My First Steps at CAT

Nothing dries out my tongue, churns my stomach and makes my palms sweat as much as the prospect of starting a new chapter in my life. Heading towards the Creative Arts Team office, I was mortified at the thought of meeting anyone there. Now, I’m not a shy person; I consider myself to be pretty outgoing actually, but there’s something about a completely new environment that kicks me out of my comfort zone. Even with Google Maps on my phone to navigate my journey, I walked past the entrance at least five times before a city worker took pity on me and directed me to the right building. I could hear my heart beat furiously in my chest as the lobby clerk took my I.D. and sent me on my way to the 6th floor. A kind face greeted me as I exited the elevators, pointing me towards the meet-and-greet; whom I later found out was Nancy Clarke, Director of Finance & Administration.

You see, I wasn’t here for an interview; I was meeting my future coworkers and supervisors for the first time as an intern. My school, Queens College, is one of eight schools currently involved in the CUNY Service Corps, a program dedicated to contributing to communities throughout New York by working with a vast number of organizations, as well as providing work opportunities for college students. I wasn’t completely sure what to expect here at CAT, even with all the training and prep in order to accomplish every task handed to me. What worried me was much more simple: What if I make a bad impression? What if they decide I’m not cut out for the job? What if I mess up? These questions and more raced through my mind as impressive introductions were made about everyone involved in CAT, from administrators to actor-teachers, and directors of entire departments. I never felt as inexperienced as I did hearing all the accomplishments and job titles of everyone around me, making me realize I was the only intern there that day. My face must have been devoid of color as my supervisor, Lexy Nistico, called my name for my introduction. As I looked out onto all my coworkers giving me curious looks and polite smiles, I swallowed my fear and made my introduction, which was followed by applause. Afterwards, many came up to me curious about my position and my fears ebbed away with every new person I talked to.

CAT All Team Breakfast - and Natalie's first day at the office!

CAT All Team Breakfast – and Natalie’s first day at the office!

Looking back on that first day, it’s silly to think I was so scared. Everyone here has been the epitome of support and kindness; working together seamlessly on projects for the betterment of kids in the NYC area. Learning more about the specific projects such as Project CHANGE, and CAT’s Youth Theatre program (which I’m proud to say I am a part of!) gives me the initiative to push forward and work hard with such great people who are doing the same. I can’t wait to see the effect of CAT’s involvement with the schools of New York will do, and how it will impact our communities, starting with our students. I intend to use this entire year of service to see it through.

Natalie BernabeNatalie
CUNY Service Corps Member
(working with
CAT Youth Theatre,
Early Learning, and
After-School Programs)

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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

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

Growing up in CAT

I’ve suffered a great deal of trials and tribulations in my life, especially from the end of Junior High through High School. I lost my mother in 2004. Her death had a tremendous impact on me for the years to follow, even to this day. I was fortunate enough to have been told of the Creative Arts Team (CAT) Youth Theatre, a free theatre program for Junior High and High School students from all over NYC. I joined in 2006. In this program, I (and many others like me) was given the opportunity to gain experience and strengthen my acting skills in an environment of peers, who proved to be an odd, yet magnificent bunch. Life long connections have been made. Invaluable lessons have been learned. Most of all, I have gained a great sense of self, belonging, and social awareness from years of that free membership.

I dropped out of High School when I was 17, for no other reason than my own ignorance and arrogance. The amazing thing is that although I knew in the back of my head I ought to attain a higher education and I was ruining my life, the Youth Theatre and its Director were never overbearing about my life choices. It was clear that the decision was frowned upon, yet they allowed me to learn that lesson intrinsically rather than force-feed it to me, like most others would.

In The Shadows, performed in NYC and Liverpool, for the 2008 Contacting The World Festival. (Joseph is on the upper right)

In The Shadows, performed in NYC and Liverpool, for the 2008 CTW Festival.

In 2008, I was selected to be a part of an ensemble made of members of the Youth Theatre, past and present, to devise yet another original show and tour it to the United Kingdom. Barely 18, I was given the opportunity to travel outside of the country and perform in Contacting The World, an international theatre festival comprised of youth theatre companies from all around the world!! It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life and an adventure I’ll keep fresh in my memory forever. When I returned to the states I had a clear, unmovable direction: continue my education.

I enrolled in CUNY Prep to get my GED. I enjoyed all the benefits of a high school – even prom. I never considered myself to be outspoken, opinionated, charismatic, delightful or even adequate until the Youth Theatre became my extended family. At that prom, I was crowned King!

As I awaited the results of my GED scores, I faced a string of the toughest months of my life. My father grew terminally ill and passed. The Youth Theatre was there to keep me sane, grounded, active, expressive and alive as I was thrust into a position where I had to support myself. Of course I had the network of my family and friends to help me as well, but I honestly don’t think I could have survived were it not for that creative outlet.

I was accepted into Lehman College, where I took on the challenge of attaining my Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre and Education, the two influential factors in my life. All the while I was still an active member of the Youth Theatre, only consistent thing in my life. It wasn’t long before I was offered a position as the temporary Assistant Administrator of the Youth Theatre. Soon the temporary position became a permanent one, and I branched into other programs offered at CAT. Now I’m Assistant Administrator of the Youth Theatre and an Actor/Teacher for the Creative Arts Team, teaching fourth and fifth graders as well as high school students. I can honestly say that my time and commitment to the Youth Theatre has allowed me to realize the joy of education from a completely different perspective.

Although my active membership as a Youth Theatre participant expired a few years ago, I’m still very much invested in it. They say no one ever really leaves the Youth Theatre; they always stick around. It’s true. The Youth Theatre is an ever-growing, ever-pleasant community – a family.

Joseph GarelJoseph-garel
Assistant Administrator, Youth Theatre Program
Actor/Teacher
CAT Youth Theatre Alumnus