In a Paramount Center studio one day last month, four dancers from Emerson’s Performing Arts Department rehearsed alongside professionals from BeHeard.World, a Boston-based nonprofit that gives communities a voice through the arts.
Upstairs, two Writing, Literature and Publishing majors tinkered with spoken word pieces that would form the basis for the dancers’ performances. Out in the hallway, Visual and Media Arts students discussed details of a documentary they’re filming about the project. In walked a handful of Marketing Communications majors, fresh from hashing out promotional ideas at a nearby coffee shop.
They’re all taking a new course called a Partnered Studio, but on some level what they’re doing is bursting bubbles—academic bubbles, disciplinary bubbles, communication bubbles.
“It just fits with the Emerson brand,” Marketing Communications major Kelsey Aijala ’17 said of the BeHeard.World Partnered Studio. “None of our disciplines happen in silos in the real world…[Emerson is] preparing the next generation of artists and innovators.”
The studio has its roots a few years ago in conversation between Marketing Communications Professor Thomas Vogel and BeHeard.World President Jay Paris, a filmmaker. Vogel told Paris about President Lee Pelton’s desire to get Emerson involved in more community engagement, and how much room Vogel thought there was for more collaboration with community partners. The studio came alive with the support of former Vice President and Special Assistant to the President Donna Heiland and School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal.
The College has long had capstone courses—courses within a student’s major that combine all the skills learned throughout the program and direct them toward one particular problem or project. Those are often done with an outside company or organization.
But what makes the studio approach different is that instead of focusing on a specific task within a particular industry, students from multiple fields pool their knowledge and creativity to come at a societal issue or problem from 360 degrees.
“The whole idea of partnered studios is that Emerson, as an institution of higher education, is a community that possesses creativity, knowledge, imagination, and a willingness to use these resources to make a positive change in civic life,” Sabal said.
That’s more or less what BeHeard.World does—uses filmmaking, dance, performance, and public outreach and advocacy campaigns to bring attention to issues of race and social justice. With Emerson College, they are producing two performances: One will integrate Emerson dancers into an existing BeHeard.World piece; another is being created through this studio using material about sexual assault and bipolar disorder from WLP students.
The Emerson-created pieces will be performed November 18 and 19 at the Dance Complex in Cambridge. Both performances will be staged at the Semel Theater on December 13. And both are being filmed and marketed by Emerson students to share BeHeard.World’s message and attract and engage audiences.
“The studio provides an unparalleled opportunity for our students to learn in an environment beyond the classroom, out in the world, aligned with the mission both of Emerson and our academic partner,” Sabal said.
Vogel, one of the studio’s faculty advisors, said people tend to associate creativity with the arts, an incomplete picture that he hopes the studio will correct.
“Even coming into this, there’s a certain perception of what marketing students are doing, a certain perception of what dance students are doing, and what film students are doing,” he said.
“There’s no concept of ‘I’m creative because I have an incredible computer between my ears and I solve problems,’” he said.
He’s been encouraging his marketing students to think about what it would take to engage an audience, to create a message and an experience that would resonate beyond the performance date.
“We’re trying to push even the boundaries of what the marketing students so far have been taught,” Vogel said. “Where art can be communication and communication can be art.”
A “Well-Rounded Growth Opportunity”
Patty De La Garza ’18, a BFA Acting major with a Dance minor, said she signed up for the studio for four reasons: the opportunity to work around social justice issues; the chance to work with professional dancers; the chance to dance, period (as a minor, there’s a limited number of classes); and the ability to collaborate with students from outside her major.
“It’s an extremely well-rounded growth opportunity,” De La Garza said, “and the fact that you get to work with other departments, I think, is an experience that makes it feel more like the real world in a way instead of this academic bubble. Because we do have an outside client, the stakes are higher.”
Another thing the Partnered Studio has in common with the real world: It’s complicated. Designing and delivering a course that involves students from four majors, faculty from two departments and two schools, directors from an entity completely separate from Emerson, and a bevy of professional artists is no straightforward task.
VMA Professor Tom Kingdon, assistant dean of the School of the Arts, was brought on in the beginning to lead the course from a faculty standpoint.
Kingdon, with Paris, advises the VMA students in the studio, the Performing Arts students work with BeHeard.World Creative Director Anna Myer on choreography, and the WLP students are guided by affiliated faculty member Nicole Dutton. But it took a couple of weeks to realize the Marketing Communications students should have their own faculty advisor, Kingdon said.
In addition, the studio by its very nature can’t be structured like a typical class, which leads to all kinds of issues around time management and even space, he said. Everyone gets together at the beginning of each period to give updates, get and share feedback, and hash out ideas. Throughout the class, different groups will come together based on what each needs and what their roles are—marketing and VMA students often work together on promotional materials, the VMA majors are filming and interviewing the dancers, the poets and the dancers collaborate on the performance itself.
The logistics have been “tricky,” Kingdon said, but as the semester has gone on, they’ve smoothed out, and more than anything, the studio is “exciting.”
“It’s quite a big deal to draw together, and I know [Dean] Rob [Sabal] wants to use this model as a way to create further collaboration along these lines,” Kingdon said.
Emerson students can now enroll in a new Partnered Studio directed by VMA Assistant Professor Paul Turano, Projections on a Large Scale. Students in the course will design large-scale projection artworks, which will be displayed in a prominent downtown Boston location, as well as study the history and theory of projection mapping. The partner for this studio will be the group behind the Illuminus Boston Festival, which exhibited last weekend in Downtown Crossing.
Also in the spring, VMA Associate Professor Maurice Methot is leading a Partnered Studio with online audio literary magazine Drum.
Katelyn Guerin ’18, a Marketing Communications student in the BeHeard.World Partnered Studio, said she’s happy to be the “beta tester” for this new model of education.
“The opportunity to reach others and have them feel something and have them be moved by something that you’ve had a part in is really powerful,” Guerin said.
Guerin and Kelsey Aijala, her marketing classmate, said because all the teams in the studio intentionally break through their own departmental bubbles and reach out to each other at so many points in the project, it’s forced them to learn different and more inventive ways to communicate.
“Presenting the creative brief to the rest of the class—it’s made us think about how to communicate…[and] having the ability to work with people with different mindsets,” Aijala said.
“In the real world, you’re not just going to be working with marketers,” Guerin said.
As for their client, BeHeard.World President Paris said he would definitely partner with Emerson again.
“I really think it’s an experiment that’s proven to have a real sort of power out of the collaboration between students from different departments,” Paris said. He said the cross-pollination works on so many different levels: disciplines, professionals with students, students coming in to an existing work vs. producing something from scratch.
And the subject matter—inclusivity, integration, and social justice—is something all parties care about passionately.
“I’m really impressed with the students; they’re so great, they’re so interested, they’re really working hard,” Paris said. “It’s really a pleasure to be part of it.”