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!

Ready for Anything

When it comes to theatre, devising new work has always been the thing that has excited me most. Yet past attempts to create plays in professional theatre settings often ended with lackluster results. What was I doing wrong?!  It wasn’t until I became a Master’s student in the CUNY/SPS M.A. in Applied Theatre program, that I began to learn how to work from the ideas of participants – using their assets, skills, and interests to make original theatre. And now I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, because I get to do what I love, full-time, with the young people of the CAT Youth Theatre and Junior Youth Theatre.

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Last fall, Kevin Ray (my collaborator in running the Junior Youth Theatre program) and I decided that we wanted to share some of the work we do with middle-school aged students in a conference setting.  Kevin and I had been working together for some time and had been striving to think about how to make theatre activities and devising prompts accessible to this age group. Through our work we had constantly been exploring the question: how can we, as practitioners, support middle school youth in sharing their ideas, navigating group dynamics, and using theatre to say something about the world? We thought that actively examining this question in a room of professionals would generate a rich dialogue in which Kevin and I could share some of our ideas, and hear from others about what approaches they use.

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Face to Face, NYC 2014

Kevin and I designed a workshop during which attendees could wear two hats—one as a participant, engaging in some of the practical exercises that we do with the Junior Youth Theatre; the other as a reflective practitioner, considering how our approach may—or may not—speak to some of the challenges of working with this age group.  An emphasis was placed on collectively exploring different ways that facilitators can guide youth through the creative process so that all of us could learn and grow.

Face-to-Face-1

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Our session proposal was accepted by two different conferences. First stop was the 2014 NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable Face-to-Face Conference held on the beautiful City College campus last April. The 32 NYC-based participants in our session jumped into our activities – and had a lot to say about them.  One participant expressed how she found the flow of our questioning useful in the way it gradually encouraged youth to think about the world in which we live. There was a general excitement in the room about how we, as educators, can begin to create potential opportunities for youth to delve more deeply into content.

Face-to-Face-3

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Exploring content in a meaningful way with middle-school youth is an area that I continue to circle back to in my practice—how can I really take their ideas seriously and “get underneath” them to begin to understand what they want to say? And once I do—how can this content be developed both intellectually and theatrically? Participants in the Face-to-Face session had a lot to offer on this topic. Several spoke about how we might expand images we had created in our practical session together through different approaches. Others stressed the value of metaphor as a way to get inside issues. One participant described how she uses writing prompts as a way to expand work.

In July, Kevin and I traveled to Denver, Colorado to present at the 2014 American Alliance of Theatre and Education (AATE) Conference, a much larger conference than Face-to-Face, featuring educators, professionals, and practitioners from all across the country. Our session for nearly 30 AATE participants was similar, but further developed using the discoveries made at Face-to-Face – and the post-session conversation was strikingly different. Rather than the sharp focus on developing content that occurred at the previous conference, this discussion moved quickly towards the political implications that may emerge as a result of exploring content.

AATE-session

AATE Denver 2014

Several participants in the room questioned whether the way we gave youth freedom to address real-world topics could actually create a political divide amongst them. One young woman brought up the issue of gay marriage, and how when her youth brought it up, a huge debate ensued. As a result she averted the issue and made the choice to not pursue it in the rehearsal room. She explained that she couldn’t have angry parents calling and chiding her for teaching “hot topics” to the youth. Her response was not what I had been expecting. My surprise continued when others in the room went on to express similar concerns. One young man offered that he would have opened up such a dialogue with youth, but would only include issues they face in school; another said that youth this age are only expressing what they hear at home from their parents—so we have to be really careful in dealing with what comes up.

The young people from the Junior Youth Theatre wanted to make a scene about gay marriage in a recent show. And while nearly all of our youth expressed being pro-gay marriage, when creating the scene they felt it important to include a perspective that wasn’t in favor of the issue. At CAT we encourage youth to explore different perspectives; we aim to create theatre that is not message-driven or preachy, but rather seeks to open up a dialogue about issues and the world we live in. When talking about this at AATE, a participant in the room mentioned how lucky I am to live in NYC where “everyone is so liberal”. The conversation that was taking place continued to catch me off-guard—how could one session yield such different responses?

In reflecting upon the session, I realized that while I may be able to lead similar sessions with different groups, what emerges in the room will inevitably be dissimilar. While I went in to the AATE session understanding this in theory, the reality of it emerging in practice reminds me that I always need to be “on my game” and continue to sharpen my listening skills. For not only will there be different responses from various groups, but within these responses there will almost always be difference of opinion. If I had thought more consciously about this in advance of AATE, I could have put my surprise aside, been more present and asked questions to interrogate what the participants were bringing up.

I understand it’s not a question of whether anyone is right or wrong when it comes to multiple perspectives. Rather, it’s about how I can facilitate a dialogue between participants where all of them can offer their opinion, listen to others, and think critically. In such a process, all—including myself as a facilitator—have the potential to learn and grow.

JYT

Winter 2014 Junior Youth Theatre dress Rehearsal

My experience during the conferences—and my work with the young people of the Junior Youth Theatre, who have radically different opinions—affirms that I can’t make assumptions about how this work will land or what will emerge. I have to be ready for anything. And while this thought can be kind of scary, it’s also what makes this work so exciting to me—that it is living and breathing, and thus always changing.

Joey-Schultz

Joey Schultz
Associate Program Director
CAT Youth Theatre

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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

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 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!

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

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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