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.

Face-to-Face-2

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

____________________________________________________________

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

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!

Marisa-Duchowny-SP-PC

Marisa Duchowny
Actor/Teacher
Project CHANGE, CHERISH

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