This past week, I (“I” being Daniel Schwartz, Special Projects Coordinator at the Conservatory) sat down for the first of hopefully numerous interviews with one of the many dedicated members of our staff. This week, the subject of the interview was Theater Arts Program Coordinator Michael Awusie. Michael has been involved with the conservatory in some capacity now for over 15 years, and had much to say about his experiences both here and as a writer, actor, and choreographer in the outside world. Here is the transcript from our discussion.
(D: Daniel, M: Michael)
D: Michael, how did you first hear about and become involved with the Conservatory?
M: It goes back to the mid 90s; my sister was a student here since she was 4 or 5. Fast-forward a few years to when I was about ten and a half. I had no direction in my life, so my mom she put me in the drama program, which was run by Bertin K Rowser at that time. I took classes and went on through the pre-professional theater program, took a dance class, the occasional voice lesson until I graduated high school and went off to college. The director at the time, Daphne Richards, contacted me once I graduated about coming back and teaching part time. So when I came back in the fall of 2004 I was an assistant instructor in the drama program, working on a part time basis. I assisted the teachers, assuming more and more responsibility, and ultimately began teaching with the assistant title stripped. It sort of coincided with Daphne Richards leaving, and I was still here so they were grooming me for her position in a way. Then Darrell came on board and he was also in the department, and we’ve been working together ever since then. So, this is my sixth year working here but my relationship with the harbor goes back a ways.
D: For more than half your life it sounds like.
M: Yeah yeah, wow. Yeah wow.
D: Have you done/do you do much acting outside of the Harbor?
M: Yeah, yeah I’m currently a member of two companies, one with the graduate writing program at NYU and then a program called Pride Not Prejudice. The graduate writing program is me and the other actors helping dramatic writers develop new works. They write a scene, come in; often times we direct questions at them to help them make dramatic sense. You know, where’s the conflict, things like that. We perform it, and they get to hear it. Even if it doesn’t work, they get to hear it doesn’t work. So it’s really like a workshop for new writers.
Then, the pride and prejudice, we go into high schools around the city and we perform plays based on health choices, health choices you would make when you have a clear sense of who you are, how even in the face of peer pressure you’re able to stick with what you know is best for you. The idea being that young people are savvy, and they have the information, have the access to the information but often times when you don’t feel good about yourself you make a choice that you think is going to make you feel better and sometimes that sacrifices your better judgment.
And then you know, I also just perform in random plays here and there.
D: Yeah, just kinda whatever comes up?
M: Yeah, auditioning and getting into plays on occasion.
D: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of working with young, aspiring actors?
M: Oh man… I can tell you when I first got here it was speaking in a language that was understandable and relatable to young people, coupled with the fact that because I was assisting I was working with students from all ages, which even now I do. With the older students you can use language that’s closer to the language you would use in conceptualizing things yourself, but for four and five year olds you need to gear the language in a way that makes sense to them. Not taking as much capacity in mind as they have for creativity, you have to speak in a language that makes sense.
D: What other challenges do you face teaching young students; such as getting the message across to them, issues with motivation and focus wavering a lot.
M: With any age there’s… being able to read the classroom and everyone in it. Everyone comes in with things they are dealing with outside the classroom; and yes you have your standard and expectations and they’re all high for each and every one of your students but you also need to be able to understand when your student is going through something that is new to him or her, something that he or she has never dealt with before and may not be dealing with so well, and may have carried some of whatever is going on outside inside the classroom, and they just don’t know how else to handle it. You have to be sensitive enough to your students and to what their needs are and respond accordingly. Create a classroom that is a comfortable and safe place for them to grow, explore, and deal with things that ideally they’d be dropping once they step into the threshold of the classroom. But also in a long-term stance actually the class helps them address those things in their lives. So creating a safe haven for them to be themselves is another challenge
D: It must be a really cool experience to see how they develop both as actors and people. A lot of what goes into anything you’re passionate about influences who you become outside of that passion.
M: Right, because you take parts of you and put it into your artistry, it’s all connected. You really have to grow as a person, you have to have experiences as a person, in order to bring something to the table when you’re creating the world of a play with other actors in a performance.
D: Ok my last question is: What do you like to do when you’re not acting and teaching at the Conservatory?
M: I uh… I like to write. Right now I’m working on a novel. It’s a fiction piece, loosely based on my own coming of age experiences and that of my friends, but there will be lots of departure points, so the characters will probably be a lot zanier than the real life versions of the people they were inspired by.
What’s been cool here has been working on certain projects with the school that’s required me to go out and write. We like to use a lot of material that challenges our students and some of that material just isn’t appropriate content, so we all go out and create new dialogue, new lyrics, new something! We can use the basis of that great piece but make it more relatable as well, and also content wise more appropriate. That actually started to whet my appetite for writing for the theater, you know monologues and scenes. Haven’t yet strung those things together to form a larger body of work, but I have been doing a lot of … writing. You know, of people’s voices and having them talk. What is there conflict? How are they going about dealing with the conflict?
D: Always some sort of… artistic endeavor going on?
M: Yeah, but you know of course, beyond that.. just being 26 in New York City
D: That is never bad.
M: No, not at all. I can’t imagine being any other place, or any other place like this at this age.
D: Absolutely. So anything else you want to say to our blog readers?
M: I say that… being on the other side, you know I have been a student here and I had my moments where I may not have appreciated or understood how great this place is. Here you have a place in East Harlem that is competitively priced, has instructors that are working artists who are actually in the field, are still honing their craft and have a lived experience that they can come back in here and use as elements in their curriculum. This is a place where you have a dynamic amongst the faculty like a family, where everyone really cares about each other, knows what’s going on in each others lives. It’s cool and everybody is just happy to be here, happy to come here. I’ve been in work situations where people are just going through the motions, but this is a place where people are actually getting to live out their passion, making it possible for so many of these teachers to continue to do what they do on the outside, chasing their artistry. And it’s also a way for the types of people who are teaching here to give back. So many people make it as artists in the performing arts world, but just a fraction of them give back and teach. I’m in an environment where I’m surrounded by people like that, who have done amazing things but still have made a way to fit teaching into there lives, and I get to be around them and learn.
D: Well I guess that about covers it… Thank you Michael!