Tag Archive for alumni

Banks ’15 Receives Fulbright to Study International Crimes, Conflict, Criminology

Isabella Banks ’15 received a Fulbright Study/Research grant in International Crimes, Conflict, and Criminology for 2018–19.

Isabella Banks ’15 was awarded a 2018–19 Fulbright Study/Research Grant for the master’s program in International Crimes, Conflict, and Criminology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Combining perspectives and methodologies from the fields of criminology, law, psychology, sociology, and political science, the program also draws on resources available through its location near The Hague—home to the UN’s International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

“I hope to focus my research on transitional justice, which applies restorative principles to systematic, conflict-related human rights violations,” says Banks, who majored in the College of Social Studies with a certificate in international relations while at Wesleyan. Her honors thesis, “The Jury Is Out: Negotiated Agreements in the German Inquisitorial System,” is an exploration of the United States’ adversarial system of justice in comparison with the German inquisitorial system. A 2015 article in the Connection noted that Banks said her interest in exploring alternatives to the U.S. system of criminal justice was initiated by what she observed as its “growing dysfunction” as well as the increasing measure of disapproval it garnered.

After graduating, Banks studied abroad on a one-year Watson Fellowship, pursuing research in restorative justice in countries such as New Zealand, Australia, England, and South Africa. For her project, “Making Crime Personal: Restorative Alternatives to Criminal Justice,” she interviewed individuals involved in a range of restorative justice processes and acted as a participant observer in schools, prisons, and community organizations working to implement restorative practices.

She is currently affiliated with the Center for Court Innovation in New York City, whose founding director was John Feinblatt ’73 and current director is Greg Berman ’89. Banks serves as a planner for the Research-Practice Strategies team led by Director of Policy and Research Julian Adler ’02.

“My Watson year opened my eyes to the importance of human relationships in justice processes and fostered a fascination with conflict transformation that I am sure will drive my learning for years to come,” said Banks.

 

Lobel ’97 Produces Empire on Blood Podcast

Empire on Blood, a new seven-part serialized podcast from Panoply, is produced by Mia Lobel ’97. The series investigates a 1992 double homicide in the Bronx, exploring the judicial process that led to a conviction. That conviction has now been overturned after Calvin Buari spent more than two decades in prison for these murders, which he did not commit.

The show, says Lobel, is the result of veteran journalist Steve Fishman’s six-year quest to determine the facts of the case.

“Steve brought us this incredibly complicated story he’d been working on,” recalls Lobel. “He had courtroom papers and 80 hours of taped interviews with all the key players. It was so exciting for me as a producer. The show takes a really deep look at the moral complexity of the criminal justice system: What happens if you are, actually, a criminal—but convicted of a crime you didn’t commit?”

An anthropology major at Wesleyan, Lobel earned her graduate degree in journalism, specializing in audio formats—“radio, at the time,” she says. She marks 2014 as the year the general public began to share her excitement for audio productions—podcasts—when Serial came out and smartphone technology made it accessible.

“People are being reintroduced to the power of sound alone—where you make all these pictures in your head,” she says.

Students Organize TEDxWesleyanU, Host Distinguished Speakers

At left, Anthony Price '20, Zoe Reifel '21, Thafir Elzofri '19, Eunes Harun '20, Melisa Olgun '20 and Leo Merturi '20 thank the audience for attending Wesleyan's TEDxWesleyanU event on April 7.

At left, Anthony Price ’20, Zoe Reifel ’21, Thafir Elzofri ’19, Eunes Harun ’20, Melisa Olgun ’20, and Leo Merturi ’20 thank the audience for attending Wesleyan’s TEDxWesleyanU event on April 7. The entire event was organized by students.

Nationally known leaders and distinguished Wesleyan alumni and faculty presented short, powerful talks during the inaugural TEDxWesleyanU event April 7 in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall.

Launched in 2009, TEDx is a program of locally organized events that bring the community together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TED Talks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection. Some of the best talks from TEDx events have gone on to be featured on TED.com and garnered millions of views from audiences across the globe.

Speakers included Maria Santana ’98, a correspondent for CNN en Español; Connecticut State Representative Matthew Lesser ’10; Middletown Mayor Dan Drew; National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita ’71; national radio host Angela Yee ’97, and others. (View photos of the speakers below this article. View bios of all 13 speakers here.)

Melisa Olgun '20 and Eunes Harun ’20 stand outside the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall while preparing for TEDxWesleyanU.

Melisa Olgun ’20 and Eunes Harun ’20 stand outside the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall while preparing for TEDxWesleyanU.

“The current political climate is characterized by the lack of conversations taking place between people of opposing sides and viewpoints. TEDxWesleyanU is the launchpad we need to kickstart an unprecedented level of dialogue,” said Eunes Harun ’20, who spearheaded the event. “The TEDx mission and Wesleyan’s values align so heavily in the fostering of ideas and sparking dialogue. This event further emphasizes how Wesleyan is at the forefront of confronting current political and social issues in an effort to ultimately make the world a better place.”

Harun came up with the idea to host a TEDx event after tossing off ideas to his roommate, Alex Harold ’20, and neighbor Leo Merturi ’20. The tri-founders soon created a TEDxWesleyanU core team including Melisa Olgun ’20; Anthony Price ’20, and Thafir Elzofri ’19. Zoe Reifel ’21, who organized a TEDx event as a high school student, joined the team late to offer her experiences and input. Collaboratively, the group spent more than a year-and-a-half planning the inaugural event, which “has been one of the most impactful learning experiences of my life,” Harun said.

All-Alumni Survey: Thank You, Participants!

For a four-week period in January and February, the Office of University Relations surveyed BA alumni to understand attitudes and preferences around key areas, including communications, Wesleyan events, and philanthropy.

Of the 27,000 alumni contacted via email, more than 5,400 participated. This 20-percent response rate far exceeded expectations. The average U.S. college survey response rate is closer to 5–10 percent.

“We are thrilled with the level of engagement shown by our alumni in responding to our most recent survey,” reports Thomas Diascro ’89, director of alumni and parent relations, “and I cannot thank them enough for taking the time to participate.”

In the coming weeks, University Relations staff will begin looking more closely at the full results, and they plan to share their findings with the entire community in early fall—but for those who want a teaser, Diascro offers the following:

  • 92 percent of respondents are proud to be Wesleyan alumni;
  • 86 percent of respondents have a positive feeling towards Wesleyan;
  • 84 percent of respondents believe Wesleyan is deserving of financial support from alumni.

Executive Producer Selkow ’96 Directs Hip-Hop Docu-Series Rapture

At SXSW film and music festival, members of the creative team behind Rapture are Executive Producer Ben Selkow ’96, Director Marcus Clarke, Executive Producer Peter Bittenbender (of Mass Appeal), and Executive Producer Sacha Jenkins (of Mass Appeal). Rapture, a docu-series produced by Mass Appeal for Netflix is available now. Netflix describes the project as: “star[ing] directly into the bright light that hip-hop culture shines on the world…. Rapture dives into the artists’ lives with their families and friends, to sitting front row in the studio and grinding on tour, to experiencing the ecstatic power of moving the crowd.” (Photo Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty for Netflix)

Rapture, a new eight-part docu-series on hip-hop that premiered on Netflix March 30, features Ben Selkow ’96 as executive producer, showrunner, and one of the directors. It is art with an overarching purpose: “We hope to bring audiences and fans closer to the artists’ experience by sharing their biography and showing the perseverance, talent, and luck that helped each transform and transcend their situation,” says Selkow, a film studies and African American studies major while at Wesleyan, who previously directed Reza Aslan’s CNN series Believer. After returning from the SXSW film and music festival in Austin, Texas, where the team showcased several episodes of Rapture, Selkow discussed the project.

Connection: What drew you into this project and made it personally compelling?
Ben Selkow: Netflix wanted to collaborate on a new hip-hop project with Mass Appeal, an on-the-rise culture media and content company. A Netflix executive introduced me to Mass Appeal’s Sacha Jenkins and Peter Bittenbender, who needed an executive producer and showrunner. We got on really well from jump—and spent the next 18 months conceiving, refining, staffing, shooting, editing, finishing, and promoting Rapture.

I was drawn to it on many levels. I’ve been listening to hip-hop since my first Beastie Boy, Ice-T, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy tapes—yes, tapes! And at Wesleyan, I continued my education in hip-hop with Javaid Khan (DJ Van Vader) ’96, Phil Jenkins (DJ Casual Phil) ’96, Jason Rosado ’96, and my man Jake Sussman ’96 making me mixtapes, as well as partying at [Malcolm] X house, while Matt Dickerson (DJ Denmark) ’95 was spinning. And then—beyond my love of the music, the culture, the politics, and its growing power of expression and American reporting—I really dug Sacha and Peter. Of course, the opportunity to work with Netflix and connect with audiences in 190-plus countries/117 million subscribers was a dream.

Connection: What was your role on the project and what were your biggest challenges?
Ben Selkow: As showrunner and one of the executive producers, I worked with all our specialists in each area, leading the charge—from conception to the talent casting, to the aesthetic look, to team staffing, to legal, to music supervision, to running everything with our amazing post-production team and doing the general crisis control. I also directed the episode with 2 Chainz.

Hip-hop artist Nas (left) and Executive Producer and Director Ben Selkow ’96 attend the Rapture Netflix Original Documentary Series, Special Screening at The Metrograph in New York City, on March 20. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for Netflix)  Wesleyan viewers will want to know that Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02 makes a cameo appearance in Rapture‘s Nas/Dave East episode, when the three are shown filming the video for the Hamilton mixtape song, “Wrote My Way Out.”

As for challenges, we had no proof of concept as this was Season 1, so the initial casting was the first challenge. We wanted a diverse group of artists and we were trying to compel the artists to entrust their stories with us. We were also making big asks for their time—not just an interview and some B-roll, but we wanted to do longitudinal, observational cinema, which makes for totally unique narratives. But we were able to earn a tremendous amount of trust with all the artists. Then the challenge was keeping up with their kinetic lives and building narratives. In the end, it was both a relief and incredibly exciting to watch the artists’ reactions once we screened their episodes with them. Sitting in a screening room with Nas, Just Blaze, or 2 Chainz and hearing that they loved it and thanked us…. Man, amazing feeling.

Connection: Why is this piece important? What do you think are the most important points you are bringing to the world?
Ben Selkow: By selecting a wide breadth of artists who range aesthetically, regionally, generationally, racially, and gender-wise—as well as including a super producer—Rapture paints the portrait of hip-hop as a diverse, complex, and wildly dynamic music universe. By offering an immersive view of the artists’ personal lives—beyond just seeing them as superstars—we are afforded the privilege of witnessing the artists’ humanness and mortality, as well as seeing what it is to live a life of an international celebrity.
We hope that Rapture illuminates some of the misconceptions about hip-hop and rap culture. For so long society at large has written off hip-hop as being only for gangsters, thugs, people who were morally corrupt. But through Rapture, we sought to depict the brilliance, passion, intelligence, artistry, dexterity, humanness, complexity, and perseverance that has made hip-hop and rap music the dominant global form.

We hope the series shows the featured artists at the top of their game for a reason, rising because of supreme artistry, hard work, a desire to change their situation: in summary, rising through the American dream.

Connection: Were there some best moment, breakthroughs, or epiphanies? What did you learn?
Ben Selkow: We had many, many incredible moments—from rocking with Nas at JazzFest in New Orleans backed by a 10-piece brass band in the Soul Rebels, to watching T.I. and Harry Belafonte intensely examine contemporary issues. But one moment that I just experienced speaks to the moments of resonance, the nuances and many gems throughout this whole series: During the screening of the Nas episode at the 1,100-seat Paramount Theatre at SXSW, T.I. was sitting with Dave East in the audience (I was one row behind them). They were really enjoying the episode, where director Sacha is highlighting Nas’s power in hip-hop—and she tells him that legendary Bronx rapper Big Pun’s grandson’s given name is Ether (“Ether” was a famous diss track Nas made in 2001). On screen, Nas is visibly taken aback at hearing this—as, I can see, are T.I. and Dave East, Nas’s protégés.

The next thing that happens in the film is we play a line from “Ether” to punctuate the point, that Nas’s influence is deep: “I am the truest, name a rapper that I ain’t influenced.” When this line plays, the audience spontaneously sings this line together—led most loudly by T.I. and Dave East.

At that moment, I realized: Doesn’t matter what the reviews say; true hip-hop is feeling this project. We did it—and, hopefully, get an opportunity to keep telling these stories. [See trailer below].

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Sharing the Stage: Greenberger ’81 Wins Award, Whitford ’81 Presents

Sharing the Stage: Bradley Whiford ’81 (left) presents the Writers Guild Award to his senior-year housemate and fellow theater major, Dan Greenberger ’81. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety)

Dan Greenberger ’81 attended the Writers Guild Award as a nominee in the category of On-Air Promotion (“the TV equivalent of movie trailers,” he explains) on Feb. 11, 2018. As an award veteran (he’d already won twice previously), Greenberger had done his homework: checked who was presenting his category and prepared an acceptance speech in case he won.

Just before the ceremony, as people milled around the dinner tables, he ran into his Wesleyan senior-year housemate, Bradley Whitford ’81, who had news: the scheduled presenter in the on-air promotion category had canceled. Instead, “I’m presenting in your category,” Whitford told his friend.

And from there, everything went off script for Greenberger, who quickly tried to reformulate his prepared speech to celebrate the friendship on stage, should he win.

Greenberger was the winner, and when he dashed on stage, the two embraced and ribbed each other gently about their college housekeeping habits.

In a conversation afterward with the Connection, Greenberger acknowledged the uniqueness of sharing that moment with his fellow theater major. “Senior year was a bonding time, as we were both getting ready to go out into the world.

“Brad and I took a train together to New York to audition for Juilliard,” Greenberger recalls.”He got in and I didn’t—and that’s when I decided I would be a writer.” In fact, Whitford had appeared in Wesleyan plays that Greenberger had written.

“Obviously, at the presentation, we were joking around a lot—but how great a full-circle moment is that? To be on stage, getting an award, with someone to whom you’ve talked about dreams and hopes when we were in college—I’m just so proud of what Brad has done with his career. As an actor, he keeps getting better.”

Greenberger, whose current work at CBS includes writing the promotions for Kevin Can Wait, notes that his favorite assignment was also very Wesleyan: How I Met Your Mother, the nine-season sitcom written by Carter Bays ’97 and Craig Thomas ’97. “I loved the sensibility; it was smart, it was funny, it was edgy—and I loved the fact that it was created by Wesleyan guys,” he recalls.

And he also knew it well: “When you work on promoting a show, you really get to know it almost better than anyone. You watch every episode more than once, you take it apart, you take notes on it: ‘Oh, here’s a good line; there’s a good moment.’ These are the pieces of the puzzle that I use to build the promotion—a story in 20 seconds, and every syllable counts.”

As for Whitford, Greenberger maintains: “He’s one of the very funniest people I’ve ever known. I’ve always told him he should do more comedy.

“But seriously—any time I look at Brad I go back to those days at Wesleyan when we were both theater majors falling in love with ‘the business,’ and wondering, ‘how do we get into this, and how do we make our mark?’ It was so great to have our paths converge on that stage.”

 

Bùi ’07 Shares Photos, Paintings, Video at CEAS Gallery

On March 29, Vietnamese artist Lêna Bùi '07 spoke to gallery goers at the opening reception of her exhibit, Proliferation at the College of East Asian Studies. In Proliferation, Bùi draws on her context of living in a rapidly changing country. Her abstract paintings, photographs, and candid video broadly examine the less obvious effects of development on the socio-political and cultural fabrics of the country, and specifically dealing with people's negotiation with nature in various forms.

On March 29, East Asian studies major Lêna Bùi ’07 spoke to gallerygoers at the opening reception of her exhibit, Proliferation, at the College of East Asian Studies. In Proliferation, Bùi draws on her context of living in a rapidly changing country. Her abstract paintings, photographs, and candid video broadly examine the less obvious effects of development on the socio-political and cultural fabrics of the country, specifically dealing with people’s negotiation with nature in various forms.

Alumni Attribute Long Lane Farm for Jumpstarting Interests, Careers in Agriculture

Daniel Mays '06 owns and operates a 14-acre farm in Scarborough, Maine.

Daniel Mays ’06 owns and operates a 14-acre farm in Scarborough, Maine.

According to the recently published 2017 Long Lane Farm annual report, almost 100 Wesleyan alumni are working in agricultural production industries. Many of these alumni got their start working at Long Lane Farm, Wesleyan’s student-run organic farm devoted to allowing students a place to experiment and learn about sustainable agriculture.

The following alumni shared their farming experiences post-graduation:

Daniel Mays ’06
Mays studied math and physics at Wesleyan where he helped out in the early days of Long Lane. Since then, he has taught at a boarding high school, bicycled through Mexico, earned a graduate degree in environmental engineering, and worked on a number of farms. In 2010 he started and currently owns and operates Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine. The farm encompasses 14 acres and offers organic vegetables, pasture-raised eggs, chicken, lamb, pork, and turkeys. Frith Farm employs no-till vegetable production methods.

Mays believes farmers should be stewards of the land, not miners of its resources, and that farms should be hubs of the community, not distant sources of its calories. He also believes that economic sustainability need not be sacrificed, but rather can come directly from the union of environmental stewardship and community involvement.

Jordan Schmidt ’08 at Remedy Farm in New York.

Jordan Schmidt ’08
After graduating, Schmidt worked on a few different vegetable farms and then spent several years organizing the field work at Hearty Roots Community Farm in the Hudson Valley. In 2013,  she helped her partner take over management of her family’s dairy farm, Chaseholm Farm, in Pine Plains, N.Y., which she has been transitioning over to 100 percent grass-fed cows. Schmidt also grows several acres of culinary and medicinal herbs on that same property and runs Remedy Farm. In addition to being a farmer, Schmidt is a nutritional therapy practitioner, associate instructor for the Nutritional Therapy Association, and a movement teacher. She has spent a decade working with organic farm systems and is fascinated by the connections between the health of our broader environment and the health of our internal bodies. Read more about Schmidt in her Remedy Farm profile.

International Women’s Day Celebrated with Alumnae Spotify Playlist

Featuring album covers from four alumnae musicians, the logo of the “Women of Wesleyan” playlist on Spotify highlights the range of music performed by Wesleyan artists. Wesleyan collected the 43 songs as part of the university’s celebration of International Women’s Day.

On March 8, Wesleyan’s Facebook post read: ”In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating some of the most talented musicians we know with our ‘Women of Wes’ Spotify playlist. There’s something for everyone in this eclectic mix of Wesleyan alumnae, including Amanda Palmer ’98, Santigold ’97, J.R. Rhodes ’90, and Dar Williams ’89. Listen here, or go to #NowPlaying #IWD18.”

Also included on this list of 43 songs were pieces by Flo Anito ’01, Jess Best ’14, Amy Crawford ’05, Beanie Feldstein ’15, Mary Halvorson ’02, The Overcoats (JJ Mitchell ’15 and Hana Elion ’15), Chris Pureka ’01, Anna Roberts-Gevalt ’09 (of Anna and Elizabeth), Peri Smilow ’92, Tierney Sutton ’86,  Julia Scolnik ’78, and Nina Zeitlin ’03.

If you are a Wesleyan musician on Spotify, please let us know, so that we can include you in future music highlights. Contact Wesleyan’s digital content manager Sami Jensen.

Houston-Based Artist Herrick ’16 Is Named Luce Scholar

Casey Herrick ’16, a Houston-based artist and designer, was named a Henry Luce Scholar for 2018 and will be moving to Beijing this summer. (Photo courtesy Casey Herrick)

Casey Herrick ’16, a Houston-based artist and designer, was named a Henry Luce Scholar for 2018. One of 18 scholars selected from among 162 candidates, Herrick will begin with an orientation in New York starting in June, before the cohort embarks for Asia. The Henry Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc., to honor his parents, who were missionary educators in China. The Luce Scholars Program was launched in 1974 to “enhance the understanding of Asia among potential leaders in American society.”

Upon his graduation from Wesleyan, Herrick, who majored in studio art and psychology, returned to his hometown of Houston to work as lead 3D-designer, as well as photographer, graphic designer, and video editor at ttweak LLC, an artist-based strategic communications firm. Herrick notes that his work at ttweak has provided the opportunity to work with some of the area’s most prominent institutions, including the Houston Endowment, the Texas Medical Center, the Lawndale Art Center, and the Houston Parks Board. His collaborations focus on helping the organizations communicate dynamically, with maximum effectiveness.

Transitioning out of the design field, Herrick now works as a full-time painter. At Wesleyan, he was deeply involved with Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts, serving as a photography lab assistant, a woodshop monitor, and a studio arts teaching assistant. In 2015, he received the university’s Zawisa Grant to photograph the American South, with a focus on regional identity in Louisiana and East Texas. His thesis, Safe Conduct, focused on expectations and traditions associated with gender and the role of society in boys’ coming-of-age. Featuring a 10-by-6 foot canvas, in addition to five other paintings, his thesis work earned him Highest Honors—and New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum purchased one of the paintings, “The Herndon Climb,” for its permanent collection. He was also awarded the Studio Art Program Award for departmental achievement.

Says Herrick, “I’m thrilled to be given this opportunity. This summer, I’ll be moving to Beijing to work at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts and with the city’s art community at large. Right now, I’m frantically trying to learn Mandarin. I know the words for coffee, sandwich, and horse—so I’d say I still have some work to do!”

 

For more information on fellowships and scholarships, please contact Kate Smith, associate director of fellowships, internships and exchanges, at Wesleyan’s Fries Center for Global Studies. Smith says: “Applicants are interested in fellowships and scholarships for a number of reasons; they offer opportunities to continue academic or language study and to pursue research or explore professional interests. The more students engage with their coursework and harness opportunities available at Wesleyan, the more purposeful they can be when considering these programs.”

 

 

Boger ’73 Recalls “Weightless Flight” With Hawking for WNPR

Noted physicist Stephen Hawking (center), who died on March 14, enjoys zero gravity during a 2007 flight aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft owned by Zero Gravity Corporation. Joshua Boger ’73 (not pictured), founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, was on the flight with Hawking and recalled it for a tribute on WNPR. In this photo, Hawking, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) was being rotated by (right) Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Zero G Corp., and (left) Byron Lichtenberg, former shuttle payload specialist and now president of ZERO-G. Kneeling behind Hawking is Nicola O’Brien, a nurse practitioner who was Hawking’s aide. (Photo courtesy of Zero Gravity Corp., Wikimedia Commons)

Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, ’09

Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, ’09

Connecticut Public Radio tapped Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, ’09, chair emeritus of the Wesleyan Board of Trustees, for his recollections of a historic flight he had taken back in 2007 with noted physicist Stephen Hawking, who died March 14 at the age of 76. The flight had been sponsored by Zero Gravity Corporation and provided, for those on board, eight zero-G opportunities—or “eight brief windows of weightlessness,” as WNPR correspondent Patrick Skahill described them in his story, “Remembering The Flight Where Stephen Hawking Went Weightless.”

Boger had written in detail about the experience of this zero-G flight with Hawking in  “Weightless But Weighty” in Wesleyan magazine, 2007 issue 3:

“Zero-Gravity One!” Hawking, gently guided by Peter [Diamandis] and Byron [Lichtenberg] rises into the air, supine, on his back, still, curiously, completely flat. It is an electric moment, mocking the classic magician trick with the floating assistant, as he remains floating with no one touching him. . . . I glance over at Hawking’s heart monitor and see that his pulse has raised only a few beats from baseline. Mine is racing. He is in bliss. What is he thinking? What is he feeling?

We’d all give worlds to know. . . .

“Zero-G Eight!” . . . We sit in lotus position, cross-legged, and push a finger gently on the “floor,” floating effortlessly into the center of the cabin. Peaceful, unspinning, we learn at last the cosmic serenity of no gravity. This is the one weightless segment of all the zero-Gs that I will remember the most. No spins. No flights. No ceiling dances. Just gravity down. Gravity up. Nothing happening in between except novel cognition. A glance at Professor Hawking confirms he was there six zero-Gs ago.

Playwright Buck ’99: Quest for Citizenship as Game Show in American Dreams

American Dreams playwright Leila Buck* ’99, in the role of game show host Sherry Brown, keeps the tone light—although it is a play meant to spark discussions of consequence and conscience, resources and reality, ideals and ideology. It is an evening of theater that she hopes will reverberate long after the curtain comes down. Pictured (left to right): Imran Sheikh* as Usman Bhutt; Andrew Aaron Valdez as Alejandro Rodriguez; Ali Andre Ali as Adil Akram Mansour; Leila Buck* as Sherry Brown; Jens Rasmussen* as Chris White. (Photo by Steve Wagner and Cleveland Public Theatre) *Actor appears courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

A game show where three contestants compete for the grand prize—immediate citizenship to the U.S.A.—and the audience decides who wins. That’s the premise of American Dreams, the newest work by actor/playwright Leila Buck ’99, which just completed its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre on March 3rd.

In this participatory theater piece, each night the contestants—a Mexican-American medic and Dreamer, a Pakistani cartoonist, and a Palestinian chef—compete in five rounds: How America Works (a buzzer-style quiz with questions from the U.S. citizenship test); America’s Favorites (audience volunteers help contestants answer questions from national surveys about Americans’ “favorite things”); Aliens with Extraordinary Skills (contestants pit their talents against each other to see who can most contribute to American society); American Dreams (contestants share their dreams and plans for life in the United States); and The Hot Seat (audience members and hosts interrogate contestants before deciding who should be their newest neighbor).

The audience is invited to participate and to vote throughout the play in various ways, and whoever accrues the most points in all five rounds, wins. The winner (potentially different each night) then swears the Oath of Citizenship as the grand finale of the show—until an unexpected turn of events asks those on stage, and the audience, to question what happens to those who don’t win.

Buck began imagining this piece with her director and co-creator Tamilla Woodard during the summer of 2016, with the presidential election still ahead and questions of immigration and citizenship top-of-mind in the national consciousness. Meeting regularly with Woodard throughout that year, Buck says, “We wanted to create something that would invite audiences to engage with what it means to them to be and to become a citizen of this country.”

And in a moment that she calls typical of their process, they seemed to come to the same idea at the same time: “It’s a game show!”—and the real creative journey began.

The nascent idea was chosen for workshops at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center and Queens College. “They each gave us a budget, time and space to see what this might look like on its feet,” says Buck. Raymond Bobgan, the executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre, came to one of their workshop presentations at LaGuardia, and immediately asked how to bring it to his venue—and American Dreams headed westward.