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In the Spotlight: Janielle Kastner and Afomia Hailemeskel

Theatre Students Use Art to Examine the Diverse Lives of Teen Girls

By Victoria Winkelman

In New York City this summer, Meadows students Janielle Kastner (B.F.A. Theatre Studies and B.A. English, ’12) and Afomia Hailemeskel (B.F.A. Theatre Studies, ’13) spent their weekdays interning with a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and an Emmy-winning filmmaker at Market Road Films. On weekends, they pursued their own creative project, interviewing young women in the Bronx for a multimedia art installation that will compare the lives and stories of teen girls from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

“Spending three weeks working with such incredible artists as Lynn Nottage, whose plays we have admired for years, and her filmmaker husband, Tony Gerber, was a fantastic experience,” says Hailemeskel. “Thanks to our training at Meadows, we were prepared to work hard and learn everything we could about the kind of art we both hope to make in our careers.”

The students credit Theatre Associate Professor Gretchen Smith for connecting them with these opportunities, as well as alum Travis Ballenger (B.F.A. Theatre, ’08), who works for Nottage. To fund their trip, the students received Meadows Exploration Awards and two of SMU’s Engaged Learning grants, which were launched last year as part of the new University Curriculum to encourage students to undertake research, civic engagement, creative work and internships.

“Their grants supported both SMU’s and Meadows’ mission to develop young artists who are involved in the community while engaging with their own creative development,” says Professor Smith, who serves as the mentor for their project.

As interns for Market Road Films, the two students assisted with a documentary Gerber is developing for National Geographic on snow leopards in Afghanistan, and with a film Nottage is creating based on her recent successful play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. They also did research on Reading, Pa., recently named the poorest city in America, for a film/theatre project documenting the effects of poverty and violence in the city. Most of their time as interns, however, was spent doing research for a new play Nottage is writing based on a 1970s murder trial. The pair combed through court documents, police reports and witness testimonies; called newspaper editors and librarians; and created a comprehensive timeline.

“I loved doing the research for the development of a narrative,” says Kastner. “As someone interested in playwriting, I asked myself, what would I need to write a good story? What do I need to know about the characters involved? That helped us decide what information to go after. It was a direct way we felt we could influence the creation of a play and help the playwright.”

For their own project in the Bronx, their goal was to create an art and performance piece examining the diverse environments that shape young women. “I wanted to capture the essence of the young women I spoke to, and present their stories honestly and in their own words,” Kastner says.

With the help of Nottage’s playwright colleague Radha Blank, the students connected with the Girls’ Program at New Settlement Apartments, an after-school program in which adolescent girls in an under-served area of the Southwest Bronx receive training in performing arts and leadership development. Kastner and Hailemeskel interviewed six girls in the program.

“How do you get to the bare bones of a community? I think the best way is through art,” says Kastner. “I could go in as a statistician, and just take down facts, or I could sit down with them and start talking about what music they like and get so much more about the heart of the community than with stats alone. We told them we wanted them to be fairly represented, and we were going to do that through art, and we wanted them to help make that art. They were very interested in that. And they were such impressive girls with amazing goals – they wanted to go to college, have careers and also help their families.”

While Kastner interviewed the young women, Hailemeskel used audiovisual equipment to capture the music, street sounds, dialogue, landmarks and more of the community.

In Dallas this fall, the pair plan to do similar interviews with teens in Highland Park. The result will be an art installation incorporating projected photos, audio clips, film footage and live performance. The students hope to present it in the Doolin Gallery in December.

“One of the wonderful things about SMU is that, if you have an idea, an artistic project that is going to benefit the community or make you better at your craft, you can get funding,” said Hailemeskel. “The support provided by both Meadows and the University has given us tools that will help us for the rest of our lives.”


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