What the fuck are they teaching our kids? Interview with UArts student Jessica Rodriguez

I’m interested in the growth of The University of the Arts (UArts) and how its graduates have been sticking around and building their performing arts careers here. (Ditto Temple kids.) Honestly, when I grew up here, I never heard of UArts, and I would have found the idea of going to a performing arts school in Philly laughable (this was 1913). Times have changed, and not just because of the advent of the combustible engine. The University of the Arts has become integral in shaping the future of performing arts in Philly, by attracting students here who then stay on after graduating, by employing theatre and dance professionals on their staff (though I’ve heard their pay is generally shit and they are adjunct heavy), and by their impressive presence along Broad Street.

Jessica Rodriguez Philadelphia UArts theater student

Jessica Rodriguez

Jessica Rodriguez is a senior at UArts and I wanted to find out what she thought of her experiences there, as well as in the city, what the hell they had prepared her to do, and what she is hoping to do performing-arts-wise in the future. And if she and her cohorts see Philly as the place to do it.

Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority: What’s your age and what’s your major?

JESSICA RODRIGUEZ: I’m 21 and I’m a Directing, Playwriting, and Production [DDP] major.

PPAA: Why did you choose UArts to begin with?

JR: The main reason I chose UArts was for the location, honestly. Philadelphia seemed like a great city for theatre—less intimidating than New York. I was also drawn to the liberal arts curriculum.

PPAA: Is there a philosophy behind the program you’re in, and does the program match the philosophy?

JR: My program is all about collaboration. We have to take classes in performance, design, directing, stage management, playwriting, you name it. . . . The DPPs get a taste of everything because we ultimately become the people who see the big picture: playwrights, directors, managers, producers. We tend to be the ones who initiate projects, who start theatre companies, and who know how to make things happen. I think the program absolutely matches its philosophy. It fosters collaboration and leadership.

PPAA: What kind of performing arts career expectations do you have for yourself now, and what kind of expectations do you think your peers have? What kind of expectations does UArts foster in its students?

JR: I don’t know what I expect, honestly. I expect that I’ll be able to find work in a theatre. I don’t expect that I can magically get a job as a director or get the plays I write produced at major companies, but my back up plan is theatre. I could get an apprenticeship, be an ASM [assistant stage manager], work on the front of house staff. I also expect that I could start my own company if I wanted to, and I could produce my own work. As for my peers, they all sort of have different expectations. I have a friend who thinks he’ll be working on the creative team at Disney in 5 years. I think there’s a pretty standard expectation that we’ll have to work our way up, but I think overall we expect that we’re valuable candidates and people will want to work with us. It seems to me like the major expectation UArts fosters in its students is that we can do anything. The number of theatre companies that have been started by UArts students, especially in the last couple of years, is astonishing! People go out and they get work, and if they can’t get work they make their own work.

PPAA: So now that you’re in your final semester, how well prepared do you feel prepared for a career in the performing arts?

JR: I feel incredibly prepared and not prepared at all. I have no doubt that I will get to do work that I enjoy with people I like and respect. In fact, I’ve already had a couple of job offers—unfortunately they’ve been during school, so I couldn’t take any of them. I don’t have a plan, though, and that’s where I feel unprepared. I’ve got about a million different ideas of things I could do after I graduate—it’s really liberating to have so many options, but it’s scary not to have a plan. I’ve been planning ahead my entire life, and I’ve never been so uncertain about the future. I do feel confident that I could dive right in, I just have to figure out where I want to dive.

PPAA: What are some of the most theatrically interesting/valuable things that you’ve learned in the past 4 years? And which do you think you will be exploring artistically in the upcoming years?

JR: The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how to look at things objectively and how to critique really well. They say editing is the most important part of writing, and I think that’s true for all art in a way. In the last few years I’ve learned how to look at something I’m working on and make it better. I’ve also learned time and time again that teamwork yields significantly better results than what one person could do alone. The strangest thing I’ve been exposed to at UArts is devised work—not that it’s strange, but it was very strange to me. It’s a weird thing to go into as a playwright who’s used to working alone to come up with the story, but it’s fun and intriguing and a lot of good stuff can come out of bringing actors and other collaborators into the process. I definitely plan to explore devised work more in the future, mostly because it’s still very unfamiliar territory to me. Another thing I’ve been really intrigued by at UArts is puppetry. They really aren’t just for kids, and I’m definitely interested in exploring how to use them to tell a story.

PPAA: Do you feel that you’ve made artistic breakthroughs personally in the past few years?

JR: I’ve made countless artistic breakthroughs in the last few years, especially in the last several months. I’d say the biggest one was with my playwriting. When I came in I had no concept of what made a play good—I had written and directed a play in high school but not much beyond that. I wrote a very expositional, preachy play that had a lot of dialogue and not a lot of action. I used to take everything very personally when people gave me feedback, and I was very resistant to criticism. Somehow workshopping other people’s work—I interned at PlayPenn last summer, and I just finished directing the workshop and production of a new play here at UArts—helped me write better. I can’t put my finger on the moment it happened, but somehow it just clicked in my mind and my writing just got better. And I don’t know exactly when I started hearing criticism as constructive and really taking it into consideration, but I can feel the difference between now and when I first came here. I feel a lot more mature as a playwright and as an artist.

PPAA: How has the city played a role in your learning experience and what are your impressions of the Philly performing arts scene as a whole?

JR: This city has been a wonderful place to learn theatre. There are constantly shows to see and people to meet. I transferred to UArts from a school in California. There was one regional theatre in that area, and those were the only shows we saw outside of school. In Philadelphia there is so much to see that I hardly have the time to catch it all. What’s more exciting is that I know someone who is somehow involved in almost every show that I see. The Philly theatre scene is a real community. It seems to me like everybody knows everybody, and people are always willing to help each other out. Good theatre gets made, and people promote each other’s work—there doesn’t seem to be a negative sense of competition here. I think the work here is exceptional—not all of it, but a lot of it—and people take a lot of risks here. I see a lot of mission based companies that have clearly defined purposes, and Philly is a place where that thrives.

PPAA: What is the general impression amongst you and your UArts colleagues vis-à-vis Philly being a place where you can have a viable career in the performing arts?

JR: I think most people think Philly would be a great place to have a career in the performing arts. There are a few people who want to go to other cities, but I don’t think anyone doubts the potential to make a living here in Philly.

PPAA: What are you most looking forward to once you graduate?

JR: I am most looking forward to the freedom to do whatever I want with my time. These last three years have been meticulously scheduled 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it will be a huge breath of fresh air to have room for spontaneity.  I plan to spend a lot of time reading, writing, and painting for the first couple of months after I graduate. I’m also really tired of having to turn down opportunities because of school—I can’t wait to be able to say “yes!”

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority.

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.