By Rhea Hirshman

Morganna Becker ’13 has, she says, been living the theater student’s dream.” one of this year’s group of Trinity students participating int he Trinity/La MaMa Urban Arts Semester in New York City, Becker, whose focus is acting, spent the fall term engaged in exploring and experiencing the arts, and being “encouraged by our teachers to move outside our comfort zones, to go further and dig deeper.”

“Trinity/La MaMa,” says program director Michael Burke ’00–himself a performance artist and Trinity/La MaMa (TLM) grad–“is a total arts immersion experience.”

Now celebrating its 25th year, the unique collaboration between Trinity and the world-renowned La MaMa Experimental Theater Company was established by Judy Dworin ’70, Trinity professor of theater and dance, and the late theater director Leonardo Shapiro, whose company, Shaliko, was based at La MaMa. “Leo was a director in-residence at Trinity in the early ’80s, around the same time that the College established our cross-disciplinary Theater and Dance Department,” Dworin says, “so he and I decided to bring some students to New York for a weekend to show them why cross-disciplinary connections in the arts made sense We saw students transformed by the experience–and began to think ‘What could a whole semester in New York City do?’ ”

Dworin pursued the idea and “creating Trinity/La MaMa became the natural next step,” says Ron Spencer, a former associate academic dean who worked with Dworin to establish the program. “The collaboration would expand the courses available to our theater and dance students and provide the opportunity for them to work with actors, dancers, directors, choreographers, and other sin the nation’s theater and dance capital,” he continues. “I knew that La MaMa was a remarkable place and that being able to affiliate with it would be positive for the College. I also had absolute faith that if Judy were going to undertake this project, it would be done right.”

New and original performance work

In 1986, six Trinity students become the first class of the Trinity/La MaMa program. Now nationally recognized, the program accepts both Trinity students and students from colleges and universities across the country, including Brown, Dartmouth, Denison, and Oberlin, with usually 8-12 students in each fall’s group. Students live together at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a location that offers easy access to most of the numerous internship sites and is a short walk to Central Park and Museum Mile. It’s also just a short subway ride down to the East Village and theLa MaMa E.T.C. arts complex.

That complex–which houses three theaters, a gallery space, the La MaMa Archive documenting the history of Off-Off-Broadway theater, six floors of rehearsal studios and offices, dormitories for visiting artists, set and costume storage, and La MaMa’s administrative offices–grew from a tiny basement theater established in 1961 by Ellen Stewart (the Mama in La MaMa) and nurtured by her until her death earlier this year. Stewart’s primary dedication was to new work; in its 50 years, La MaMa E.T.C. has remained fiercely committed to its mission of developing , supporting, producing, and presenting new and original performance work by artists of all nationals and cultures.

The list of actors who performed there, playwrights and choreographers who developed work there, and directors who practiced their crafts there reads like a Who’s Who of the past half century of American theater. La MaMa has been honored countless times, including receiving over 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk Awards.

The essence of La MaMa infuses TLM. “The artists change, but La MaMa and its spirit remain the same,” says Burke. “In addition to other performances, we see everything that La MaMa does, and its aestheti largely dictates the aesthetic of the program.” That aesthetic includes risk-taking, experimentation, and challenging artistic boundaries.

Hanako Justice ’10, a theater and international studies major with a particular interest in stand-up comedy and improvisation, emphasizes this point. “This is not a program where we aspire to become shining stars on Broadway,” she says. “Rather, we are thrown into a whirlpool of all genres of theater and dance, where we discuss, debate, and are provoked to understand what makes a good show, what makes good art, and are to be challenged as we make discoveries about what kind of art is our own.”

The program is rigorous–internship or apprenticeship work two days a week, acting and dance classes two mornings a week at venues around the city, afternoon seminars focusing on performance history and on learning to write about and discuss the semester’s experiences, seeing shows three or four nights a week, assigned readings to put the shows into context, and frequent field trips to museums, performance sites, artists’ studios, and other art spaces. Students keep academic and creative journals in addition to writing papers. The semester culminates with the presentation of students’ original works both at La MaMa E.T.C. and on the Trinity campus.

What makes good art?

Throughout, the conversations are constant. The age-old question of “what makes good art” is subject to debate and, as Burke says, “Sometimes seeing really awful work can be very helpful–our discussions afterwards can be quite fun.” Becker adds that “What’s flawless and what’s terrible can depend on which one of us you ask,” while Bryan Quick ’10 remembers a moment when he realized “how much a piece can move you without your even realizing it.” Referring to a New York Theater Workshop production of Michael Weller’s Beast, Quick says, “I hated it–and it was the best ting I’ve ever seen.”

Quick–who is currently working on a master’s degree in playwriting at Columbia–notes that his entire TLM experience was “…eye-opening. The diversity of the performances we attended expanded for me the possibilities of what performance can be. I went to New York interested in acting and left determined to create new work.”

Justice, meanwhile is taking a circuitous route to what she hopes will be a career in comedy and performance art; she is leaving for a year in Tanzania staring in early 2012 to be an assistant physical education teacher, intending to move afterwards to Chicago to hone her craft.

Another recent graduate, Yaseen Hadaway ’08, is pursuing a master’s of professional studies in arts and cultural management at Pratt Institute while working as a program manager, drumline director, and dance instructor for the Berean Community and Family Life Center in Brooklyn, New York. “My internship with Arthur Aviles at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance was a huge influence on why I went back to school to study arts management,” Hadaway says. “It helped me see what’s needed to build a nonprofit from nothing and develop programming that champions social justice, and it made me an even stronger advocate for arts education.”

“We are giving these young people the tools and knowledge to keep the arts alive,” says Burke. “La MaMa looks forward to having our students each year because they know we are bringing them the next generation of artists and arts advocates.”

Dworin, who continues to oversee the program on the Trinity campus, says, “Each year a small, courageous group of students takes on New York City and its art scene, and is transformed by exposure to master classes, lectures, performances, and the city itself. La MaMa, a center of innovation and experimentation, is the program’s perfect home.” Becker adds, “I feel especially privileged to be there during TLM’s 25th anniversary, and the 50th anniversary of La MaMa. From what I know now, I only wish I could have met La MaMa herself.”