Sarah Chalmers graduated from the CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre program in 2010. In 2012 she started her own company, Civic Ensemble, and was recently awarded the Civic Leader Fellowship from the Cornell University Public Service Center. She will teach applied theatre techniques to Cornell students and engage them in the community-based play process. Below is a reflection on her road to success:
My life since completing the MA in Applied Theatre with SPS in 2010 has been a whirlwind. I promptly left New York City for Ithaca, NY for what many might think would be a quieter life. While we certainly drive slower up here and, unlike NYC, it is against the rules of decorum to honk at someone sitting still at a green light, we do keep busy. My son was born in July of 2011 and I spent a glorious year almost exclusively hanging out with him. In June 2012, ready to scratch my applied theatre itch, a few colleagues and I started a new theatre company, Civic Ensemble. The theatre scene here is thriving and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
While Ithaca has many small community theatre companies and two well-established regional theatres, there was an opening for a new company committed to engaging communities in theatre-making as well as theatre-going. Civic Ensemble is focused on just that. In our first year, in addition to producing a reading series of new plays by women, we implemented several applied theatre programs which we put under the heading of Civic Engagement.
We were commissioned by the Sciencenter (a children’s science museum) to create an interactive theatre workshop about hydraulic fracturing for young children which included debate on both sides of this contentious issue. This workshop was conducted throughout the summer of 2013 and continues into the fall. We also conducted a free two week summer youth theatre for teens ages 13-21 to explore topics of importance to them. This project was in partnership with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and was funded by the City of Ithaca. We hope that becomes a year round program in the future. Also this summer we implemented a program at a detention center for young men in Lansing using Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to provide a structure for participants to step back and think critically about their lives and the external forces that shape their circumstances as they explore the ways that they can effect change in their lives. For this project, funded by the State of New York Office of Children and Family Services, and for the Youth Theatre, we hired my fellow MA in Applied Theatre alum Ernell McClennon (’10). It was a wonderful reunion and chance to work with someone who speaks my language completely!
The cornerstone of Civic Ensemble’s season every year is a community-based play. The play tells our collective story as devised by the participants with the guidance of Civic artists. All members of our community are welcome to participate in these plays. The topic of our first play was parenting and resulted in a production called, Parent Stories. Our topic this year is Safety: Community-Police Relations in Ithaca. This is a hot-button topic here in Ithaca, as in many communities in America. Through the sharing of personal stories and perspectives, participants can examine this challenging topic and potentially rethink entrenched positions. We will take these personal stories and craft a play that we will then rehearse and perform for the broader Ithaca community.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the response to Civic Ensemble and the work that we do with communities. When I look at what we’ve done in one year I am convinced that the applied theatre techniques we bring are needed by our communities. People are hungry for a way to connect and having the tools to facilitate that connection means I am able to create the life I want, doing work that is meaningful to me.