HomeCollege of Arts and SciencesIn the Marvelous Midst of It

In the Marvelous Midst of It

Southern is a hub for arts and culture — a position forwarded by academic programs emphasizing experiential learning and partnerships with Elm Shakespeare, Long Wharf Theatre, and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

Southern students can wax poetic about the power of arts and cultural organizations — much of it learned through experience. Theatre major Callie Hoyt, ’23, is a telling example. Weeks before graduating, Hoyt completed an internship with the Long Wharf Theatre, a placement that culminated with her working at the organization’s annual benefit. The event, starring six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald, was held at the university’s John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts. Other Owls also were represented, among them senior theatre major Nicholas Moran, who assisted the audio and sound crew for McDonald alongside Michael Skinner, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre.

“Folks from [the International Festival of] Arts & Ideas, the [Yale] Schwarzman Center, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and many others were here celebrating, too. It felt like a reunion,” says Skinner, of the event that drew acclaimed artists, alumni, and students to Southern’s campus.

Announcing the partnership between Southern and the Long Wharf Theatre are: (from left) Callie Hoyt, ’23, and senior Nicholas Moran; Long Wharf Theatre Artistic Director Jacob Pedron; senior Maya Rose; Theatre Department Chair Michael Skinner; and seniors Callie Fusco and Alexina Cristante.

As in real estate, location has helped drive the university’s growing prominence in the arts and cultural arena. Southern is located midway between cultural meccas Boston and New York City, and more importantly, claims New Haven as its hometown. In 2023, the city was included on The New York Times annual list of “52 Places to Go,” lauded for its “thriving cultural life.” The city of New Haven’s Cultural Equity Plan, released in 2022, also meshes with Southern’s commitment to social justice.

Indeed, opportunities abound as illustrated by the 2022 Nonprofit Connecticut Cultural Census, conducted by Wilkening Consulting for the CT Humanities: New Haven County is home to 143 nonprofit cultural organizations, including museums (52 percent), performing arts (31 percent), and “other cultural organizations,” such as schools of the arts, festivals, cinema, etc. (17 percent). Combined they had a total participation of 1.5 million — including educational visits and virtual programs that reached 161,000 students in pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade. And that’s not taking into consideration for-profit organizations.

A scene from The Tempest
A scene from Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest.

Formal partnerships with three celebrated cultural organizations provide Southern students with life-changing educational opportunities. In 2016, the Elm Shakespeare Company became a theatre-in-residence at Southern, following two decades of rehearsing and building sets at the Lyman Center. Two others recently joined the fold. In March 2022, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra also began a residency at the Lyman Center. Then, in December 2022, the Long Wharf Theatre formalized a more than 30-year-long relationship with the university — after the theatre left its longtime home on New Haven’s Sargent Drive in February. It’s goal: to start an exciting new chapter of creating theatre in spaces and stages across greater New Haven. Over the next few years, the company will produce in-person and virtual programming in partnership with local civic, cultural, and public institutions — including Southern.

These and similar partnerships bring countless benefits to students: on-campus performances, classroom visits, hands-on learning experiences, discounted and complimentary student tickets, and internships. They also support Southern’s newly launched minor in arts administration and cultural advocacy (AACA). Introduced in fall 2021, the 19-credit minor is particularly suited for students majoring in art, English, history, music, theatre, and interdisciplinary studies, and those hoping to add an arts-related focus to another professional discipline. Skinner and Joel Dodson, associate professor of English, are co-coordinators of the program.

“One of the goals of the new AACA minor is to give our students a hands-on introduction to the wide variety of creative and professional roles individuals play behind the scenes within an arts organization,” says Dodson. “Southern students will have unparalleled access to new kinds of internships, both in theatre management and other career experiences — from development to communication — of interest to students across the arts and humanities.”

The minor has proven popular, expanding from an initial 10 students to 30 students as of May 2023. Many are drawn by the promise of portfolio-building, real-world experiences. The minor includes a four-credit internship, which can be broken into several shorter placements.

The New Haven Symphony Orchestra performs on SCSU campus.
The New Haven Symphony Orchestra performs on campus.

“My internship at New Haven Symphony Orchestra was very meaningful,” says Callie Fusco, a business administration major with an AACA minor, of working with the development staff. “I was able to work on discovering my own style of writing through grants, sponsorships, and solicitation letters.”

There are other placement opportunities of note, among them: the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, the Connecticut Office of the Arts, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Kulturally Lit, focused on the arts within the African diaspora.

For senior Lydia Sekscenski, Southern’s focus on arts and culture offered an opportunity to explore career paths and potentially find a calling. Sekscenski is a poet and singer-songwriter, who dreamed of studying English as a teen. Instead, in response to others’ urging, she attended Manchester Community College, enrolling in the occupational therapy assistant program. Sekscenski excelled academically but had a nagging feeling she was on the wrong path.

Her soul-searching hit a fever pitch when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in October 2020. She was ill for 11 days, a period that was both frightening and an epiphany. “I reached a conclusion,” she says. “No one is guaranteed a tomorrow. I should be living the life I’ve always wanted.”

Flash forward to the 2022-23 academic year: Sekscenski has transferred to Southern; now a senior, she’s majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing — and minoring in AACA. It’s an academic path that fuels her creativity while providing hands-on experience.

In her first year at Southern, Sekscenski researched the Arts Council of Greater New Haven; completed a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis of the Long Wharf Theatre; and worked on a cultural preservation project for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra on composer Helen E. Hagan, the first Black woman to graduate from Yale University.

Coursework also brought Sekscenski and her peers to the Institute Library, the Beinecke Library, Shubert Theatre, NXTHVN, Possible Futures Bookstore, and Bloom, an artisan market and wellness and community space. And she completed a one-credit internship with Southern’s Department of Integrated Communications & Marketing.

Among her discoveries: she enjoys helping organizations tell their stories. “I now want a career that runs parallel to my creative pursuits, instead of working a job that fully exhausts all that creative, emotional energy,” says Sekscenski.

Opportunities continue to emerge. In May, three Southern students were among 12 selected for the prestigious Arts Workforce Initiative, a competitively appointed apprenticeship program launched by the Connecticut Office of the Arts. Throughout the summer, the students will learn on-the-job at three cultural organizations: Elisedd McGinley, a studio art major minoring in AACA and English, is with CAST, a children’s theatre in Manchester; Tyler Bizier, an art history major and AACA minor, is stationed with the City of New Haven Department of Arts Culture/New Haven Festivals; and Catherine Sigg, a music therapy major with an honors minor, has been placed at the Neighborhood Music School. (Recently launched, the music therapy program is the only one of its kind at any college in Connecticut.)

Three moments from the award-winning production of Civil performed in the Lyman Center’s Kendall Drama Lab at SCSU..
Three moments from the award-winning production of Civil performed in the Lyman Center’s Kendall Drama Lab.

Meanwhile, the expanded exposure to professional arts and cultural organizations is clearly benefiting Southern’s students. In another achievement, the Department of Theatre was recently invited to present its production of Civil at the 55th Region 1 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Hyannis, Mass. — one of only five student productions to receive the honor. (It’s Southern’s second-consecutive invitation.)

In all, the team of 23 students and faculty members earned 11 Certificates of Merit for the region — and that is saying something. Region 1 includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, northeast New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, home to many fine colleges and universities with strong performing arts programs. 

Of note, the festival presented Civil with the Golden Hammer Award for “excellence in preparation and execution bringing an invited production to festival.” The play was directed by Benjamin Curns, an adjunct faculty member who performs regularly with the Elm Shakespeare Company — an educator particularly well suited for showing students how to mount a play in New Haven and then expertly take it on the road. ■

Read more in the Spring ’23 edition of Southern Alumni Magazine


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