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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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The School of Professional Studies is delighted to announce that Linda Ames Key, a graduate of the School’s M.A. in Applied Theatre program, has been named a Fulbright Specialist.

In 2011, while completing her M.A. in Applied Theatre degree at SPS, Ms. Key participated in the School’s Project Rwanda: Drama and Theatre Education for Reconciliation and Development program, teaching applied theatre techniques to drama teachers at Kigali Institute of Education, Rwanda. The twin goals of the Project are: (a) to develop the use of theatre and drama strategies as educational tools to help promote unity and reconciliation among Rwandans, and (b) to create job opportunities by building applied theatre troupes, first in schools and colleges, and later in the professional, cultural milieu.

The Fulbright award will now enable Ms. Key to continue this work with two possible return visits through 2017. “I am thrilled to be given this opportunity,” said Ms. Key. “I look forward to returning to Rwanda, continuing to professionally develop through this work, and learn from the Rwandan students. I credit CUNY SPS and my phenomenal professors in the Applied Theatre program with opening up this new and exciting career opportunity that I had never imagined.”

Ms. Key is the Education Director of Vital Theatre Company, New York City, whose teaching artists integrate theatre arts into the humanities curriculum in an effort to jumpstart academic progress. A lead partner with Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School in Canarsie, the Company also holds partnerships with Fordham High School for the Arts, Bronxdale High School, PS 6, PS 166, PS 199 and PS 452. Since its founding, Vital has presented over fifty original productions for over 160,000 children and their families.

The Fulbright Specialist Program (FSP) promotes linkages between U.S. academics and professionals and their counterparts at host institutions overseas. The program is designed to award grants to qualified U.S. faculty and professionals, in select disciplines, to engage in short-term collaborative 2 to 6 week projects at host institutions in over 100 countries worldwide. International travel costs and a stipend are funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Project activities focus on strengthening and supporting the development needs of host institutions abroad. Eligible activities include short-term lecturing, conducting seminars, teacher training, special conferences or workshops, as well as collaborating on curriculum planning, institutional and/or faculty development. U.S. faculty and professionals apply to join a Roster of Specialists for a 5-year term. Roster candidates are reviewed by peers in the same discipline, and by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FSB).