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

Beyond Entertainment…

Dianna-Garten-picI moved to New York City, a bright eyed 18 year old, entering one of NYU’s acting studios with a single intent: make it to Broadway.  Being an actress was all I had ever dreamed about or hoped for, and all I had ever thought I would be able to do.  I was bolstered by the idea that my talent had gotten me accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for acting (the crème de la crème), and convinced that, within a few short years, I would be accepting a Tony or Oscar for my breakthrough performance.

Not surprisingly, things didn’t pan out as I had always imagined.  The number of acting majors at NYU was overwhelming – a small glimpse into the professional audition scene – and the training was emotionally and spiritually brutal.  While I developed many extremely valuable professional skills (many of which I still use), I felt torn to shreds.  Surprised by my unexpected delight in academia, I decided to minor in Jewish History sophomore year.  The more “traditional” theatre work I did, the more I wanted theatre to do more than what was traditional.  A guest speaker, Danny Hoch, came to my acting studio and spoke of his work in prisons and of doing hip-hop theatre.  I felt the inkling for the first time that theatre might be able to do more.  He charged us to take our work out of just the stages of New York into the streets, schools, prisons, and even our hometowns.  As my education went on, I became increasingly eager to find a way for theatre to more than just entertain; I became fixated on political theatre from other countries and wondered at how work like this could be created for my generation.

Six months studying at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa, changed everything.  I was given a crash course in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, and performed for the first time in a play that I helped create from scratch.  During those six months, I saw what I had been longing for in New York: theatre as more than just entertainment.  With two of my classmates, I worked in a middle school for deaf students on the outskirts of the city, and saw how the students eagerly engaged with the theatre work.  I left Johannesburg certain of two things: one, I was on the right track, and two, I had so much more to learn.

After returning to New York and finishing my B.F.A. at NYU, I set out to find somewhere I could learn to do that which I’d glimpsed in South Africa.  I became familiar with the term “applied theatre,” and started to find a whole field of theatrical, community based and educational work I had never known existed.  Through a friend of a friend I stumbled on the Creative Arts Team, and the CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre program.   It seemed too good to be true, a program that was focused on academic and practical training for applied theatre right in my own back yard.

I was accepted to the MA in Applied Theatre program in 2012.  The MA program has been a phenomenal resource for me to learn the very rudimentary elements that exist across the field of applied theatre.  It has taken me from an amateur facilitator, just hoping to get it right, to a professional with intentional pedagogy and the skills to both plan and implement educational theatrical experiences.  It has widened my range of skills and challenged me to deeply consider how I approach the work and why I do it.

After just over a year in the MA program, I was hired at CAT to assist with development and reporting.  This has given me insight into the challenges of working in and maintaining this field that is so deeply fueled by passion, and yet not widely understood by funders and other artists.  The combination of my education in the MA program and working at CAT has provided me with vision and confidence to be a professional practitioner in applied theatre, and an advocate for the value of the work across many contexts.

With the support of the MA program and CAT I am more prepared than ever to embark on a career as an applied theatre practitioner.

Dianna Garten
MA in Applied Theatre, Class of 2014
CAT Development Assistant