacts at an ancient dig. Each group was given a collection of pieces – not our “original” artwork. Our job was to re-form the object, interpret the meaning of each symbol and make inferences as the nature of the culture that had produced it. We then presented our conclusions to our fellow archeologists.

As I sat there, listening in-role, nodding and muttering as my classmates in role, re-interpreted, or miss-interpreted, the works we, as “artists” had created, I was both amused and intrigued. Questions about history, personal legacies and the passage of time started running through my head.

As the final presentation concluded, Nancy offered the following reading to the group:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear —

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

(Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley)

There was a charged silence in the class as she finished. The words seemed to hang in the air.

We didn’t have to talk about the poem to “understand” it. Through the process of drama in education we had “lived” it, and our experience made that poem resonate for me in a way unlike any of the word-by-word dissections I had experienced in my undergraduate studies. I began to imagine what it might be like to be a teacher who could bring that kind of experience – that blending of the emotional and intellectual worlds of education and theatre – into the classroom on a daily basis.

In the two decades since my experience in Nancy’s class, I have moved from student to practitioner to program director. I’ve worked with thousands of teachers and students across the five boroughs, the country and the world exploring how the power of theatre can support social, emotional and intellectual growth.  Most recently I found myself in our nation’s capital attending the annual conference of the National Association of Education for Young Children, where our friends from  Wolf Trap (VA), were presenting the Key Note on their groundbreaking work, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Through the Arts.

While in D.C, I joined fellow educators and administrators from Brooklyn, Chatauqua, Climax, and Walton, New York to meet with members of Senator Gillibrand and Schumer’s offices in order to advocate for Strong Start for America’s Children Act. We were fortunate enough to grab a moment with Senator Schumer (coffee in hand) and talk early childhood education and bicycling in the City.

HW-with-Senator-Schumer Helen, on the far right, with Senator Schumer, center.

Afterward, walking through the Senate halls and past the extraordinary monuments throughout Washington, I had a quick flashback to “Ozymandias.”

20 years ago I was hooked by the power of educational theatre.

Clearly, I still am.

Helen WheelockHWweb
Program Director
Early Learning Program
UAEU Partnership
CUNY Creative Arts Team

A Thankful Reflection

As CUNY Creative Arts Team approaches its 40th anniversary, we have been reflecting on the diverse young people, teachers, parents, and communities CAT has impacted over the decades and the many actors, educators, and players who have made these successes possible.  We are thankful for the programs and people that have made us leaders in the field of drama-based learning.

This blog is being launched to expand the CAT conversation.  We aim to support our peers and further engage the creative and educational communities.  CAT’s artistic and administrative staff has been asked to contribute and our program participants are excited to share their experiences as well. Through many voices, we will relay stories of personal growth, interpret the artistic process, and shed light on the amazing talents of the CATeam. We hope to offer new perspectives on the theatre and educational worlds and how to bridge the gap between them.

We would like you – our colleagues, participants, supporters, and friends – to contribute your ideas and experiences as well. Sign up for the latest updates and help keep the conversation – and the drama– going.

Welcome to our blog!Lynda

Lynda Zimmerman,
Executive Director