As a first-year actor with a busy schedule, Lilith Freund doesn’t have much time to interact with students outside of her major, much less learn about other disciplines at Mason Gross. And yet, Freund says this is a crucial time for networking and establishing new relationships.
“The first semester of your freshman year is the time you are most willing to put yourself out there and find your ‘people’ or friends,” says Freund. “We are hungry for connection.”
Freund’s first semester on campus would likely have been an insulated experience shared mostly with the 20 other students in her acting cohort if it weren’t for a new class created to foster connections among all Mason Gross students.
Introduced at the start of the fall 2022 semester, “Interplay” is designed to bring all five departments together to focus on the themes of play, experimentation, and exploration.
The one-credit class designed specifically for first-year students upholds one of the three pillars set forth by Dean Jason Geary last year to guide the school forward—collaboration—and is meant to lay the groundwork for future interdisciplinary partnerships.
Music Department faculty Scott Ordway, who developed and implemented the course at the request of Geary, says the timing was perfect.
“Coming out of the pandemic, there is an urgent need for us to rebuild our social networks, our habits of engagement with the world, our ability to focus on off-screen forms of culture,” says Ordway, an assistant professor of composition and music theory. “All of these things require teamwork, cooperation, and conviviality.”
The weekly class is organized into two-week modules that include a guest lecture from a Mason Gross faculty member about their work, collaborative process, and the dynamics of their artistic discipline followed by breakout sessions in which students work on a shared activity inspired by the information presented.
The goal, Ordway says, is for students to “learn about and experiment with all five [Mason Gross] disciplines side by side with their colleagues in other departments.”
Patrick Stettner, chair of the Rutgers Filmmaking Center, presented a lecture about the basics of film image and sound and their creative applications. Stettner spoke about how filmmakers try to make impressionable moments using visual tools like slow motion and freeze frame, focus, movement, and depth as well as cinematography techniques and sound aesthetics.
“I wanted to help students better understand the elements at play when they watch a film—a peek behind the curtain, so to speak,” says Stettner. “This wasn’t very technical; it was a macro, 10,000-foot view of filmmaking.”
After Stettner’s lecture, which incorporated students’ reflections about a memorable film moment, students collaborated on making short pieces on their phones using a filmmaking app.
Although initially Stettner found it challenging to create a lecture for non-film majors, he says the students were eager to learn about and try their hands at the art form.
“I enjoyed the experience and the vibrancy of the students’ engagement,” says Stettner. “Several non-filmmaking students came up afterward, and it was great to hear their enthusiasm for the film clips I showed.”
Stoking Curiosity, Building Networks
Dance Department chair Gerald Casel introduced students to his work in a lecture focused on art and activism, sharing his research on structural racism in dance and presenting questions to students that explored their own social identities. Students then created a movement piece centered on a social justice issue—anything from gun control to climate change or immigration.
“As we move into new stages in the pandemic, I am aware of the range with which students are experiencing unprocessed grief and embodied trauma,” Casel says. “Connecting them to a social justice issue helps them to focus on solutions rather than seeking problems and dwelling on them.”
Casel encouraged students to choreograph a series of movements or gestures to express the emotions behind their chosen issues, as well as to borrow tools from their own artistic practice, such as playing with tempo, duration, scale, tone, timbre, volume, transitions, collage, gesture, story, or calling cues.
Several of the breakout groups collaborated on pieces about school shootings, which surprised Casel but also “exposed how this particular generation has grown up with the fear of being shot while attending school,” he says.
That kind of intimate and honest interaction is another goal of “Interplay,” where students across the school have the opportunity to learn from, and be inspired by, a broad range of people and situations, Ordway says.
“We can’t collaborate if we don’t trust one another, and we can’t trust one another if we don’t know one another,” says Ordway. “We want to send the message that Mason Gross values collaboration and connectivity and is willing to make space in a crowded curriculum to foster those things.”
This is especially important for students who will embark on professional artistic careers, Ordway adds.
“Many artists only learn good collaborative habits once they leave school, and then only by trial and error,” says Ordway. “With arts careers as competitive as they’ve ever been, I want our students to leave school with great collaborative habits firmly in place so that they can hit the ground running as they begin to establish themselves professionally.”
Dean Geary agrees.
“The class meetings I attended revealed students thinking together in bold and imaginative ways that will inform their own artistry and that will create a more collaborative environment across the school,” Geary says. “In a changing professional landscape that often requires collaboration and an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s important for students to begin honing these skills right away, and the personal networks that they build in a class like ‘Interplay’ can last a lifetime and can open doors in unexpected ways.”
For Freund, the class helped her achieve Ordway’s goals of leaving the class with a spirit of curiosity as well as new relationships. The bonds she forged are “connections that are deeper than just colleagues,” she says.
“Now I see individuals and professors on campus and stop to talk to them, rather than just pass by an unfamiliar face,” Freund says. “I found meeting others from different disciplines has allowed me to be a part of projects or hear about projects and then support my fellow artists in a way I would not have been able to if it was not for ‘Interplay.’”
Photo by Lynne DeLade