Changing the Landscape of Theater Education: Pig Iron Theater and UArts

©Pig Iron Theatre

©Pig Iron Theatre

Breaking the fourth wall in theater education, the University of the Arts’ Ira Brind School of Theater Arts will bring avant-garde theater inside the ivory tower. Beginning this fall, the university’s faculty will work side-by-side with company members of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre to challenge and train graduate students to push traditional boundaries in performance to hone a new generation of “theatrical innovators.”

The partnership will create two new degrees at the University of the Arts: a Master of Fine Arts and a Certificate in “Pig Iron School’s Devised Performance program.” Poised to “change the landscape of theater education,” according to Broadway World, the MFA and Certificate programs will be under the direction of Pig Iron’s cofounder Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, within the UArts Ira Brind School of Theater Arts led by Joanna Settle.

“This partnership breaks down the traditional boundaries of a theater education to create a program that is adept at serving the current landscape of performance,” said Settle, director of the Ira Brind School. Students will train alongside award-winning faculty, who are artistic practitioners and educators.

Settle believes devised performance represents the future of theater. Devised theater has been gaining momentum globally. It draws “from the collective inspiration of the group, not from a script written by a singular playwright, and performances are not confined by the boundaries of the stage, but often occur in found or public spaces.”

“If you’re a theater student or professional theater practitioner, this is pretty big news,” reported PhiladelphiaMagazine. “From an artistic standpoint, the new program is a win-win: Pig Iron’s current program will be accentuated by professors and additional coursework at UArts.” As Bauriedel told Philadelphia:

“We are thrilled about this partnership because the curriculum as we’ve designed it and as we’ve taught it will remain intact. The core of the program is the same and the faculty will not change. Now, students who want to earn an MFA will spend 2 years in the studio with the certificate students, training to become theatre practitioners. MFA students will take additional courses at UArts: they’ll study visual art practice and music theory; they’ll learn an instrument and will study theatre pedagogy. MFA students will also stay for an additional semester (making the MFA a 2.5 year or 5 semester program), during which time they’ll stretch their learning toward full-length original works, site-specific pieces, [and] collaborations with visual artists, composers and choreographers. They will also have the opportunity to partner with a community organization to test the meaning of devised performance beyond the conventional spectator/performer relationship.”

Founded in 1995, Pig Iron Theatre Company has been lauded internationally. The New York Times called them “one of the few groups successfully taking theater in new directions.” In 2011, the ensemble created their diploma program, Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. The program trains artists in physical theater rooted in Lecoq pedagogy and ensemble theater practice.

Established in 1876, the University of the Arts is one of the only U.S. universities dedicated solely to educating students in the visual and performing arts, design and writing. In January 2014, noted director Joanna Settle was brought in to lead the Brind School, and the program has evolved quickly under her leadership.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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Art and Trauma: The Soldier Art Workshop

©Art Therapy Alliance

©Art Therapy Alliance

Art may not be the first therapeutic tool that comes to mind when treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it has proven to be effective and is being used in a number of places to help returning soldiers. In El Paso, a new collaborative project called the Soldier Art Workshop Program will be launched by the El Paso Art Association in March. The volunteer effort brings local artists together with area soldiers and their families and is designed to teach art to the soldiers as they “make the transition to normal military and family life after deployment.” Twelve workshops will be held at the El Paso Museum of Art and the Fort Bliss Family Center over the course of a year. They will focus on visual arts, including oil and watercolor painting, mixed-media encaustics, and digital photography.

Arts organizations participating in the Soldier Art Workshop Program include the El Paso Museum of Art, Plein Air Painters of El Paso, the Pastel Society of El Paso, and Rio Bravo Watercolorists. Military sponsorship has been provided by Ft. Bliss MWR (Morale, Welfare & Recreation), the Warrior Transition Battalion, and the Ready & Resilience Center. Among the El Paso artist volunteers are Jan Wisbrun Dreher, Krystyna Robbins, Julie Caffee-Cruz, Nina Walker, Ben Avant, Pat Olchefski-Winston, Darrell McGahhey, Jimmie Bemont, Ron Fritsch, Melinda Etzold, and Rami Scully.

These artists are in good company in using art with returning soldiers. A National Geographic cover story this month, “How Art Heals the Wounds of War” by Andrea Stone, reported on an art therapy program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which had soldiers making masks revealing an aspect of their experience. Melissa Walker, an art therapist who works with veterans at Walter Reed, said the program started in 2010 to help returning injured service men and women. “We needed to look for additional types of treatment,” Walker said. “At the time, I’m not so sure people understood the impact it would have, (but after) a very short time, it became clear [they] were taking to art therapy.”

Jackie Biggs, a 2013 masters graduate from George Washington University’s Columbian College Art Therapy Program, was given a National Endowment for the Arts grant to “integrate art therapy into treatment for active-duty military patients at Fort Belvoir,” one of the first in the country to focus on the area of art therapy for trauma victims. That treatment has now become a standard component of the hospital’s patient/soldier protocol. Biggs believes it’s been effective because “this is a group that tends to internalize their trauma; they hope it will go away if they don’t talk about it.” But swallowing trauma like that can lead to depression, abuse, or suicide, whereas art therapy can “give them a voice when words aren’t there.”

Another program that has received national recognition is Operation Oak Tree, run by the Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA) in Chicago. Operation Oak Tree utilizes art therapy and the creative arts to help military families from the time of pre-mobilization and deployment through reintegration. It gained the attention of Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden when it was part of a presentation made in June where Dr. Biden was touring to promote an initiative she’s promoting with First Lady Michelle Obama to mobilize all sectors of society to give members of the armed forces and their families opportunities and support.

The new El Paso program has the potential to serve as an affordable model in this vein because it encourages the local arts community to serve as a conduit for supporting soldiers and their families at a very difficult time.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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