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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:

Sarah Chalmers is a graduate of the MA in Applied Theatre program at CUNY SPS

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.

While NYC wilted in the sticky, sweltering weeks of early July, twelve fortunate members of the SPS Master of Arts in Applied Theatre program (eight students, three faculty members, and Linda Key, a MAAT alumna who returned to Rwanda as a Fulbright Specialist) spent seventeen dry and temperate days and nights in Kigali, Rwanda. This was the fourth such annual venture, a partnership between SPS/MAAT and the Kigali Institute of Education through which K IE undergraduate drama majors receive practical training in such areas as play-building, teaching through theater, and Theater of the Oppressed, and CUNY graduate students hone their skills as teachers and facilitators and absorb the transformative culture, beauty, and contradictions that are present-day Rwanda.

Professor Helen White and students from the Kigali Institute of Education and the SPS Master of Arts in Applied Theater

Professor Helen White and students from the Kigali Institute of Education and the CUNY SPS Master of Arts in Applied Theater

In 2010 Rwanda was still digging out from under the psychic, social, and political rubble of the 1994 genocide that killed up to a million citizens and catapulted this tiny, lush, and previously obscure nation onto the world stage. With unprecedented candor, Rwandans remember the slaughter and pay tribute to the dead with local and national memorials, in village churches and roadside monuments, and at the Genocide Memorial Museum in the capital. Many of these sites include underground crypts and display skeletal remains, clothing, ID cards, rosary beads, and other personal belongings of the victims so that history cannot be denied. Pledges of “Never Again” appear on signage. Alongside remembrance and mourning, Rwandans pursue justice and reconciliation, a 21st Century economy, and universal education.

In 2010, the Rwandan Education Board added drama to the national curriculum, believing that it could be a vehicle for national dialogue. KIE, the central teacher-training institution, initiated a drama major. But Rwandan performance tradition consists mainly of music and dance. There is no national theater or body of dramatic literature, and few Rwandans were trained in acting, directing, or playwriting. The KIE curriculum was based in the theoretical study of other theater traditions, primarily European, until a fortuitous connection brought KIE and CUNY together in the summer of 2010.

Ariyan McDaniel (’14) shares some hip-hop during an afternoon of cultural exchange with KIE students.  The author, Professor Amy Green, follows along (back left).

Ariyan McDaniel (’14) shares some hip-hop during an afternoon of cultural exchange with KIE students. The author, Professor Amy Green, follows along (back left).

This summer, KIE students who were in their first year of study in 2010 are graduating. They worked consistently with MAAT founding faculty Chris Vine (Academic Program Director) and Helen White (Director of the CAT Youth Theatre) every summer and credit them with revolutionizing their ideas about the power of theater and helping them acquire the skills and confidence to create meaningful performances with and for a wide variety of school and community participants. They are the first cohort of Rwandan students to have served their teaching internships as drama specialists, and they will be the first professional drama teachers. My role this summer was to observe the program and begin to assess its impact now that the first KIE-CUNY cohort is ready to move on to professional careers.

Eva Burgess (’14) and colleagues perform a scene from "The Great Sleep."

Eva Burgess (’14) and colleagues perform a scene from “The Great Sleep.”

What I saw and heard was nothing short of remarkable. In ten intense days, the KIE-CUNY collaborators performed Forum Theater about sexual harassment in the workplace, corruption and gender discrimination in hiring, alcoholism, and domestic abuse; and the plight of orphans and stepchildren (hundreds of thousands of children lost parents in the genocide); analyzed and dramatized Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred”; created scenes with props and fabric and their bodies; and rehearsed and performed two plays for a public audience of approximately two hundred. Creating together fused the KIE and CUNY groups, enabling us to share artistic, academic, and personal stories and concerns.

Rwanda is re-creating itself. As Professor Vine said, on behalf of SPS and CUNY at our closing celebration with KIE students, faculty, and administration, “We are honored to have played a very small part in this remarkable transformation.”

Check out the Project Rwanda Blog for a daily recap and reflection.

Piper Anderson is a 2011 graduate of the CUNY SPS M.A. in Applied Theatre program. She is currently the Director of Education & Artist Development at Young Audiences New York. She is also a performance artist, writer, educator, and life coach. Below is her reflection on the question “Where are you from?” based on time spent in Rwanda working at the Kigali Institute of Education. 

The busy stretch of road from the Kigali Institute of Education to Hotel Civitas is about a 20-minute walk on a narrow sidewalk. J’nelle and I slowed our pace and fell into step together similarly feeling reflective and inspired by all that we were seeing and experiencing in our brief time in Rwanda. Sharing our growing expertise in Applied Theatre was exciting. Learning about a new country and the ways Rwandans were finding creative solutions to the call for reconciliation and healing was powerful and confirmed the deep resonate value of our work. But there was another layer to this trip that I wasn’t quite expecting: “Where are you from?”

It’s a question that I get on Brooklyn streets or the Walmart in small town USA. But when an African asks me this question while standing in a school yard surrounded by the lush hills of the Rwandan country side, I’m not quite sure where to begin. “I’m from the U.S.,” but of course that’s not useful. Africans move to the U.S. all the time seeking opportunities, an escape, a new beginning. The question is not where you ended up. No, where are you from? Where do you begin? So I began with what I knew of my history. I began with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Which for many Rwandans sounded like some legend, some Grimms tale used to trick naïve children into obedience; it couldn’t possibly be true. But I told the story again and again with the certainty that hours spent in my small public library after school reading every volume on that one bookcase devoted to African American literature. That history finally came in handy on the streets and in the schoolyards where I met people in Rwanda. But my facts seemed to leave more questions than answers and each conversation left me feeling more and more displaced.

Where do I begin? I may never know. Dr. John Henrik Clark says, “History is not everything, but it is a starting point… It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be.” So as J’nelle and I walked along that Kigali road we began to hatch a plan to explore our being, our being a part of the African Diaspora. Our thesis project took the shape of one amazingly simple, complex question: “What does it mean to be part of a Diaspora?” We returned to the states and to our final year in the M.A. in Applied Theatre program and began structuring a creative gathering for a diverse group of Black women artists to explore this question. Our exploration took the shape of a devised theatre piece called “The Offering.” In April of 2011, The Diaspora Project performed “The Offering” at The Brecht Forum in New York City.

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When we reconvened the women who participated in the project for a final reflection, there was an urgent desire to continue creating. What we had created together had become a vital means of generating radical material that challenged perceptions of Black women and revealed the complexity of our identities. We wanted to do more. We wanted to create a theatre company and so we did. On September 18, 2011 Re-writes of Passage Ensemble Theatre was born in my Harlem apartment. This is where we get to define our existence. This is the re-writing of our passage. Where we get to decide who we must BE. To learn more about our company visit www.rewritesensemble.com.

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