STATERA: What do you see as the greatest need and/or the most common need for mentorship relationships?
Meridith C. Grundei: I see a need for empowerment and community. Choosing a career in the arts can be daunting and surprisingly lonely at times. It is always wonderful to have a cheerleader in your corner to remind you that you are never alone!
Sayantee Sahoo: The need to navigate through troublesome and confusing relationship parameters that exist not just within our industry, in our own working relationships, but also in the way our industry is viewed by our patrons.
Rachel Spencer Hewitt: Trust and community. We can't underestimate the healing power of someone taking even thirty minutes at coffee with us, even just to say yes to the thoughts we have about power and progress. When we give that out to others, it's just as powerful. I think everyone should feel ready to join this program even just in bringing themselves to the table.
Mara Jill Herman: The single most important need to impart to future mentees is to carve out a life they enjoy every single day.
Alex Marrs: Reciprocity. I think that mentors and mentees are on equal footing and that there are opportunities for personal and professional growth on either side of the mentorship. Just like in any relationship, it’s essential to give just as much as you take.
STATERA: Tell us about your work in the theatre / or in the arts.
Alex: I’m an event producer and values-based fundraiser at Primary Stages, a nonprofit Off-Broadway theater company.
Mara: I am an actor, singer, writer, teaching artist, private coach, and recently added producer/director.
Sayantee: Currently, I am a Production Manager at an awesome youth theater organization, The 52nd St. Project, located in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York city. Look us up of Facebook, Instagram, and our website. I manage our beautiful theater, the Five Angels Theater and support all the in-house programs on various technical production aspects. I am looking to restart my work as a performance creator, and working on putting together the preliminary ideas based on 'letters send from love ones from afar'. I am fierce supporter of Safety and Health, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity in our industry. And I would love to spearhead a practice-based technical internship program sometime in the near future.
Meridith: I am a hyphenate for sure. I am an actor, director, and educator. For the past 2 years I have been a guest director and teacher at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. for their MFA in Contemporary Performance program. This past fall, I directed and conceived a show called Bite-Size, An Evening of Micro-Theatre for Off-Center at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. I also have an extensive improv background where I have taught for The Second City in Chicago, Il and through my own business called, Red Ball Speaks where I have taught numerous workshops all over the world using improv as a tool for presence and team building. At present, I am acting in a workshop in residence at HB Studios, teaching at The PIT and continuing development on a project I started called, The Father Project.
Rachel: I'm a trained actor and still pursuing work that is challenging, elevated, and provides paychecks that can also pay for my childcare. MFA in acting from the Yale School of Drama, which was one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life. I still learn from moments in my memory that just now make sense in light of experience and progress. Worked all over the country in regional theatre, have worked off-Broadway and on Broadway, and even did my first professional contract at the English Theatre in Vienna. In all of this I've learned - good gravy - I love a live, breathing house.
STATERA: Rachel, can you talk a little about your work with PAAL?
Rachel: Sure! I founded Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL), a national organization to organize, network, and create opportunities for artist caregivers that prioritize their need and turn their lifestyle into assets for our work. Our role with PAAL is to provide support for individuals and institutions as bridge-builders so that access for caregivers becomes common practice and not luck of the draw. We aim to elevate the national standard of support for caregivers in the arts. We are thrilled to partner with Statera so that our distinct conversations can serve to inform the theatre community of their interconnected nature - parity and caregiving go hand in hand, so does PAAL and Statera.
STATERA: Can you all share about your journey to the NYC arts scene?
Mara: As a native New Yorker–born on the Upper West Side and primarily raised on Long Island– New York City has always been accessible. My parents and grandparents were fans and supporters of performing arts in New York and I was introduced at a young age to its breathtaking cultural institutions like museums, ballet, and Broadway. Even when I went away for college, I knew I would move back to New York to build my career. I do wonder what my life would be like if I was from the Midwest or Los Angeles. Would I still hold this preference to make my ultimate work decisions based on living in the Big Apple? Probably!
Sayantee: I am from India, a alumni of the National School of Drama in Direction and Design for theater. I travelled to the United States in 2015 to start my MFA in Technical Design and Production at the Yale School of Drama. Thanks to theater, I have been travelling around India, China and United States over the past decade. I started off as a props artist and painter for my ensemble theater group in Kolkata, India, named Uhinee and then slowly picked up myriad skills. Production is where I want to be right now, and I am super excited to have found a home at The 52nd St. Project.
Alex: My career in development actually began in higher education at Christopher Newport University. My first job after graduating was raising money for my alma mater’s music, theater, and dance programs along with its performing and visual arts centers. After working at the University level on Long Island, I desired to be more involved with the creation of new work. Primary Stages was the perfect fit. What I love about the company is that the playwright is at the center of the production process. We are also a very collaborative team that surpasses departmental silos and hierarchical structures.
Meridith: Ha! I just got here and my journey is a beautiful but complicated one. Let’s just say that NYC provides all of the cultural needs for our unique family. The journey started in Colorado where my husband (the theater composer) and I were both flourishing in the Boulder/Denver theater scene. We were happy but we were also searching for growth in a way that Colorado was unable to provide for our daughter and us. So, as you do, we decided to buy an RV and travel the US and Mexico for a year. During our time on the road, we did a lot of soul searching about what was important to us, which lead us here to New York City.
So far, I have had some lovely successes in my short time in the city but in all honesty, I have never been so confronted by ageism in the arts until I moved here. I have been told several times by reputable industry people to not share things like that I graduated from graduate school 10 years ago or that I have a 7 year old. I was told it reveals my age and that this can hurt my chances for landing certain jobs. One thing I have learned in my “old age” is that everyone in this business has an opinion and you get to choose which ones to block out (insert winking emoticon).
Rachel: I've lived on-the-job in Austria, California, DC, Philadelphia, and New York - all while living in NYC, technically. I have lived in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia off and on, depending on the ebb and flow of work assignments. Essentially, New York has always been the hub for my artistic pursuits, and even now it's the location where I want to cultivate stronger and stronger artistic roots. I first moved to NYC after grad school, and it's always felt like the pace of work that matched my internal pace for work the best.
STATERA: What is your own most memorable mentorship experience?
Sayantee: I mentored a kid with Asperger's Syndrome when I was working as the Technical Director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, in Alaska last summer. As the camp TD, I had to teach a class on Live production to middle school and high school kids. This particular young man was in the high school camp. His classmates considered him 'problematic' when we first started the program, but at the end of the 10 days of camp, I saw him find friends from his classmates in the Production class. They developed a common language to communicate, so that they could work together as the crew on the camp's programs. It was wonderful to see all of them taking up the challenge to make the workplace more inclusive for this friend of theirs, and journey beyond their personal troubles to find the safe, and welcoming, common ground.
Rachel: In graduate school, I had a couple of professors who would engage with me as a mentor by speaking not only to the question I would bring them, but also somehow into the path I could not see as clearly before me - the long term potential of why I asked certain questions. There is a peace that a good mentor gives just by seeing you - not for who you've made yourself to be in order to survive civilized society - but for who you are designed to be. My greatest mentors spoke not just to me but to my potential, at every opportunity, and I always left the conversation feeling equipped, feeling capable, and feeling seen.
Mara: My college mentor Forrest McClendon helped to shape my life. Part vocal technician/ acting coach/ therapist, Forrest has an unmatched energy and zest for life. He helped me to dig deep into the emotional well while investigating text and also encouraged and fostered a drive to believe in myself. My voice lessons became intense workouts both physically and emotionally in order to achieve musical breakthroughs.
Forrest taught the Business of Theater course, which offered smart and practical advice about show business. He emphasized the importance of cultivating relationships with writers so that when they’re developing a piece, and they think of you in the mix, you get to go along for the journey: from a friend’s informal table read, to workshops and demos, to rehearsals and all the way to opening night of the first production.
Alex: I feel so very fortunate to have had a number of mentors early in my career... the late Dr. Stephanie Bardwell’s encouragement helped me gain the confidence I needed to leave my University safety net and stand out on my own.
Meridith: I have definitely had several mentors throughout my career but the most memorable one is Ethie Friend. Ethie was my Roy Hart teacher in graduate school and in my last semester, I was in the process of getting a divorce and a total mess. Her calmness and ability to notice where I was and to work from that place was incredible. After all of these years she has continued to be supportive of my career and I consider her apart of my extended family.
STATERA: How did you become connected to Statera Mentorship?
Alex: The incredible Kimberly Senior introduced me and encouraged me to get involved.
Meridith: The lovely Shelly Gaza reached out to me in 2016 to submit a proposal to speak at the Statera Conference in Denver, so I did! My break out session was titled, How to Not Go Fucking Crazy and the Subtle Art of Presence. Or something like that?
Sayantee: Through a fabulous friend and peer.
Mara: In 2005, I worked with Melinda Pfundstein Vaughn and Shelly Gaza at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. At 19, I looked up to them and was in awe of their talent and accomplishments. When the Statera announcement made front page news of the Equity Newsletter, I felt proud to know them. We reconnected in 2016, when I piloted the first mentorship program.
Rachel: PAAL and Statera's partnership hopes to integrate caregivers into better mentor relationships as well as strengthen and empower the access points of the mentorship program. I'm honored to come on board in NYC both as an advocate for anyone who needs and also as a mentor who can provide any insight or resources possible. PAAL has been growing side by side with Statera, and when our teams joined forces, I knew I wanted to engage personally with the beautiful NYC mentorship program.
STATERA: Talk to us about your leadership style and why you're called to work in this capacity for your community.
Rachel: I've been a mother for about half a decade, but have been researching and advocating for individuals and into institutions for three of those years. I am committed to holding space for every caregiver need I come across and engaged with multiple action plans at the ready for any one person who needs an extra support for all the cares they carry. I'm also here as a woman, an artist, and advocate for making space that creates access for ALL of us - no matter what pathway we take on the way in.
Alex: My style is lead by example. I was drawn to this opportunity because I wouldn’t be where I am today without all the hands and shoulders of women+ before me and it’s my responsibility to pay it forward.
Sayantee: I am not a micro-manager, I believe in my peers and try to challenge them to bring out their best at all times. This means, as a manager, I must help them to not just gain confidence but also trust their own decision making abilities. While at all times, helping them get better at what they do, in the best way I can.
Mara: Patience and empathy have been themes throughout my career. I like to delegate responsibility and surround myself with powerhouse people who are experts at what they do. One friend lovingly called me “the mayor” because I am a connector and build community. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than recommending friends for projects or making artistic introductions.
Meridith: I am a collaborator. I have tried doing work solo and I suck at it. I love bodies in the room and I love bringing great people together. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a fucking kickass group of badasses in a room creating magic. When I attended the Statera Conference in Milwaukee this past October and attended the mentorship meeting, I jumped on the opportunity to start a chapter in NYC. For me, it was an opportunity to meet some dynamic people, which I have and to also be a mentor and mentee in a new city.
STATERA: What recent personal projects or upcoming projects are you excited about?
Alex: Primary Stages is producing an exquisite adaptation of Little Women by the incomparable Kate Hamill at the Cherry Lane Theatre from May 15- June 29. Sarna Lapine is directing. Deborah Abramson wrote original music. The play stars Kristolyn Lloyd as Jo, Paola Sanchez Abreu as Beth, Kate Hamill as Meg, and Carmen Zilles as Amy. Tickets at Primary Stages.org.
Sayantee: Nothing yet. But I will let you know when my "LETTERS" are ready to be read.
Rachel: The PAAL chapter in Philadelphia is raising childcare funds for the Barrymore Awards nominators and adjudicators so that they can see a wide array of theatre while relieving some of the financial burden of caregiving. We're really excited for this campaign HERE - it's groundbreaking. Also, I'm going to be facilitating a LAB at the TCG conference on June 5 in Miami on replicable solutions for caregiving in institutions, Speaking at the Women's Theatre Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina on July 13, leading a session at Latinx Theatre Commonson caregiving and community on July 14, and we're partnering in NYC on a parent-access project, hosting the first PAAL Summit in NYC this fall/winter, and leading a session at the StateraArts Conference this fall in NYC! Bringing it all back home to the big apple and thrilled to be doing it.
Meridith: I am excited to finally start working on a project that I have shelved for a while called The Father Project. It is inspired by the life of my father and the interviews of children who’s parents were veterans of war. Starting in July I will be working with a few collaborators to bring these stories to life. I will be applying for a few residency programs but if there is a reader out there who would like to help me with a connection for space and mentorship—- I am all ears!
Mara: Yes! Musical Theater Today 2019, Volume 3 is now on sale! The anthology features over 40 industry professionals’ contributions, tips, and an inside look at their creative process. It includes my story about producing Stronger Than Hate: A Benefit for Tree of Life Synagogue. For more details, and to order: https://musicaltheatertoday.com.
Also! I perform with America’s Sweethearts, a vintage trio in the style of the Andrews Sisters. Our next appearance is on May 18th at 7pm, The Green Room 42. For everything else, you can follow me @marajillherman
Interested in learning more about Statera Mentorship? Visit www.stateraarts.org/mentorship.
Sign up for Statera Mentorship: NYC Chapter at www.stateraarts.org/new-york-mentorship.
And if you have questions, please visit Statera Mentorship: Frequently Asked Questions.