Backpacking through the majestic Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, touring the heartrending grounds of Auschwitz, and connecting with people of a dramatically different culture were a few of the activities experienced by a group of WVU College of Creative Arts students this summer.
WVU College of Creative Arts Assistant Professor Bryce Britton, director of the WVU School of Theatre and Dance’s recently established musical theatre program, led 12 accompanying students through Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Austria as part of a unique study abroad opportunity.
The WVU group paired with Dramatic Adventure Theatre (DAT), a troupe comprised of students and professionals who travel to impoverished areas to work with underserved communities and help expose them to the arts.
According to Britton, DAT takes the word “adventure” seriously.
“This program affords our students the opportunity to delve into areas of the world off the beaten path to grow both culturally and professionally,” said Britton. “While engaging with the locals, they also traveled with a professional acting troop who has been devising this type of theatre for years.
“It made for a rich and quite unique experience no one will ever forget.”
The program included a 24-day trek through central Europe and concluded with a weeklong performance series in New York City.
While visiting Slovakia, the students devoted a large portion of their time to a cultural immersion experience, which involved working with the region’s Romani community.
“We worked with the children, taught them theatre games and basic theatre skills, and did community projects,” said Britton. “The project ended with a showcase for their families, which was rewarding for everyone involved.”
As the Romani people did not speak English, students were challenged to communicate in other ways, Britton explained.
“This really forced the students to rely on their acting skills to communicate, as their tone, expressions, body language and gestures allowed them to more effectively communicate and connect with the Romani people,” said Britton.
As part of the trip’s academic component, students received course credit for their participation, including three credit hours each in “SPTP: Cultural Immersion Theatre” and “SPTP: Devised Theatre,” both 400-level classes.
While the students worked to connect with the Romani community, they also worked to devise plays inspired by their experiences, said Britton.
“Working with the Romani people was more life changing than I could have ever imagined,” said senior acting student Willa McWhorter. “These people had so little, but were so open, loving and passionate. It was so refreshing to experience that type of attitude.”
While abroad, the WVU assemblage was split into four different groups, or casts, to each work with a professional director and actors from DAT. Students were also able to work with acting students from other institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“While the core WVU group would travel together, the four acting groups would rehearse separately, contributing to each of us gaining an experience very individual from one another,” said Britton.
“All of the performances really reflected our experiences with the Romani more than anything else, just because I think that no one had ever experienced that level of poverty before. We all got to tour the encampments, and saw some disturbing things that impacted us and inspired us to incorporate those elements into our productions.”
The shows they developed debuted in Bratislava, Slovakia, and then transferred to the New York City in the midst of the New York Fringe Festival, where the group performed for four consecutive nights, eventually merging for a joint performance featuring each of the four shows.
“We were right next to the La MaMa Theatre, so it was a great experience,” said Britton, explaining that La MaMa is a legendary experimental theatre where playwrights like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Harvey Fierstein debuted some of their earliest works.
Britton said that he anticipates the partnership with DAT becoming a fixture for the WVU School of Theatre and Dance for many years to come.
Auditions for the next DAT trip, this time to Tanzania, will take place this fall. The trip, scheduled for Summer 2016, will allow students to experience drastically different landscapes, including the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro and the sweeping Serengeti plains, while also connecting with the local culture and communities.
Britton said that between eight to 12 students will be selected for the trip, and students of all areas of theatre study are needed, including costume and stage designers, actors, stage managers and directors. Graduate-level course credit will also be available.
CONTACT: David Welsh, WVU College of Creative Arts
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