I am an adult student. Now a days, we're called 'life-long-learners.' In 2010, I went back to college after 20 years to attain a BA degree in creativity in the arts from SUNY Empire. Many years ago, I left Temple University in my senior year to co-found my own non-profit theatre company at the age of 21. Anyway, Empire State College of New York has a very progressive component within their undergraduate program. Adult students can count life experience as academic credit toward a undergraduate degree. However, in order to gain life experience credits, students must chronicle their professional experience into a narrative essay. The essay is then sent onto a noted and credentialed professional within the specified area of experience. The student must then pass a rigorous interviewing process with the life experience assessor before the life experience credits can be accrued and counted toward academic credit.

 These days, so many folks are challenged with going back to college.  Needless to say, so much in education has changed. I didn't know what a 'life experience' essay was before I had to write one. The process of writing about my professional experience in an exacting way, and then arguing for the corresponding academic credits was arduous. Luckily for me, I loved writing. I also brought years of playwriting  collaboration to the table. I am published and credited as a contributing writer for a role I originated in the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe's "Aloud" published by Simon and Schuster. So, I've decided to post part of the series of life experience essays I wrote for my undergraduate degree here as style samples. The essays also give my older works context. And as I contemplate graduate school, I can look to these writing samples as a way to stay the course. No sense in letting so much written work continue to gather dust on my hard drive; it's better to share it. Hopefully, other adult students may find them useful. 

 


 
©Photograph and text by Shelita Birchett Benash, 2015
 

Quilting

Black and Blue Angels Series of Twelve. Mixed media art quilt. Hand dyed cotton, silk, mesh and wood.  27"W x 33"L. 2007. Parts of the "Black & Blue Angels" series have been privately collected and other parts hang as part of the Abington Memorial Hospital's art collection in Philadelphia, PA. 

Black and Blue Angels Series of Twelve. Mixed media art quilt. Hand dyed cotton, silk, mesh and wood.  27"W x 33"L. 2007.

Parts of the "Black & Blue Angels" series have been privately collected and other parts hang as part of the Abington Memorial Hospital's art collection in Philadelphia, PA. 

“Objects are not without spirit. As living things they touch us in unimaginable ways” ( Hooks, 2007, 316)

As a child growing up in Philadelphia, I was fascinated with the quilts my grandmother would make for us.  They were asymmetrical and eccentric, like so many of my relatives. Today, I am still mesmerized by the ancient connection of fabric and family found within the elaborate stitching. In relating my experience with quilting, my story begins with what I saw. I have my grandmother, Maybell’s eyes; her multidimensional way of seeing; her eye for color. From a woman who bore sixteen children, including a set of twins, I also inherited a comfortability within certain kinds of chaos.


It’s difficult to explain exactly how those quilts happened to me, the way they seeped into my subconscious. Those quilts were part of some of my earliest memories. They were visual events in my life.  I was enthralled by the stitches like grains of rice, along with the clashes of seersucker, plaids, double knits, and calicos.  There were tweed suits in those old quilts. Uncle Dove’s brown pinstripes? There were floral dresses in them too. Aunt Kitten’s sundress? There were old blue jeans, and scraps from Uncle King’s Army issue khakis.  Yes, I had an Uncle King Albert.  Maybell’s quilts with their knots, ties, and stretched out squares were spirited expressions of frugality. They were sturdy hugs against cold nights for us all.


As I look back at my childhood, I can see how my grandmother’s quilts, along with my mother’s chicken and dumplings, and the Jesus Christ Super Star album, were amongst my first blissful aesthetic experiences. I will never forget the day my big sister brought that album home. It was 1970, I was six years old. Eisner described aesthetic experience as the affect an art work can have on the beholder by the arrangement of its elements, its structure.   The sensate aspects of the form the art work embodies, can animate connections in the beholder’s mind. This is part of what, “...causes us to be touched or moved in its presence” (2002, p.81). This was also true for me. My mother’s chicken and dumplings were aromatic bowls full of love. The Jesus Christ Super Star album rocked my small child’s mind into a place of no return. That’s a story for another day. 
I also felt the fabric deeply. After reading Dewey’s discussion of art and aesthetics in his book “Art as Experience,” I now see, how my grandmother’s quilts moved me toward a way of seeing as experiencing. The time I spent with those quilts amounts to hours of ruminating their construction. I was puzzled by irregular squares and my mind rested in the disparity of colors and textures. There was something in the composition of those quilts that relayed to me a freedom of spirit. This feeling was out of sync with my grandmother’s stern ways with us little ones.  And at six, I had no way of engrossing my grandmother in a conversation about her color theory. She was a quiet woman. And though both my parents were creative; my mother was an avid gardener and my father could build anything; art was not discussed in my house. So these were not thoughts or questions I had out loud. Besides, I was an introspective child. Zen Master John Daido Loori, spoke of contemplation as a meditative way of seeing. Daido Loori called it, “...whole body and mind seeing” (2008, p.78), where the viewer takes in an object without projecting an identity onto it. As a child, this kind of seeing came naturally. As a child, I remember the spiritual life of objects. They had voices. Those quilts were alive in my eyes. I can attest that my grandmother’s quilts, always spoke to me first. As I look back, I see that those quilts were communicating a language to me; a special syntax of patchwork. Fabric dialogue continues to be a running theme in my work, to this day. 

"First Winter in Beacon," Salvaged upholstery fabric and silk. Hand and machine stitched by Shelita Birchett Benash. 2004.

"First Winter in Beacon," Salvaged upholstery fabric and silk. Hand and machine stitched by Shelita Birchett Benash. 2004.

“...love of beauty imposes itself upon man as an ontological imperative; it is far from being just a sentimental attraction” (Shah-Kazemi, 2003, 216).

My grandmother did not carry herself as an artist. She was a plain woman without affectation.  She did not treat her quilts as artworks, as she threw them upon the clothes line and across the beds. Nonetheless, those quilts for me, reflected a state of mind that took me on a train south and other places unknown to me. I had no words for it at the time, for what I was feeling.  It would not be until years later, when I became a young adult with a passion for collecting antique textiles and lace, that I would begin to understand my own sense of perceiving those quilts as beautiful artworks, and my desire to recapture those childhood memories through my own patchwork. Dewey noted that, “Even crude experience, if authentically an experience, is more fit to give a clue to the intrinsic nature of esthetic experience than is an object already set apart from any other mode of experience” (1980, p.11). In my view, Dewey’s statement reaffirms my early age experience of the ordinary nature of the utilitarian bed quilt as art work. My untrained eye was not at a deficit of understanding. Instead, my perception was in tune with the most instinctual level of beauty, color, design, composition, element, emotional life, and expression. Dewey believed, this type of objective aesthetic deciphering of the “run-of-the-mill”(p.11) could make the eye more attuned to the roots of what then constitutes a recognized masterpiece. 

"Doors," Leather quilts and doors salvaged from an antique chest. 2006.

"Doors," Leather quilts and doors salvaged from an antique chest. 2006.

Shelita Birchett Benash Art Quilts

 

“As with great works of art, these quilts are both Classical and Romantic. They are products of everyday life, mental agility, deep sensitivity, and genius” (Beardsley and Arnett, 2002, p.7).

What is art, after all? Were my grandmother’s quilts art? My art education and way of seeing began with my grandmother’s quilts.  Those quilts were simply part of my ordinary reality. They were the back drop for naps, board games, and backyard forts.  Was it still possible to then view those quilts as art? For me, the Quilts of Gee Bend lend themselves perfectly as part of this provocative argument.  Orland suggests we, “...learn about the nature of art by simply responding to the piece itself...”(2006, p.24). That suggests to me, an inclusive and expansive way of seeing. Dewey then seems to suggest a desire to broaden the platform for objects that are to be considered fine art. That could be possible if we were to eliminate the line that separates fine art objects from their connection with the everyday. Dewey then asserted that to break with static notions of art objects that we should, “...forget them for a time, to turn aside from them and have recourse to the ordinary forces and conditions of experience that we do not usually regard as aesthetic” ( 1934, p.4). This is where new significance and context could be found. 


This aspect of aesthetic thinking catapults me back to 2007, when I first physically met with quilts from the Gees Bend collection at the Gees Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt exhibition, at the Tacoma Art Museum, in Washington. Upon entering that great room in the museum where the giant Gees Bend quilts were arranged two rows high on each never ending wall, my eyes sprang spontaneous tears. My heart filled with knowing and exhilaration. Every cell in my body rang with the conscious awareness that I was experiencing genius. However, this genius was not disconnected or apart from me. The Gees Bend quilts were in a museum gallery and were presented as art. They were art works that spoke to me in my own language. In that moment, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother and my own idiosyncratic patchwork. After all, my friends at The City Quilter, jokingly called me “Raw-Edge Woman.” Suddenly, I felt exalted by my inherited artistic aesthetic.  


 In part of his discussion of African American Vernacular Art, Paul Arnett contended that, “ We must walk away from our absorptions with what this art isn’t---and why it isn’t whatever it’s represented to be---toward the richer soil of what it is---or atleast, what the practitioners believe it to be(2001,p. 26). In my view, Arnett’s statement gets to the heart of the conflicting narratives that can sometimes swirl around the head of the self-taught untrained artist who ventures into the mainstream artistic arena; that is, until that untrained artist’s “crude” art work is recognized as a masterpiece.

"Spreading Centers Series: Bramble" Whole cloth art quilt. Expressive hand weaving and animate fiber work on floor loom. Silk, metal, bamboo, and organic fiber. Published at part of the "Fiber Force: A Futuristic Approach" catalogue, and exhibited nationally as part of the corresponding invitational that debuted in the Pacific International Quilt Festival, 26"W x 111"L, 2007

"Spreading Centers Series: Bramble" Whole cloth art quilt. Expressive hand weaving and animate fiber work on floor loom. Silk, metal, bamboo, and organic fiber. Published at part of the "Fiber Force: A Futuristic Approach" catalogue, and exhibited nationally as part of the corresponding invitational that debuted in the Pacific International Quilt Festival, 26"W x 111"L, 2007

“...quilt making was a spiritual process where one learned surrender. It was a form of meditation where the self was let go” ( Hooks, 2007, p.327).

"Porch" Antique wood salvaged from the demolition of my front porch. Hand pieced leather quilts. 8"w x16"L. 2004.

"Porch" Antique wood salvaged from the demolition of my front porch. Hand pieced leather quilts. 8"w x16"L. 2004.

"Spreading Centers Series:"Sphinx"  Whole cloth art quilt. Expressive hand weaving and animate fiber work on floor loom. Silk, metal, fresh water pearls and organic fiber. Published at part of the "Fiber Force: A Futuristic Approach" catalogue, and exhibited nationally as part of the corresponding invitational that debuted in the Pacific International Quilt Festival, 26"W x 111"L, 2007

"Spreading Centers Series:"Sphinx"  Whole cloth art quilt. Expressive hand weaving and animate fiber work on floor loom. Silk, metal, fresh water pearls and organic fiber. Published at part of the "Fiber Force: A Futuristic Approach" catalogue, and exhibited nationally as part of the corresponding invitational that debuted in the Pacific International Quilt Festival, 26"W x 111"L, 2007


Art Wear

“That feeling of being torn comes from hearing consciously or unconsciously, something call us, calling us back, something we cannot say no to without hurting ourselves” (Estes, 1992, p.278).

SKITZO SKIRTZ:RED BACKVIEW.jpg

Skitzo Skirtz: Cherished Denim Collection, 2001 
Reclaimed denim, silk chiffon, silk velvet, vintage and antique textiles and lace, machine pieced and stitched.
By Shelita Birchett Benash

  It was a beautiful day in the city. I was on the 6 train on my way to meet a friend in Soho. I got off the train at Bleecker Street and began making my way through the turn-style and up the stairs. As I walked up Bleecker, I could hear a woman calling after me. I turned around to watch a petite woman with pixie cut auburn hair running toward me. She looked like she was in her late 40s.  As she got closer she panted, “I love your skirt. It’s gorgeous. I couldn’t stop staring at you on the train. Can I ask where you got it?” I was flattered and caught off guard as I told the woman that I had made the skirt myself. She then asked,”Do you sell them?” Now, this is one of those slow motion moments that I will never forget because at first I answered, “No.” I always said, “No” whenever asked about selling my Skitzo Skirtz. It was not because I coveted them. On the contrary, I’d been giving them away to friends and family for years. Perhaps, it was the quilter in me; I had yet to see tangible worth in those things I had made by hand. However, within a split second that lasted 100 years, I experienced a shift in my mind. It felt literal. It was jarring. I was caught by the energy coming out of that woman’s hazel eyes.   I towered over her in my wedges, as people buzzed by us standing there. Still, that extra second was just long enough to let that woman into my personal space. Then as if someone had kicked me in the behind, I said, “Yes.” 


     That crystalized moment happened in 2002. At the time, I had no idea how saying, “Yes” to that woman on the sidewalk, would setoff a chain of events that would completely alter the trajectory of my life. 
 In the years since that day, I’ve come to recognize that experience as a “call to adventure” (Plotikn, 2003, p.17).  Ecopyschologist, Bill Plotkin described the “call to adventure” as both “ a crisis and an unsurpassed opportunity” (p.48). According to Plotkin the “call to adventure” is partly the way of the soul summoning us to go deeper into our own spirits, so that we might release ourselves from those things that are keeping us from experiencing our true place in the world.  Joseph Campbell described the “call to adventure as, “...the awakening of the self”(2008, p.42), that can happen at any stage or position in life. Campbell then goes on to assert that the “call to adventure” signals the beginnings of, “...a mystery of transfiguration---a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for passing of a threshold is at hand” ( p.43). 


     As I look back, the sense of spirituality along with the death and rebirth aspects of Campbell’s “call to adventure”(2008, p.42) theory are especially resonating because the day that woman arrested me with her question, I was still experiencing the aftershocks in the wake of 911. Like most people who were in New York City on that day, I experienced a shattering of my perspective of life: humanity, the world and my place within it. I was forever changed. My views on the meaning of success and happiness had also begun to change. Certain career aspirations had begun to lose their sway over me, and I started thinking more about the quality of the life I was living, and what was really most meaningful to me. 


“...the soul waits for---or creates---a trauma, something extreme that will loosen the ego’s grip on its old way of belonging to the world” (Plotkin, 2003, 50).

Shelita Skitzo Skirt Brown Touchcopy.jpg

Skitzo Skirtz: Cherished Denim Collection, 2001 
Reclaimed denim, silk chiffon, silk velvet, vintage and antique textiles and lace, machine pieced and stitched.
By Shelita Birchett Benash


That first customer and paid commission for one of my original designs marked the beginning of the end of my acting career. Of course, I did not see it that way at the time and it’s far too complicated to go into it here. Still, the new venture of designing and selling artwear from my New York City apartment, caused what Plotkin described as, “...an earthquake in the middle of my life” (2003, p. 17). It was an exciting and unbelievably confusing time. It was also very difficult.  I was experiencing what Campbell described as a diametrical tension between my life as it was, as opposed to this new force that was reshaping my self-perception and the way I was moving through the world.  After all, I was going full blast with my theatre company. We were in the midst of preproduction planning for an Off-Broadway run of our adaptation of “For Colored Girls...” I had auditions for commercials and voiceovers happening. I was in the midst of commuting between New York City and Philadelphia, while working on the development of a lead character in an independent film with, director and screenplay writer, Steve Jimenez. As it stood, I had been working together with Steve and two other actors for over a year, already.  I was not living the life of a fashion designer. Nonetheless, I kept saying, “Yes” to each new Skitzo Skirt commission and trunk show. I kept saying, “Yes.” 


     Strangely, I felt comfortable moving amongst the crafts people and artists that I was meeting at the different craft shows I attended around New York City and Upstate New York. Suddenly, I saw something material in a home life.  I began to envision an organic studio that revolved around sharing a creative journey with my husband, making art and sharing beauty.


     “...you long to embody your soul in a way that engenders genuine and intimate communion between people, the land, and the other-than-human beings” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 307-308).  

     
     These days, many are faced with remaking their lives. So many people are being let-go; or walking away from an unhappiness; or experiencing a career change after a lifetime of doing something else. I believe, those people would understand what it was like for me to leave my theatre company. I believe, others could relate to the feelings of unbelievable loss that I experienced as I left my business partner and my professional circle after 16 years. The process of leaving my life as I knew it, and the subsequent loneliness I felt as I walked through the doorway of a new way of being, is something that I think other people could relate to. According to Plotkin, Rilke described “the call” as an approaching storm that we can’t outrun. It’s a storm we must turn toward, facing the winds (2003, p.49).  Therefore, saying, “Yes,” to the “call to adventure,” living blissfully, the soul journey, and starting over as an adult in mid-life are definitely subjects I would like to study more about in graduate school. 

SKITZO SKIRTS:BLUE BACK.jpg

Skitzo Skirtz: Cherished Denim Collection, 2001 
Reclaimed denim, silk chiffon, silk velvet, vintage and antique textiles and lace, machine pieced and stitched.
By Shelita Birchett Benash

Copyright © 2014 Shelita Birchett Benash.  All rights reserved.


Theatre Management, Collaboration and Performance


 
Shelita Birchett Benash Promotional postcard 2002.

Shelita Birchett Benash

Promotional postcard 2002.


Becoming the custodian of my own theatre company at 22, offered me the opportunity to grow and to develop skills I might not have developed otherwise. I embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and learned to do many jobs like: public relations, graphic design, scouting and securing performance venues, contract negotiations, fundraising, producing, grant writing, casting, hiring and working with technical staff, all out of shear necessity.


 At the time, I had no conception of leadership as a system of theoretical behaviors. Nor did I recognize  organizations as contained cultural structures. For all I knew, I was just doing my job. I also had no managing philosophy. Back then, my approach to doing business was simply to learn how to do the things I did not know how to do: quickly. The idea was to get things done. Most times, that meant doing things myself. This was the essence of my relationship to running a theatre company. I would describe both mine and my business partners’ management styles as very hands-on. Our hands were in everything from writing plays, to painting sets, to cleaning bathrooms.


“The science of theatre-building must come from studying what it is that brings about the most vivid relationship between people---and is this best served by asymetry, even disorder?”(Brook, 1968, 65).
Since my return to college in 2008, I’ve taken two courses that have informed my understanding of business management and organizational structures. Both courses were 400 level: Organizational Communications at Temple University and Exploring Business and Management at Marist College. I have no formal education in business and art, which means, I’ve learned everything I know about running a business and making art, while on the job. Taking a communications course, as an adult student  exposed me to organizational concepts and theories such as the, “New Science” systems theory which according to Miller, breaks with rigid classical views of organizational structure. Within the “New Science” theory there is a movement toward putting physics and cosmology theories into practical use while examining organizational structures. As a result organizations are then viewed by Miller’s assessment as potentially organic. Miller then uses Horgan (1996, pp. 196-197) in her text to further her point of discussion of the nonlinear and nonstandard organization “...which emphasizes the importance of complexity, fluctuating information, and innovativeness that can emerge when a system is at “the edge of chaos.” (p. 85).


I was surprised to come across this kind of information upon my return to college as an adult. I was even more surprised to find an organizational structure that I was very familiar with described as being on the vanguard of systems research. Therefore, I’m interested in studying more about “New Science” systems theories in graduate school as a way of better understanding and synthesizing my theatre experience, as well as articulating that experience into practical applications to be used in other types of organizational cultures.  

 


Theatre Double

I would describe my theatre experience as creative, alternative, experimental and entrepreneurial. In 1987, I left Temple University in my junior year, to pursue my passion in the theatre. I had been a Broadcast Journalism major. I lacked formal academic training in theatre, which positioned me outside the conventional mainstream theatre community that was burgeoning in Philadelphia, at the time. Despite not having an academic background in theatre, I went on to work with many of Philadelphia’s well established mainstream regional theatres. I was cast in many enriching and exciting roles that challenged me to grow as an actor, while also helping me to better my craft.  Nonetheless, I was most interested in developing and producing my own work. The original plays that I helped to develop and write with my theatre company would take precedent over the extensive auditioning process that would have otherwise been part of the main focus of a more conventional actor’s career path. Instead, I was the type of actor that would work years on devising, collaborating, developing and writing an original character for the stage. By working that way over the years, I developed a type of creative endurance and unique skill set that became a tremendous asset to me as an actor, producer and writer.  For instance, I was honored to be invited to work on two, two year long Equity developmental workshop productions with InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, PA. Award winning Playwright, Thomas Gibbons invited me to work on the development of two roles he conceived with me mind. Ramona Africa, in 6221: Prophecy and Tragedy, 1992 and Shelita Burns in Bee-Luther-Hatchee, 1999. It was an immense honor to work on both world premiere productions and to have Thom name one of the characters I originated for the stage after me. 
During my theatre career, I also had the honor to work on originating two roles for the stage written by Joyce Carol Oates. In 1995, I was cast in the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays world premiere of Here She Is!: Nine One-Act Plays by Joyce Carol Oates and directed by Carol Rocamora, which were performed at the Harold Prince Theatre in Philadelphia, PA. Both roles I originated were comedic. Veronica in Negative and Miss Michigan in Here She Is! Regarding her workshop experience during production, Oates wrote, “At each reading and rehearsal, I learn not only more about the potential depths of the characters I’ve created, but about the fascinating subtleties of the actor’s craft; the ingenuity of the director whose vision is implemented with such elliptical art, an audience may think there is no art---no “artifice”---at all” (Playbill, March 8-19, 1995). 
The development of both comedic characters involved working directly with artistic director, Carol Rocamora and playwright, Joyce Carol Oates. The developmental workshop for both plays involved: structured improvisations; creating a back story for my character; improvising dialogue; discussing character intentions with the playwright; employing specific acting exercises at the behest of the director during rehearsals; implementing script changes daily; reading lines exactly as written. Devising new plays for the theatre taught me what was most required from all artists hired for and committed to the process of bringing a new play to the stage:  seriousness for their craft; attention to detail; big picture thinking; a creative and adaptive sensibility; comfortability within the chaos of not knowing; ability to immediately invest in new realities in service to plot, story line, structure, character and production. 

During my career in the theatre, I also had the opportunity to develop characters for educational theatre productions. I’ve included a synopsis of  some of the more notable theatre educational outreach productions I have worked on. My experience with doing educational theatre outreach is another example of my commitment to working on long-term creative projects in the theatre. It is also illustrative of my ability to work with different directors on devising and developing new characters and contributing to the writing and developing of work that informed and educated an audience.
The productions listed here all began without written scripts. The plays were devised and written during the rehearsal process. The process of devising and developing a script during preproduction requires a certain level of commitment from the actors and directors involved in the process. When I worked on creating new work for the theatre, I often came to the table having done intensive research for the subject of the play. For instance, for the role of the artist that encountered the ghost of Henry Osawa Tanner in Appearing Light, I was tutored in fine art drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I read about Henry Osawa Tanner’s contributions to art history. I studied his paintings. I believed, that was part of my responsibility to the creative process. 
Alison Oddey described the process of devising theatre as,”...thinking, conceiving, and forming ideas, being imaginative and spontaneous, as well as planning. It’s about inventing, adapting, and creating what you do as a group” (1994, p.1). 



Shelita Birchett Benash, originated role of Shelita Burns. 

Shelita Birchett Benash, originated role of Shelita Burns. 



Theatre Educational Outreach
Devising, Development and Collaboration 

Statues!
InterAct Theatre Company, Philadelphia, PA
Directed by Seth Rozin, 
Statues! was an environmental theatre production. Along with five other actors and the director Seth Rozin, I participated in a six month long Equity developmental workshop that resulted with a script that dealt with iconography and hero worship within our society. Statues! was performed outdoors in front of many of Philadelphia’s most well known monumental outdoor sculptures. The interactive theatre piece encouraged people to really look at the great statuary they walked by daily and to discuss the history and importance of statues in their communities. The National Gallery of the American Art of the Smithsonian Institution used Statues!, as part of a larger video entitled American Identity: Nation, Community, and Place. The video was then distributed nationwide as part of the Save Outdoor Sculpture! initiative.

Appearing Light 
Free Association Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
Directed by Joshua Korton,

The Appearing Light was sponsored by the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Ford Motor Company. The performance art piece was staged as a spontaneous debate between two strangers within the Henry Osawa Tanner exhibition. Appearing Light, answered questions about Tanner and his contributions to art history, as well as challenged the way viewers engaged with art within the Art Museum setting. As an actor, I was integral to the writing and development of my character. My contributions to the script were maintained throughout the national tour of the production. The Henry Osawa Tanner exhibition was the first solo exhibition of an African American artist in the history of the Philadelphia Art Museum. 

All it Takes...
Directed by Barry Kornhauser
Fulton Opera House, Lancaster, PA, 
A 90 minute highly interacted play that was developed at the Fulton Opera House, in Lancaster, PA., under the auspices of the Philadelphia Department of Education. Along with the director and four other actors, I was integral to developing the story line and structuring the improvisations that were designed to educate adolescents about HIV/AIDS. My role as Health Educator required that I be trained and certified through the American Red Cross as an HIV/AIDS instructor. During each performance I facilitated an extensive Q&A session that helped students to understand how HIV/AIDS related directly to their lifestyle choices. All it Takes... reached almost 20,000 students over a six month tour of the state of Pennsylvania. 


Theatre Management 
My former business partner, Michael LeLand and I were interviewed for an article that ran in the Philadelphia Tribune on November 23, 1999. We were soon to celebrate a year in our new theatre on Walnut Street. The article written by Christina Crews, gave a detailed history of Theatre Double, as well as an insightful look into what our mission and philosophy was at the time; the challenges we faced with running our own 200 seat theatre space in downtown Philadelphia; theatrical projects underway; and our commitment to professional and artistic growth. The Philadelphia Tribune article supplies solid supporting background of my experience in managing my own not-for-profit theatre company including mention of an experience with a Pew Charitable Trust Foundation mentor. 



Shelita Birchett Benash Theatre Double Repertory Company

Philadelphia Tribune Article


Abstract (Summary)
Theatre Double was co-founded by actress Shelita Birchett and director Michael LeLand in 1987. Before taking up permanent residence in Philadelphia, the group performed both here -- in venues like the Walnut Studio Theatre and The Painted Bride and The Brick Playhouse --and in New York in the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe, Westbank Downstair's Theatre and the HERE Center for Performing Arts.
Though Birchett and LeLand, Philadelphia natives, met while working at Bushfire Theatre, they feel that that all these years later, instead of going back to their roots, the call to be independent was more compelling.
Currently, Theatre Double is performing "Jason & Medea" which will run until Dec. 12. Described as "a metaphor for race in America," "Jason & Medea" is taken from a 4,000-year-old Greek myth that explores issues of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and the effect of divorce on children. It is Birchett who plays Medea meaning "the foreigner."
Copyright Philadelphia Tribune Nov 23, 1999

Artistic duo finds home on Walnut St.: Theatre Double provides space, training for actors, playwrights
There's a new theater on the block. Literally.
Theatre Double, a Black-owned and operated theater company, is approaching its one year anniversary of taking permanent refuge in the building that was formerly inhabited by Temple University in Center City. The building, at 1619 Walnut St., is no longer frequented by students walking to their first semester classes. Now the building breathes life into actors, writers, directors and stagehands that seek to envelop the city in their craft.


Theatre Double was co-founded by actress Shelita Birchett and director Michael LeLand in 1987. Before taking up permanent residence in Philadelphia, the group performed both here -- in venues like the Walnut Studio Theatre and The Painted Bride and The Brick Playhouse --and in New York in the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe, Westbank Downstair's Theatre and the HERE Center for Performing Arts.


Though they were content to bandy back and forth between states, they were offered a bit of sage advice. "We had a really good mentor at the Pew Foundation who was honest and said `Look, you guys can keep producing like this, using your own money, until you're in your 70s, but you won't get to the next level unless you look forward to having a space and creating a profile here in Philadelphia,'" recalls Birchett.


They took that into consideration, especially when realizing that renting a theater space in this city is so expensive that when it came time to put on a show, finding a space that was in their budget was little more than aggravating. That's when LeLand took the project under his wing. Donning the cap of a super sleuth, he discovered that the space on Walnut Street, rife with history that includes housing the old "Mike Douglas Show" of the `60s and `70s, had been vacant for two years. He seized his opportunity.


"It seemed a feasible thing to do ... to put roots down here, produce from this space and create an umbrella situation for other artists to come here and work under our auspices," said Birchett, 35.
Theatre Double started out as a bunch of friends who shared a passion for dramatic art. They would gather once a year, outside of their professional commitments, to produce a show with each other. Because they enjoyed working with each other so much, in 1994 they decided to produce a whole season of shows instead of one annual show.


LeLand says, "We started producing because as artists and as African Americans, you want to have control over how your image is portrayed and what it says in your work."
Though Birchett and LeLand, Philadelphia natives, met while working at Bushfire Theatre, they feel that that all these years later, instead of going back to their roots, the call to be independent was more compelling.
Operating on the theory of "God bless the child that's got his own," Theatre Double has it's own direction, its own purpose and its own ideas.
Getting inspiration from renowned African American playwright August Wilson ("The Piano Lesson," "Jitney") who stated that though Philadelphia is 45 percent Black, only three Blacks run theaters, while there are 25 in the area.
"It's an area where minorities are underrepresented ... there's room for another voice," said LeLand. "Being African American, when we look at art we're going to have a different cultural, experiential base from which to draw and make judgements. The buck stops with us. You're going to see extreme multicultural work here but you can look at it and see that African Americans were essential to its creation."
"As actors, sometimes we're not challenged to be more -- to learn how to administrate, to write grants, produce, etc., branching out into my own theater and developing my own projects opened the sky to me. I feel like my ability to be a success in this business is limitless and its given me a lot of fortitude," believes Birchett.


And though other Black-owned theaters exist, this duo at Theatre Double say they are different because they almost exclusively perform new work that they themselves create.
They believe these creations intrigue people and make them question their expectations of others.
Theatre Double also allows local and national playwrights to have their work performed.
But the 12-member multicultural group doesn't just concentrate on their acting, directing and constructing.
They have acting classes for adults and children, a voluntary intern program, open auditions, reading series and a children's theater series.
Keeping the theater up and running is constant work, but the sweat of their labor in bringing forth much fruit.
"I think the struggle is just the nature of who we are as human beings. We're always pushing ourselves farther than we really ought to be going. But in doing so, we're growing quickly and our capacities are always expanding because we're always challenging ourselves," says LeLand, 33.
Birchett agrees. "Blessings and tidings are coming in daily and that's just based on sheer tenacity of wanting to be here," she said.


Currently, Theatre Double is performing "Jason & Medea" which will run until Dec. 12. Described as "a metaphor for race in America," "Jason & Medea" is taken from a 4,000-year-old Greek myth that explores issues of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and the effect of divorce on children. It is Birchett who plays Medea meaning "the foreigner."
The next production, "The Me Nobody Knows," based on the book of the same title, runs Jan. 12-Feb. 6. 2000.
Theatre Double's future involves expansion.
The duo says they will continue to nurture and develop new artists and playwrights, in addition to stepping into the community to begin an anti-violence outreach program that will go out into the schools next year.
Also, next summer they will have a children's theater competition, where young ones will compose plays of their own. LeLand says, "You're rewarded in this society for being good in sports, but you're not rewarded so much for being a good artist or being creative and I think it's a good thing to encourage our young people to do so."
Photo (Michael LeLand and Shelita Birchett)
Indexing (document details)

Shelita Birchett Benash with former business partner, Michael LeLand. 

Shelita Birchett Benash with former business partner, Michael LeLand. 


“We are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all” (Artuad, 1958, 79).

The experimental plays that I created, developed, wrote and produced with Theatre Double were very process oriented and character driven pieces that focused upon delving into the human experience beneath the civilized mask.  The theatre company’s mission was modeled around visionaries such as, Antonin Artaud, Peter Brook, and Jerzy Grotowski. Our method of examination into the human experience was through the combination of poetry, live music, and movement. 


 As artists we truly believed that the theatre was not meant to be an elite experience, that only served to reaffirm historical societal norms and customs. We believed that the audience should also partake in the risk of revelation and release from psychological and emotional artifice. We sought symbiotic communion through performance. As Grotowski espoused, we also chose to create works that were, “...concerned with the spectator who has genuine spiritual needs and who really wishes, through confrontation with the performance, to analyse himself” (2002, 40). Ours was an idealistic view. We believed that our theatre had something of value to contribute to the greater meaning of collective society.  As actor Peter Feldman described from his work with Peter Brook, “Our object was to make visible on stage those levels of reality which are usually not expressed in situations: the elusive, irrational, fragile, mysterious or monstrous lives within our lives...” (Kustow, 2005 p. 138).


 At the time, I viewed the ritual of theatre as similar to that of the church. I believed, the church and theatre shared a uniquely human and uniquely sacred communion of belief.  This belief system placed me and the people I worked with, at the time, inside a very particular artistic aesthetic that would infuse not only my craft, but my life. 


I took my work seriously, and wanted to learn as much as I could about the craft of acting, so I took acting classes at several professional theatres in Philadelphia and New York City.   My theatre training included: scene study with Al Simpkins of Bushfire Theatre; method acting with Gordon Phillips and film technique with Jiri Zizka, both of Wilma Theatre. I also studied improvisational and commercial acting with Jeffery Zeiner at the Creative Actor’s Workshop in New York City.


  When I decided that I wanted to become an actor, I was most fortunate in that, I began working immediately in the field. It was not long before I garnered my Equity, SAG, and AFTRA union cards.  My theatre training was on-the-job. I was also fortunate to cultivate professional relationships with veterans in the field who encouraged my career aspirations and who were instrumental in my artistic and professional growth. Most notable were, Miguel Alguarin, founder of the Nuyorican Poet’s cafe, in New York City, and  professor of English at Rutgers University, and Lois Elaine Griffith, artistic director at the Nuyorican and professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Miguel and Lois were both influential to my growth and development as an artist and theatre owner.  They gave my theatre company free rehearsal space; they helped us to apply to and win a small grant toward our production costs for Jason & Meda; they schooled us in the ways of running a successful experimental theatre; they included our play Just the Boys as part of their theatre anthology, Action: The Nuyorican Poets Cafe Theatre Festival, published by Simon & Schuster. That would be my first credit as a published writer. Miguel and lois believed, as we did, that theatre should be accessible to everyone. Miguel was also fiercely supportive of those of us who were committed to creating new work for the theatre and to telling stories from diverse cultural points of view.  They believed in our vision, at the time, and helped Theatre Double to broaden its artistic scope as a burgeoning not-for-profit theatre.  Miguel had strong views on the  potential for commercial success in the not-for-profit theatre. “Not-for-profit theatre as a rule is viewed as being fourth rate, but this is far from so. The last twenty years have proven that the not-for-profit sector can produce rich and vastly innovative theater for the marquees of Broadway”(1997, p.xvi). Miguel Algurin and Lois Griffith were allies and friends to me. 


Other professional allies and mentors included: Kevin McShane a commercial casting agent at the Fifi Oscard Casting Agency, located in New York City. Mike Lemon, of Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia, PA and Gregory K. Spence, who at the time was the Vice President and General Council of the New School For Social Research, in New York City. He was a member of Theatre Double’s Board of Directors. He was also a great mentor and friend to my business partners and me. 


 I soaked up all I could from other performing artists, fellow actors, playwrights, and directors, about the many ways of self-preparation. I used what I had learned from taking acting workshops at the Wilma Theatre with Gordon Phillips that specialized in the classic methods by Stankislavky. Those workshops centered on challenging the actor to tap into their own life experiences as a way of developing a more truthful character.  I also had the occasion to work with a particular director, Carol Roccamora, who at the time, was the artistic director for Festival Theatre for New Plays in Philadelphia, PA. Carol liked to use Uta Hagen acting exercises as part of rehearsals. For instance, I remember exercises that focused on active listening in which, “We do not hear the outer word or words, but rather what is inherent in them” (Hagen, 1991, 113). From all of that, I then developed my own strategic and disciplined approach to acting. I found out what worked for me. I used meditation, breathing techniques, singing, movement, visualization, and prayer as the means to prepare my mind for its journey to the other side of consciousness. 

Shelita Birchett Benash, as Medea at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 1996.

Shelita Birchett Benash, as Medea at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 1996.


My life experience credits include: Theatre Management, Theatre Performance, and Collaboration.  I managed my own not-for-profit theatre company for 16 years. Theatre Double Repertory was multicultural and intergenerational. Not one of us was from a wealthy family, graduates of a business school, or drama conservatory. We were idealists; a group of determined dreamers: artists, poets, writers, craftsworkers and musicians. We hailed from a myriad of ethnic backgrounds, ages, disciplines, and experience. As a resident company, we fostered each others artistic growth and development. Our shared passion to express new ideas in the theatre pushed us to artistic heights we may not have achieved on our own.


 During my tenure as artistic director from 1987 to 2003, I held many jobs that were instrumental to the daily maintenance of running a theatre. As far for the technical aspects involved in theatre production, I was the resident costume designer for Theatre Double. I am not a seamstress, so I would employ a seamstress to work with me on sketching out my designs and executing costumes needed for a particular production. I am a self-taught sewer and devised my own unique way of building wearable art. I was able to use my technique in designing and building costumes for Theatre Double’s, 2002, Off-Broadway production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough by Ntozake Shange. My costume design for that production received this notice,”Costumes by Birchett are beautifully layered and adorned with patches of different designs but clearly distinguished by the ladies’ seven colors of the rainbow: red, brown, green, purple, orange, blue and yellow...” Toomer, J. ( 2003, March 6-12). Breaking New Ground ‘For Colored Girls’. New Amsterdam News, p. 23


 Our theatre was inclusive. For instance, some of the technicians we worked with had never before stepped inside a theatre, and in some cases had never even seen a play. This created a dynamic and exciting atmosphere of intuitive creativity. For instance, the lighting designer for our first production of Theatre Double’s Jason & Medea in 1994, was notable for designing concert lights at clubs in the Philadelphia music scene. As opposed to exclusively working  with trained theatrical set designers, costume designers, sound designers, and builders, we often collaborated with artists who worked outside the theatre. We enlisted the talents of fine art painters and sculptors who made art pieces for our productions, as well as musicians who wrote and performed original live music. We also enlisted a roofing contractor who moonlighted as a harmonica playing blues musician to build our sets. We worked with many people who, at the time, would have never been sought after to work in Philadelphia’s mainstream theatre. We worked that way by circumstance and necessity. Many of those artists and technicians were our friends who were simply excited by what we were doing and the kind of theatre that we were creating. Nonetheless, working that way, opened us up to bold new perspectives and unprecedented possibilities within the artistic process. We found innovative ways to design lighting, sets, sound, and costumes that were not limited to the conventional theatre. This was all a part of the alternative theatre experience. Our way of creating theatre was completely outside the box. This experimental collaborative environment was where I learned all it takes to devise, develop, write, and produce a play. 


    16 years of working in the professional theatre has given me solid experience in organized creativity as a working structure, and its use as part of a systematic expression in the arts. My alternative experience in the theatre also allowed me to incorporate my academic background in Communications. Life in the theatre for me, was a daily exercise in the practice and application of: the  dynamics of small group communication; problem solving; risk-taking; organizational change; transformational leadership; collaboration; innovative thinking; building and managing creative environments; and sustaining creativity through flux. Therefore, I’m interested in studying more about creativity theories in graduate school as a way of better understanding and synthesizing my theatre experience, as well as articulating that experience into practical applications to be used in other types of organizational cultures. 


I left the theatre in 2003, however I’ve maintained my psychological conditioning. It still causes me to work in a very particular way that flows throughout all aspects of my life, including my professional pursuits as a visual artist and adult student.  I still carry that resident company experience with me. Making authentic grounded connections with those I work with, and fostering a supportive creative learning environment where new ideas and approaches are encouraged, continues to be very important to me. 


I broke all the rules during my career in the theatre. I teetered on the edge of chaos. And in the process I honed my creative spirit into a viable work ethic that has been very useful to me academically.  In this next phase of my artistic and academic careers, I look forward to discovering ways of translating some of my most valued life principles and creativity based work ethics, into practical applications that will find their way into environments outside of the arts, where I might inspire others to explore the heights of their own creative potential. My mission as I look forward to graduate school, is to use creativity as a synergistic learning tool, while maximizing the outward scope and expression of my talents combined.

 

 

 


Refreneces
    Artaud, A. (1958). The Theater and its Double. New York, NY:     Grove Press, Inc..

    Growtoski, J. (2002). Towards a poor theatre. New York, NY:     Routledge.
    Hagen, U. (1991). A Challenge for the Actor. New York, NY: Scribner.