Meadows Scholars Spend Summer Exploring the World
Behind the scenes of Final Words, one of the independent films that Amanda Presmyk worked on this summer; photo by Shawn Bronson.
Ezra Bookman headed to Ecuador to live in a village he’d never seen with a man he’d never met. With the help of a Meadows Scholars grant, Bookman had the inspiration and the means to explore how Shamanic rituals might inform acting. Bookman earned a B.F.A. in theatre studies in May as a member of the first Meadows Scholars graduating class.
“In my junior year I took two classes that spoke to each other,” Bookman said. “The material moved me.” The first class was an honors primal religions class that explored Shamanism. The second was an independent study that explored how to instinctually develop the physical life of characters. Bookman found synergies between the two classes and decided to immerse himself in Shamanic communities to mine their techniques for use in original theatre work. He was particularly interested in methods of possession, visualization and communication with the “natural spirit,” as well as the ritual and the spectacle of the process. Bookman’s goal is to create a brand new system for training actors and for devising new styles of performance.
“I want to develop new techniques in which actors can connect to their characters in a more profound and fully embodied way, and also to develop new avenues for the creation and development of experimental theatre,” Bookman says. “This is a big ‘we’ll see.’ It could be a big failure, but if you want to be a leader it takes a lot of risk.”
After living in Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia for more than two months, Bookman is convinced that his research is far from over. “Shamanic work is something that takes years, not months; in reality it’s a continual process of learning that lasts your whole life,” he says. Bookman says he learned many lessons from his experiences. “I am a stronger person. I encountered an energy I didn’t know I had. I learned humility in the face of my mistakes and failures. And my relationship with God and the spiritual and natural world has changed dramatically.” Bookman was immersed in a Spanish-speaking world, but since he doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, he says he had to learn to listen and observe more and to communicate nonverbally. “I discovered that silence doesn’t have to feel awkward,” he says. “And the experience of being an outsider taught me the importance of welcoming newcomers and valuing their opinions.” These are all lessons he wants to share in workshops with actors.
Bookman hopes to return to South America in a couple of years to work with the Q’ero tribe in the Peruvian Andes and with a practitioner of Espiritism in Venezuela. He says his newly acquired network of friends and contacts will be extremely helpful for his future travels.
“In the sense of a preliminary investigation, the trip was very successful,” Bookman concluded. “I now have a much clearer understanding of the different traditions practiced in South America, and a much more focused direction for the research.”
Senior and Martie Cuellar Meadows Scholar Julie Kaye went on an investigation of her own. A double major in dance performance and business management, Kaye traveled to England with the hope of applying the theories she had studied in class to the world she was about to experience.
She visited London with a new study-abroad program called London Arts, which explored performance theory and performance art throughout the city. However, Kaye discovered as much about herself and her cultural heritage as she did about the arts and London.
Kaye’s father is English, so the trip also helped her explore the places where her father grew up and understand more about him. In addition, she spent a great deal of time with family friends who live in England. “This was a huge growing experience for me,” Kaye says. “I grew up in Dallas. I go to college in Dallas. This was the first time I was away from home, and it opened my eyes to different viewpoints and opinions.”
Shelley Berg, director of the new London Arts program, believes that London is the perfect place to expose students to new experiences and new cultures. She says London is a multicultural city that is constantly changing.
“The summer of the Queen’s Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics was an excellent time to initiate the program and invite students to learn about the world through aspects of performance in everyday life,” says Berg.
One of the experiences that stood out for Kaye was attending the Queen’s Jubilee flotilla at Battersea Park, where a wide variety of performances were showcased like a county fair. She explored the vintage clothing booths where attendants were dressed in costumes of every decade of the Queen’s reign. “It was like a walk back in time,” she says. “It reminded me of childhood, the feeling of innocence and the freedom to imagine.” The rich sights, sounds and experiences gave Kaye new inspiration for her creativity as an artist.
The history and theory Kaye learned inside the classroom also enriched her experiences. At Borough Market, Kaye was able to appreciate the performance aspects of food. “The market features vendors from all over the world who prepare food on site and slice, chop and grill with amazing artistic flourish.” Using the performance theory she studied inside the classroom and her Borough Market experience, she did an analysis for class on how her aunt’s imaginative preparation of Persian food might be considered “performance.”
Kaye hopes to dance professionally and apply her business acumen to the entertainment field. She says she now realizes that many artistic opportunities and diverse areas of performance exist. “Studying performance in London helped me realize how much I love entertainment and art. I want to be surrounded by it even if I’m not the one doing it!” she says. She believes the trip profoundly changed her, making her less closed-minded and more willing to try new things. “London is a spontaneous city,” she says. “It taught me how to let go and let things happen. I am so grateful for my experience, and for the Meadows grant that gave me the opportunity.”
Welsh Meadows Scholar Amanda Presmyk knows all about opportunity. She hopes to someday be an independent film producer, and her Meadows Scholars grant has gone a long way toward inspiring her to make that dream come true. Presmyk spent last summer as an intern with the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles.
Presmyk is a junior with a double major in film and media arts and journalism as well as a minor in French. She loves film and believes her journalism major will enhance her storytelling ability. Her experiences at AFI took her behind the scenes and showed her what it takes to make movies.
Chair of Film and Media Arts Sean Griffin says, “Getting an internship is competitive, and we only send out our best students. Every student comes back with stories about what a great experience it was, and how many connections they have made for their future careers.”
Presmyk was able to work on three independent films in a variety of capacities. As a production designer she was responsible for designing sets, finding props and making everything look realistic. As a second assistant director her task was to ensure everyone was on set doing their jobs and doing them on time.
“That was particularly challenging, because nothing ever happens on schedule on a film set,” she says. Her duties required her to work alongside the film’s producer as well as the unit production manager, which gave her the opportunity to learn from both of them. “You do what you need to do to get the film made,” said Presmyk. Once, that included not only finding a goat but loading the goat into her car and driving it to the film set.
In addition to funding her expenses in Los Angeles, Presmyk used part of her Meadows Scholars grant to buy a camera to capture important moments and remember the experiences that changed and inspired her. She says she demands much more of herself now, after having the opportunity to work with so many talented young filmmakers. Because of the lessons she learned, the people she met and the films she worked on, Presmyk is more determined than ever to make films.
“The only way to learn film production is to be on set,” Presmyk says. “The amount I learned can’t be measured and the Meadows Scholars grant made it possible.”
Junior art history major and Phelan Meadows Scholar Sarah Montonchaikul has an eye toward the past to find her path for the future. Last summer, Montonchaikul spent six weeks in Vicchio, about 20 miles north of Florence, Italy, to work at the archaeological site of Poggio Colla.
After spending two years at SMU working as an assistant for then-Associate Dean and University Distinguished Professor Greg Warden digitally archiving images of archaeological finds, Montonchaikul wanted to work on an actual dig and turn her theoretical training into a hands-on experience.
Warden, who has been working the archaeological site for 17 years, says, “The dig is providing cutting-edge information about the Etruscan civilization of pre-Roman Italy. Their written record was lost and most of their culture was assimilated by the Romans. This project has changed the discipline of Etruscan studies.”
Poggio Colla serves as a field school and attracts top students from all over the world. The SMU program is on the leading edge because it has always enabled undergraduates to do the research. Many schools have only just begun to do what SMU has been doing for nearly 20 years.
“More than sit in classrooms, students are involved in the investigation and creation of new knowledge,” Warden says. “Art conservation is more than just piecing things together. It is science. It is research. There’s a surprise every summer.” For Montonchaikul the first surprise was the process itself.
“Everyone has seen Indiana Jones movies, but I had no idea there was a really precise methodology behind digging around in 7th century B.C. dirt!” she exclaims.
Besides actually working on the dig, Montonchaikul had the opportunity to work in art conservation. The experience had a definitive effect on her.
“I worked with pottery that was 2,500 years old!” she says. “Three months ago I wanted to be a curator in an art museum, but after this experience I’m considering work in conservation. A new career option has opened up for me, and with that, a whole new world.”
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