Monday, June 17, 2019

Grad School Advice: Grad students from UT Austin’s Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities MFA Program

Hello TYA USA friends,

This is Emily Freeman and Noah Martin here. We’re in our second year at the University of Texas at Austin in the Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities (DTYC) MFA program. Since collaboration and a sense of community is something that we’re always striving for, we thought that we’d write our blog entry as a conversation. It’s also how some of our best ideas have been realized!

How do you act like a kid during graduate school?

Noah: In Suzan Zeder’s class “playwriting for youth”, we do our fair share of reading and responding to work, but we also get the opportunity to move, imagine, and engage in the child space. A world that is both literal, connected to memories from our actual childhoods, and imaginary, a place to discover things anew with a childlike wonder. Suzan’s husband Jim Hancock recently came in to lead us in a workshop on these ideas that are based in the book he and Suzan co-authored, Spaces of Creation: The Creative Process of Playwriting.

I remember hearing about the workshop from my fellow grads, “It’s going to be weird, but just embrace it” they said. During the workshop, a series of physical exercises took us back to our infancy. Jim instructed us to lift portions of our body and let them flop to the floor. Then we spun ourselves dizzy and ran around the room like airplanes. All of this culminated in a visualization exercise. Suzan’s calm voice accompanied by a recording of ticking clocks took us on a trip to the past where we opened the pages of our own history books and received messages from our childhood selves. I will never forget this sunny Thursday afternoon in the movement studio where our class was encouraged to play, sweat, explore, and imagine together.
Emily: Noah, that was one of my favorite days too. We did get really sweaty. It’s a lot of work being a kid! Speaking of childlike explorations, I’m reminded of the fun we have together as a community.  The DTYC graduate students participate in Colloquium each semester, which is a designated class time to come together, play, exchange ideas, and foster our thinking and connections to the field as a whole. We’ve brought in some fabulous guest facilitators and researchers, as well as had practical workshops for our own professional development. This year the first years in the program, Meg Greene, Lindsay Hearn, Sidney Williams, Ben Hardin, and Lara Dosset, organized a life-sized Cranium board game event! We embodied the pawns and traveled through a game that invited us to dance, create clay models, and continue to get to know each other within an active and drama-based frame.  How many people get to say, “Today in graduate school, I got to be Cranium, not just play it, I got to BE it!” So yes, in essence I think we’re constantly accessing our inner child.

Noah: I got to wear my bike helmet and a football jersey, and I seem to remember beating you.

Emily: No comment.  

What practical research and artistic projects are you working on or have worked on while at UT?

Emily: Every other year, the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin puts together a student-run festival called the University Co-Op Presents Cohen New Works Festival. This experience is truly unique as the entire student and faculty community comes together to make art over a whole year. Pieces involve technology, creative site-specific art, and there was a large Theatre for Young Audiences representation. Noah and I each created pieces for youth and community audiences. Noah tell them about your play!

Noah: There is no way to really capture or describe the creative energy that pumps through the Winship Drama Building during a new works festival. The week began with an inspiring keynote by James Still. Beaming students listened intently with light bulbs strung across the ceiling overhead as Still spoke of creativity, “a visitor whom we should invite into our lives.” At one point, a noise interrupted his speech and he asked what it was, to which a student replied, “It’s art!” Following the keynote, the audience of students both grad and undergrad was let loose to experience an entire week of new plays, dance, performance, and installations. Literally every nook and cranny was taken over by the students and their creative ideas.

I attempted to spread this energy to the Austin community with a play that brought the audience along on an interactive bike ride. At each stop they witnessed a portion of a noir detective themed story line. The best part of the whole experience was riding together with 50 or so people and a boombox down crowded downtown streets. Bystanders smiled as they watched us bob our heads along with the jazzy tunes, pedaling to the next location. I was able to then rework and take this project to Portland, OR where it was shown during a bike festival to hundreds of happy pedaling audience members.

Emily: Noah you failed to mention the hills, and the fact that we scared many of those bystanders with our music and theatricality.

Noah: That’s the point!

Emily: It was the first time I was on a bike in 3 years. Yikes. Thank you for that. As well as challenging ourselves as artists in the field, we have each practiced facilitation and applied theatre with some incredible community partners. Last Spring, I worked as a Teaching Artist at Gardner Betts Juvenile Center here in Austin. Theatre Action Project (TAP) has started to develop an on-going program working with the young men and woman in rehabilitation. I worked with a group of young men 14-17 every week for the semester. Every Sunday I would bring in new drama and theatre activities which invited collaboration, communication, joy, and laughter. We would then use some of our time together to generate writing, based on prompts and ideas that would come out of our dramatic explorations or open-ended and creative writing prompts I’d brought in separately. At the same time that I was working at Gardner Betts, I was also taking Applied Theatre. This class offered me the space to research other artists’ interventions in these different spaces of incarceration and detention. We brought in guest speakers to the class, and practiced moving through facilitation techniques that individuals in the field have used in prisons, jails, rehabilitation and detention centers. Examining these theoretical frames and contexts, while discovering my own facilitation techniques, challenges, and triumphs at Gardner Betts, is the reason I came to graduate school. In other words: Living Praxis.

Noah: We should probably put that on a t-shirt.

DTYC 2nd Years: Emily Freeman, Noah Martin, Elizabeth Schildkret, Bethany Lynn Corey

What different hats do you wear in grad school?

Emily: I am a new playwright, a collaborator, facilitator, artist, teacher, student, new cat owner, friend, partner, sister, daughter, UT Shuttle catcher, happy hour seeker, and queso enthusiast. I try to find balance everyday with myself as I play all of these different roles and yet value my relationships and own personal growth! Tomorrow, I could and would be willing to try on another “hat” so to speak.

Noah: This year I am an artist, collaborator, improvisor, media guru, Austin fun advisor, student, topo chico lover, Teaching Assistant, bike specialist, teaching artist, friend, facilitator, uncle, and tall person. It seems like I wear a new hat every week. The challenging thing about our program is that it encourages you to try on a number of hats, yet asks you to push towards an area of focus. It’s easy to get caught up trying on hats and before you know it, it’s time to execute a project and write a thesis. Even just being in my second year, I feel like time goes by so fast.

Emily: Noah, we are already halfway through graduate school?!

Noah: Yikes!

Noah Martin and Emily Freeman                                                     (Grad studnets need their coffee!)


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