T R I N I T Y/ L A. M A M A.
The following feature story appeared in the campus publication MOSAIC in March, 1999. Although some courses, students, and faculty members referenced in the story may have changed, it still provides a full and accurate picture of the LaMaMa program. For current course information and a faculty listing we encourage you to visit the program's homepage.
ENCOURAGING CUTTING-EDGE CREATIVITY IN AN ARTISTIC MECCA
Having the germ of an idea is only the beginning of the creative process. How that idea gets developed and translated for an audience is another matter altogether, as theater and dance major Michael C. Burke, Jr. '00 has learned. "You think to yourself that you could create strictly a dance piece, but you have to wonder, 'Couldn't it be more powerful to integrate text and music too?'"
In February, Burke directed such an experimental and integrated performance piece in Seabury 19. The performance synthesized text by Christopher M. McCulloch '98, movement, music, and slides as a visual backdrop to make a satirical statement about the mindlessness of conformity in our society. Burke says that, in directing the piece, he used techniques he learned at the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program in New York City, which encourages student artists to think beyond the bounds of any one artistic medium or discipline.
Burke is one of several current Trinity students who, after immersion into the fast-paced La MaMa experience of both scholarly research and experiential learning, have returned to Trinity to cultivate the seeds that were planted in New York. As Burke says, "When you're at La MaMa you don't have time to digest everything. You're so busy learning that you don't even have time to realize you are learning."
Offered only during the fall semester, the Trinity/La MaMa program is based in the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, a leading center for avant-garde theater and dance since the 1960s. About 15 students enroll each year, with four or five coming from Trinity and the remainder coming from colleges and universities all over the country. Residing at the 92nd Street Y and commuting by subway each weekday to La MaMa, the students take a series of courses in the subject areas of voice/speech, movement/dance, and acting from a faculty of noted artists in the avant-garde performance world. They also attend about 40 shows during the semester, with discussion periods about the shows built into the weekly schedule. Individually, the students take part in internships at local arts organizations or with individual artists to learn firsthand about the business side of the performing arts.
The fundamental purpose of the program is "to expose students to a variety of possible approaches to theater and dance and to give them a chance to see how the artistic world functions," says Director of Off-Campus Programs in Theater and Dance Damyan Popchristov. While four-week performance workshops engage students in technique, a seminar taught by Popchristov combines history, mythology, politics, religion, culture, and theory, promoting the kind of contextual, critical understanding that is crucial to a liberal arts education. The performances the students go to, notes Popchristov, are "not just entertainment, but a chance to see the reality" of current experimental performing art.
Trinity Professor of Theater and Dance Judy Dworin, a founder of both her department and the La MaMa program in the 1980s, says, "In many ways, La MaMa is the capstone of what we do in the department. In Hartford, we can only provide students with a sampling of what they are exposed to in New York. The cross-disciplinary exposure we provide to the arts is intensified and contextualized in New York." Once back in Hartford, the experience not only provides fodder for classroom discussion and senior projects, but also ultimately helps students find their artistic voice, Dworin says.
While the program offers students the opportunity to collaborate in an original production to be presented at La MaMa at the end of the semester, their participation in the final effort is not mandatory. Says Popchristov, "This program is not end-product oriented. It's about the process and the approaches." Students and faculty agree that the effects of the program are both immediate and long-term. Says Dworin, "Students come back with a much more sophisticated understanding of performance because they've seen the broadest range of possibilities. They also begin to experiment on a whole different level."
Michael Burke found that what he liked the best was both the variety of classes at La MaMa and the insider's view provided by the internship. In his internship at P.S. 122, a small performance art venue and presenter of experimental work, he worked under the tutelage of the managing director and financial controller. Initially his focus was on small administrative tasks, but he later gained more -- and more interesting -- responsibilities, including working on marketing and grant-writing efforts and selling program ads to area restaurants. The internship gave him insight into "what it takes to be an artist, what you need to do, and how you need to represent yourself." He says the performance organization is bombarded with videotapes and other pitches from artists hoping to perform there, and that seeing the selection process from the inside was enormously educational.
For Paige A. McGinley '99, who was at La MaMa in 1997, the most valuable part of the program was attending performances. McGinley, who would like to go to graduate school to study directing and playwriting, says, "We saw so many performances that we were able to develop a good critical understanding of what we were seeing. It also helped us to decide what we wanted to be doing in our own work."
McGinley, who did her internship with the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, also valued the opportunity to learn about the avant-garde art world in its capital city. In New York, legendary artists whom she had read about in her theater history courses were as much a part of the scene as were artists and performances that are "as contemporary as you can get." Moreover, McGinley says that gaining a familiarity with the New York scene and networking with the people there enabled her to perform in the city over the summer, something she wouldn't have had the confidence to do without her La MaMa experience. She says, "Before I went, it all seemed very abstract and intimidating. When you go through the program you realize you can do it, too."
-- Leslie Virostek