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Playwright-Director Uses Theater to Build Community in Columbia’s Backyard

When the School of the Arts launched an initiative in 2011 to develop programs that would connect its students and faculty with the local community, Claytie Mason (SOA’14) was the first student to present the school with a project—bringing the stories of neighborhood seniors to the stage.

It was an idea that had come to Mason while she was selling theater subscriptions over the phone for the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. She admits to being a terrible telemarketer because she was more interested in hearing what the people on the line had to say than in sales.

“I would often wind up listening to the stories of people who had gone to the theatre for many years but could no longer get out. The shows they saw, the personal experience they had with the history of that theatre felt important and unseen,” says Mason, who will earn an M.F.A. in playwriting this spring and took many of her electives in the narrative medicine program at the School of Continuing Education.

Last year, Mason received an Arts Outreach Coordinator fellowship from the School of the Arts to create Portraits from Amsterdam House, a program in which she and a group of Arts students interviewed and filmed the senior citizens at Amsterdam House, across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, over many months to dramatize their life stories through song and dialogue.

Working with Marcia Sells, associate dean of community outreach and education at the School of the Arts, she invited guest lecturers to speak to the theater students involved. One speaker, Kimberly Kempadoo, was a neuroscience fellow researching how memory works in the brain in the lab of University Professor Eric Kandel, who co-directs Columbia’s new Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute.

“I didn’t want this project to be just about putting in your hours of community service.”

Mason and the nursing home staff matched School of the Arts students with residents based on shared interests and personality. Participants were required to meet at least twice a month. After a semester of interviews, the plan was to create a series of short biographical sketches for the stage, which would be performed at the nursing home at the end of the year.

Claytie Mason created Portraits from Amsterdam House, a program in which she and a group of Arts students interviewed and filmed local senior citizens to dramatize their life stories through song and dialogue.

“I didn’t want this project to be just about putting in your hours of community service,” said Mason. “I wanted a holistic process and outcome that wouldn’t be exploitative— just using the residents’ stories for our own ends—but authentic, which would honor and give dignity to both the residents of the nursing home and the artists who would be investigating something through their art.”

Mason‘s nursing home partner, John, taught her a great deal about what New York can mean to people with a consuming passion for the arts. He arrived in the city on V-E Day—May 8, 1945—and found a room near Penn Station for $5 a night. On his second night in the city, he went to a jazz show where a singer named Pearl Bailey was making her New York debut. He told Mason about visiting Vivien Leigh in her dressing room to give her flowers and seeing Ethel Merman perform five times.

John's death midway through the project reminded Mason how ephemeral the nursing home portraits might be, so she switched gears and produced a video to preserve these memories. Another part of the project involved staging a reading of one of the works of a nursing home resident who had been privately writing plays for more than 60 years, but had never seen one performed.

“It was truly extraordinary to see the connections that our students made with the residents,” said Julie Rossi, director of academic administration in SOA’s theatre arts program. “Bringing their stories to life through song and dialogue guarantees that their voices and histories will live on.”

Claytie Mason with children and volunteers from her thesis project, The Big White Door, an ensemble production that examines how children deal with life-threatening conditions.

Mason, who earned a B.A. in theater at the University of Washington, studied at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Northern California, where she focused on collaborative creative processes that involved various forms of physical theatre.

In 2005, she cofounded the award-winning Nebunele Theatre in Seattle. While working as artist-in-residence at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco, Mason became more focused on narrative structure and storytelling, which motivated her to apply to Columbia.

Mason’s thesis project continues her deep interest in exploring different communities by designing ensemble productions with actors, dancers, musicians and visual artists. Called The Big White Door, the work investigates how we talk to children about death by focusing on kids with life-threatening conditions.

“These are the kinds of issue-oriented, community-based projects I hope to work on in the future,” she said. “I am interested in how the making of art can transcend its separation from ‘normal’ ways of communicating, encouraging a more disarming and creative pondering of those things that can be hard to talk about, or look at, head on.”

—by Eve Glasberg

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