A year ago this May I was working at The Winsor School, an all girls middle and high school in Boston, MA. I was teaching a class called “Scripted/Unscripted,” a sort of hybrid class that was meant to be a bridge between the worlds of improvisation and Shakespearean scene study…for seventh grade students…exceptional seventh grade students. The class was meant to prepare them for the next year when they would performing in another project I was working on at the time while there. I was simultaneously acting coaching the eighth grade girls in their dueling productions of Romeo & Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. The eighth grade Shakespeare projects were a longstanding tradition at The Winsor School and I was told my work on them with the students as an acting coach was a great success. Talks were held to have me possibly stay on, teaching sixth graders, possibly directing one of the following year’s Shakespeare plays, among other duties and classes. However satisfying the work was there I felt the need to move on back to my own artistry, and working with students in higher education.
It was around this time last year that I made a choice between The Winsor School and the Contemporary Theater department at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. This would mean something of a dramatic pay cut, but seeing as schedules with both institutions conflicted, as did some of my internal desires for the evolution of my artistic career and pedagogy as an instructor, a difficult decision needed to be made. Despite being treated very well at Winsor, and really enjoying working with the student body and my colleagues, my desire to work with older students on deeper and more experimental material won the day…and the year. I made the decision to leave and try higher education for the first time in a few years.
However, first I would spend the summer of 2016 teaching an acting class and directing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Walnut Hill School for The Arts summer theatre program in Natick, MA. The Walnut Hill Summer Theater Program’s unique combination of studio classes and professionally mounted stage productions allowed students to both develop their craft and apply their skills in performance, and gave me an opportunity to slowly ease back into working with an older group of students. During the five-week boarding program for students ages 13–17, each participant took daily classes in musical theater, dance, and acting (with myself or another colleague) and were cast in a play and a musical, as well as the ensemble of a second musical production. Class sizes were intentionally small, affording students individualized attention and a supportive environment in which to develop and strengthen their work. The intensive atmosphere of this program, and the deep relationships I built with many of the students, was the perfect primer for myself walking into a more extended, and much more intense atmosphere back in the heart of Boston.
My first week at Boston Conservatory at Berklee began with service to the institution rather than immediate classroom instruction, by leading an orientation workshop in devising techniques for incoming freshmen and transfer students during the week prior to the beginning of classes. It was a great opportunity to meet my new students, as well as show them (and refresh for myself) my style of teaching in ensemble devising. Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s contemporary theater program provides rigorous ensemble-based training and a safe, experimental space that will prepare students to be bold innovators for the 21st-century stage. This acting program was focused on collaborative and interdisciplinary creation. It featured esteemed faculty members with professional experience innovating theater initiatives and performance techniques. The contemporary theater program prepares students for successful acting careers, creating and managing their own theater company, or using theater to build community, all within the artistic rigor of conservatory training, combined with the intellectual stimulation of a strong academic core, and the creative challenges of working on an Ensemble Performance Laboratory, in order to prepare students to become bold, compassionate, and highly skilled voices of 21st-century theater. The reason I chose to join this program was clear. It allowed me to use my years of training in General Theatre at Towson University, Devising at Dartington College of Arts in the UK, realistic and classical acting at Southern Methodist University, and my many years of professional work and enrichment training all in one place. The reason to work there was clear.
My primary work began shortly thereafter in two separate classes. One was the fall semester acting class. I would eventually successfully lead sophomore students through two diverse acting courses focused on the tenets of A Practical Handbook for The Actor. In the fall I used its methodology as a means to teach students how to engage scenes in texts ranging from American realism (including the works of Tennessee Williams, Annie Baker, David Mamet, and others), Anton Chekhov’s known works (classwork that prompted me to write a brief post on Medium titled “Anton Chekhov Acting Scenes”),and 20th & 21st century absurdist, grotesque, and post-modern plays (which included works by Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Maria Irene Fornes, Tom Stoppard, and Caridad Svitch). This work would further develop in the spring, but I also had other duties of service that to spread the word of this wonderful program.
It was in early October of 2016 I had received a Faculty Development Grant of $750 to stage several devised theater workshops in the Baltimore, MD region at three prominent arts high schools; Baltimore School for The Arts, George Washington Carver Center for Arts & Technology, and Patapsco High School. I was able to quickly travel down to Maryland and reach many students in order to show them the possibilities of devised theatre as a means of expression, as well as perform some recruitment for the department and the institution. This would eventually produce interest from some incredible applicants, and future interest from some underclassmen who would be rising as seniors the following year.
There was also some work with friends and colleagues. My friend Ashley Risteen asked me to coach her for auditions at some point. She was auditioning for a world premier play by Israel Horovitz at Gloucester Stage called Man in Snow. We worked diligently together on crafting her audition and she would eventually land the role. I was incredibly proud of her…and I hope she and I can eventually find time to collaborate together on a production. We’re trying…we’re trying.
During the fall I was also approached by my friend and colleague Rob Cope about whether or not I would be interested in staged reading directing project. These conversations eventually led us to work together in October at Salem Theatre Company on a staged reading of Sam Shepard’s True West that I directed and featured Rob, along with other artists Will Simmons, James Heyward, Nancy Finn, and Kate Devorak. Outside of being a successful leap into one of the seminal texts of Sam Shepard’s oeuvre, the project also inspired me to work on two of his more esoteric and experimental texts that were collaborations with Joseph Chaikin; Tongues and Savage/Love. I brought these to my department head at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and had these approved as texts I would direct the following spring during the freshman Ensemble Performance Laboratory (EPL), but I’ll come to that later as well.
During the fall 2016 semester I first successfully produced and facilitated the sophomore EPL, which was a collaboration with Jeremy Eaton and Jennifer Johnson, artists from Double Edge Theatre. The course was based in the rigorous and holistic training process devised by Double Edge and was meant to challenge students’ limits physically and imaginatively. Training was based on the expectation that all participants would meet and challenge their own limits, which were individually identified and explored. The extensive work on this project involved a great deal of studio experimentation, which I at times exclusively oversaw in coordination with the collaborating artists, as well as long-distance traveling and personally shuttling the students to both Springfield and Ashfield, MA in order to experience the Double Edge process in different contexts. In Springfield the students had the opportunity to both aid in the building and setting up of a large scale site specific touring site for the Double Edge performance of their piece, Once a Blue Moon. In Ashfield the students had the opportunity to have on-site, fully contextualized training and conversations with the Double Edge ensemble. It was during one of these conversations that I remember company member, and Co-Artistic Director, Carlos Uriona, stating that one of the main goals of their training was to get their actors to one specific point in their process and performance work, and that was a moment when composition, innovation, research, process, and performance all synced up and moved an actor “toward something truly experiential.” At the end of the semester, the students had that opportunity to “move toward the experiential” when they created original material individually as well as in a deep ensemble context. This work would eventually culminate in an exhibition of their work in process titled Masquerade, performed in December 2016. Each student identified a strong foundation of individual work that could be developed in the future. This work helped the students to another epoch in their training, and also spurred me to write. I approached HowlRound, an online theatre magazine, and they agreed to publish a blog article I wrote titled “Mutual Duality: Making the Work Matter with Double Edge Theatre at Boston Conservatory at Berklee” about the process, and during this time I also took thousands of photos documenting the process and experimentation, which would prove to be valuable visuals for the HowlRound piece, as well as other work.
It was around the time of the Masquerade exhibition that I was asked by the previous program director, Wanda Strukus, to take on the daunting challenge of becoming a member of the Contemporary Theater leadership team as it began its transition into a new era. Wanda left to take on a position as program director for the Boston Center for the Arts and I, and my colleagues David Gammons, Theresa Lang, and Sara Stackhouse oversaw various aspects of the Contemporary Theater department. During this time we as a team saw, and overcame, a great many challenges as we met on a regular weekly basis, and in one significant retreat, to discuss logistical issues, the philosophical future of the department, curriculum needs, and the possibilities to make it a richer and deeper program. Among the many duties I undertook to aid this all in happening was in recruitment and building the new incoming freshman class, but first, my personal artistry needed to be given room to develop as well…and debated within myself.
During the winter break I auditioned for a production that greatly interested me intellectually, and cut right into the heart of my passion for theatre history study. Commonwealth Shakespeare Company auditioned me for a world premiere production of Our American Hamlet, a play about the life of Edwin Booth and his family. I was eventually offered the prominent role of his friend, and sometime lover, Adam Badeau. As thrilled as I was the rehearsal schedule conflicted with my newly offered role at Boston Conservatory at Berklee and I would have to, much to my personal chagrin, turn down the role. This was heartbreaking, but such decisions are part and parcel in the life of an artist/educator…especially an artist who needs a day job in the arts to survive. However, another role very quickly presented itself at Hub Theatre Company of Boston as John Brennan in a production of Coyote on A Fence by Bruce Graham. I worked with an incredible group of people on this critically acclaimed production that rehearsed throughout March, and performed in March into April, and I felt like I went on to do some of the best acting work of my entire career. As the old adage goes, when it rains it pours, and what else poured in to my life at the same as all of this was yet another offer to teach on Saturday mornings during another series of teaching workshops at Walnut Hill School for The Arts during spring 2017. I decided to accept to offer…because, hey, three jobs at once is just how I roll…especially if they involve driving great distances across an entire metropolitan area, and to other states.
Along with the previously mentioned outreach I had done in the Baltimore region, I also attended and administered the auditions in both Chicago and Boston along with my colleagues. During the workshops, auditions, and subsequent months I was able to help successfully bring in the largest freshman class in the history of the Contemporary Theater department with a diverse, healthy, and robust cohort of 14. I was able to to do this by personally interviewing candidates, forming personal relationships with many of them in many phone conversations, coffee dates, and Skype chats. As it stands now, I have personally auditioned every single one of our incoming freshman students, and made additional personal recruitment efforts with many of them. All in all I believe my efforts, even with those students who chose for various reasons not to attend, have increased the reputation of the Contemporary Theater department at Boston Conservatory at Berklee in terms of quality of its artistry and the welcoming nature of its community.
However, the greatest contribution one could make to recruitment is in the quality of work at the conservatory proper and the artistry present in the everyday studio work. This continued in the spring 2017 semester with my work beginning in the next level of sophomore acting study. Much of this course drew on the practical studies from Acting 3 and deepened those skills. These included technique and practice of scene study: analyzing a script, rehearsing a scene, playing an action, and learning to apply these techniques into Contemporary Theatre processes and performances. Whereas the previous course strictly adhered to using these techniques in order to find the playwright’s specific intentions, this course used them as a foundation to build toward the innovative. This course fostered a culture of experimentation that looked for possibilities beyond the playwright’s intentions. Individual and group work included new additions with theoretical and practical investigation, additional research and dramaturgy beyond the world of any performative text (i.e. play), as well as audience/performer concerns and connections. We primarily worked from such compositionally challenging texts as Ivan Vyrypaev’s Oxygen and Chuck Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica.
Another class I led was one called “Auto Cours.” Auto Cours, by definition, means “self-cours” or “one’s own work” – that is to say, it is space where the students teach themselves with feedback and observation from the faculty/facilitator. Auto Cours is designed to be self-teaching through structured, weekly composition assignments that include solo work, duets, small groups, full-groups, and structured improvisations. This self-teaching includes contending with the challenges and realities of group work without the daily guidance of an instructor, as well as the challenges and self-discipline of of creating and adhering to a rehearsal schedule. Each week, the facilitator will provide a prompt and guidelines for the composition. Occasionally, the facilitator may use part of the Tuesday session to teach or model a specific compositional technique or strategy. I would structure this particular section of Auto Cours to guide students toward self-creating work meant to create a large scale outdoor happening.
My third and final class I taught during the spring semester was the Freshman EPL. Technically I was serving as a “director” of a production of Tongues and Savage/Love, but I was also mentoring the students in how to conduct script analysis, develop rehearsal calendars for separate devising sessions away from my guidance, learning and implementing multiple tools from various practitioners in how to devise one’s own material, and how to ultimately develop the interpersonal and professional skills necessary for driving creative process as an ensemble. My role on this project was not simply limited to being the teacher and director. During this process I performed the multiple tasks of classroom instructor, director, and producer, but not only this production. I was also overseeing the production needs of the sophomore Ensemble Performance Laboratory production of Tales from The Sandman. For both I sought out, and found, professional artists and technicians to work with the students to reinforce their exposure to a professional artistic atmosphere. For Tongues & Savage/Love I brought in Bridget Anderson, a professional stage manager I had previously collaborated with at Walnut Hill School for The Arts the previous summer (and I’ll ALWAYS highly recommend her to everyone I meet), and Akili Jamal Haynes, a fantastic professional accompanist who has worked with the dance department and other colleagues at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Both artists offered a rich and diverse experience from which the students could learn, and with whom they could eventually effectively collaborate. The culminating performance of Tongues & Savage/Love was chosen as the “Accepted Students Day” featured event for the Contemporary Theater department and successfully convinced several students directly to join our department. Yeah, sure, this made me proud, but the joy in their eyes, and their open statements that they finally began to see the opportunities of their own artistry in this field made me extremely proud.
Personally overseeing the hiring and contracting of each individual member of the support team on both productions, as well as several production meetings for the projects was very daunting…and at this point exhausting. I taught steadily all semester during the days, but during the waning weeks of the semester I went from acting in a professional production of Coyote on a Fence, to directing a Tongues & Savage/Love in tech week a week after the previous closing, and then finishing my producing duties after that closing in overseeing the final details of Tales from The Sandman. It was truly exhausting…and there was still wrapping up the final performances of the monologues at Walnut Hill School for The Arts and Boston Conservatory at Berklee final class project almost simultaneously.
I might not schedule things this way again in the future.
Other service to the department included photographing the entirety of the Double Edge Theatre process and other workshops as well, providing those photographic materials to the social media campaigns meant to advertise the BFA in Contemporary Theater, and informally advising current students in office hour meetings. I even made meaningful connections with students in the Musical Theater department during the year. I attended their MainStage performances, as well as an individual production of This Is Our Youth directed by a junior named Jackie Chylinski that was staged in a private apartment just off campus. It began a great relationship with student that became a great means of reaching out into the greater Boston Conservatory at Berklee community. This relationship also aided when I attended several faculty meetings, and a spirited Student Forum meeting to discuss the future philosophy of the conservatory as a whole. That relationship also helped me learn about the general culture of the Musical Theater students and helped me when I and my colleague Theresa Lang were asked to organize The Ghostlight Project event at the beginning of the spring 2017 semester. It absolutely aided in how to do outreach to get students to attend that event. Another service I provided was inadvertent, but I welcomed the use of my professional acting career as both a means for student instruction and recruitment. The leading role I performed in that critically acclaimed production of Coyote on A Fence with Hub Theatre Company of Boston was attended by many of my students, and several prospective students, which engaged both groups in conversations about the work and its relation to our artistic work in the department.
In the end it seemed all of my efforts had led to an artistic and professional home, one where I could use my prowess as an artist and educator to really reach out to and help develop students, while still developing myself as an artist. My efforts seemed rewarded when I went through an extensive ranking process and was awarded the rank of Associate Professor for the 2017-2018 year. I was thrilled and thought this achievement would be the height of my honors at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. However, I would be even more honored as all of my efforts were rewarded by the Student Government and Student Affairs staff when I was formally nominated for an Outstanding Theater Faculty of The Year award. Although the award would go to my well deserving colleague Christopher James Webb, I felt incredibly appreciated. Later, I would apply for, and be rewarded by Berklee with a Faculty Development Grant for $2000 in order to help in furthering my work in relation to Double Edge Theatre and experimental theatre work.
In the end I’m still auditioning for both film and theatre, still figuring out what my next work will be as an independent artist/actor/director/deviser, holding some end of the year academic meetings, grading, thinking, breathing, trying to find time to contemplate my own desires amidst all of this, but it’s been an incredibly rewarding year. I have some prospective offers to possibly decide between for the summer, callbacks for other auditions, and possibilities to discuss for the next year. I also became incredibly lucky when Katelyn Dix agreed to marry me last summer when we visited Montreal, Canada and we’re planning another trip to Quebec City at some point this summer…and our wedding in Massachusetts in November. Life is nuts. I don’t know if I got everything in here. I tried not writing too much about personal stuff because I really needed to do a professional assessment of the year. As rich as all of that was I hope it calms down a bit so I can enjoy my life with Katelyn,…and whatever else could possibly be ahead. I miss my family and a lot of my friends. I ultimately hope life allows for a successful career, great relationships with family, friends, loved ones, colleagues, and students alike, but I know life makes sharp cuts sometimes that just can’t be controlled.
A good friend of mine, Josef Ceralde, passed away a few months ago in the midst of all this. He was 36 years old. He used to say to me, “Marky…I was born on borrowed time. I don’t want to waste a second of this without being grateful…especially when I don’t have extra time to give away.” I miss him. He and I were making plans for him to come up and see my performance in Coyote on a Fence when he died on a Saturday afternoon after the first of two days of auditions in Boston. All of this madness was going on, wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop…and he just passed. I knew he would die at some point from the time we became friends at 14. He had a heart transplant at a young age, kidney failure later, and dialysis in his waning years. Although I was a Polish-American son of immigrants, and he was Filipino-American son of immigrants, we both spoke the same depressed language of first generation Catholic kids in the States trying to perpetually figure out just who the hell we were and what we were doing. If there’s one thing I regret in all of this crazy year it’s not having one last chance to see him, but I know he wouldn’t want me to beat myself up for that. We both drove ourselves hard. He worked himself through a graduate degree in Public Policy, and got it, even when he knew he was close to death. I work myself this way missing special days here and there, and final days with a friend. I guess we both live on the same philosophy and it’s why we were friends and hard workers.
We live on borrowed time…and we ain’t got the time to worry about when the lender is taking it back.
Thanks for reading.