San Jose Mercury News: Filmmaker Ken Burns Teaches Class at San Jose State

Posted by the San Jose Mercury News Dec. 7, 2013.

By Bruce Newman

SAN JOSE — We see a small man sitting in a large, overstuffed chair, and the chair seems to be winning. Often described as elfin, the man is 60 now but still possesses the most totally awesome set of bangs in show business. For an hour, he sits and talks, hardly moving. And yet our perspective of him constantly changes — panning left, panning right, zooming in and out — in a way that is vaguely annoying. We hear an actor’s voice, one we sort of recognize and sort of don’t — maybe F. Murray Abraham, somebody like that.

“My mother died of cancer when I was 11. There wasn’t a moment when I was growing up that I didn’t know she was dying. But it wasn’t until later, when I went to the movies with my father, that I saw him cry for the first time. Movies had an emotional power that allowed him to do that. I decided then and there that I would become a filmmaker. What I wanted was to be Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford or Howard Hawks.”

Who he became, instead, was Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker acclaimed for such PBS blockbusters as “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.” In town to receive the Steinbeck Award at San Jose State University Friday evening, Burns conducted a master class for students and alums of the school’s Television, Radio, Film and Theater Department — or what department chairman David Kahn described as an “intimate conversation” — on a campus stage at the Hal Todd Studio Theater.

Read the full story. 


Showcasing Student Talent

Showcasing Student Talent

Showcasing Student Talent

At the 2012 Humanities and the Arts showcase, a student demonstrates the technique behind the “Better Than Blue” portrait series covering one wall of the Student Union construction site (Vivi Yang photo).

When Lisa Vollendorf first visited San Jose State, she was blown away by the caliber of student work. At the time, she was interviewing for dean of the College of Humanities and the Arts. When she got the job, she challenged her new colleagues to collaboratively promote their talented students.

Now in its second year, the Humanities and Arts Day Student Showcase 1-4 p.m. Oct. 25 in the Student Union’s Barrett Ballroom has matured into a must-see program featuring musical performances, poetry readings, theatrical shorts and booths offering information on many of the college’s programs.

The event coincides with Homecoming Week. Alumni are invited to experience the showcase’s many innovative offerings. Highlights include:

View the Humanities and Arts Day Student Showcase program.

John Cheever's "The Swimmer"

“The Swimmer” Opens at the University Theatre

John Cheever's "The Swimmer"

The play is the work of two of SJSU’s top theatre arts instructors.

What do “Mad Men,” “The Simpsons” and SJSU have in common?

John Cheever, the Pulitzer Prize winning author who inspired these shows and SJSU’s new play, “The Swimmer and Other Suburban Short Stories,” opening March 14 at the University Theater.

Cheever is known as “the Chekhov of the suburbs.”

Associate Professor of Communication Studies Matthew Spangler adapted the piece for the stage, drawing from his experiences with the stage adaptation of “The Kite Runner” by novelist Khaled Hosseini.

Theatre Arts Lecturer Kathleen Normington, recently named SJSU’s 2012-2013 Outstanding Lecturer Award, will direct the show.

Tickets are $10 for students, $15 for general admission. Learn more.

Spartans at Work: San Jose Rep

Where will an SJSU degree take you? We hit the road to find out, visiting summer interns and recent grads on the job in the Bay Area and beyond. Our video series continues with Oluchi Nwokocha, ’11 Theatre Arts and African-American Studies. Read more about her experience!

A young woman sitting in front of a clothes rack with colorful costumes

Spartans at Work: At the San Jose Rep, "I Get to Work With Kids and See Their Imagination Grow"

By Sarah Kyo, Web Communications Specialist

(This summer, SJSU Today hit the road, visiting students and recent grads on the job across the country and around the world. Our Spartans at Work series continues with theatre arts and African-American studies alumna Oluchi Nwokocha.)

Where will an SJSU degree take you? How about helping you develop your career, while you develop others? As an outreach assistant, Oluchi Nwokocha, ’11 Theatre Arts and African-American Studies, helped the San Jose Repertory Theatre make connections with the diverse community that it serves.

Besides responsibilities such as writing grant proposals, designing brochures or supporting various programs, Nwokocha interacted with kids and teenagers through the Creative Dramatics Summer Workshops. This summer camp teaches young participants about improvisation and developing a story for a play, culminating in a performance for family and friends.

“With the process that we do here, we get to really create and play and watch them learn and express themselves,” Nwokocha said. “It’s really cool. I really like that. And I work at a theater. How awesome is that?”

What started as a 2011 internship for the fresh Spartan graduate became a job and a chance to learn about behind-the-scenes work of running a theater, a complement to her acting skills. Observing actors on stage performing their craft was an added bonus.

In a role that is all about making connections, Nwokocha heard about this opportunity at the Rep, thanks to an announcement from one of her SJSU professors.

Her boss at the Rep provided feedback when she applied for graduate school, which is where Nwokocha is heading to this fall to earn a master of fine art in theatre from the University of Florida.

“Networking is really huge in my business,” she said. “It’s more of regardless of talent or what you look like, it’s more of who you know that helps you get your foot in the door, and I can say that’s definitely the case with me.”

SJSU in the News: “Spring Awakenings” Features “Bold New Collaboration” With San Jose Rep

San Jose Rep taps San Jose State for acting talent

By Karen D’Souza

Originally published by the San Jose Mercury News Sept.4, 2011.

When the high-voltage rock musical “Spring Awakening” explodes at San Jose Rep this week, it marks more than just the beginning of the fall season. It also represents a bold new collaboration between the Rep and San Jose State University coming into its own.

In an unusual partnership that began last season, top drama students now have the chance to make their bones as interns and understudies at the Rep. Some lucky aspiring actors are even being tapped as full-blown members of the cast. It’s a master class that money can’t buy.

“I’m thrilled about this new relationship. It is magic, and for the students who are ready, it is the finest kind of learning you can imagine,” says San Jose State theater and film Professor Amy Glazer. “The bar is high. Students are now exposed to professional behavior, standards and aesthetics.”

Three undergraduates have been cast in supporting roles in the pulse-pounding musical “Spring Awakening,” their natural exuberance adding an extra jolt to the sexually charged coming-of-age story. Adapted from a dark 1890s tale that was banned in its day because of its themes of molestation, suicide and abortion, this edgy Tony award-winner has become a cult favorite among the next generation of Broadway buffs. Hard-core fans — tweens and teens who call themselves the Guilty Ones (a reference to one of the show’s alt-rock songs) — make a point of seeing the show multiple times during each run.

“That’s the really scary part of doing this musical — it has a cult following,” says sophomore Kristen Majetich, who plays Martha, a girl molested by her father, “and they know the show by heart.”Like the divas-in-training on TV’s “Glee,” these students get to sing their hearts out in the spotlight. It’s a chance of a lifetime to find their voices at a time when many of their peers are tweeting the day away.

“We give them the opportunity to work side by side with Broadway veterans,” says Rep artistic director Rick Lombardo, who conceived of the project, a first for the Rep. Although the concept isn’t new, it’s rare in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre draw young actors from their in-house training programs, instead of partnering with college drama departments.

Lombardo says these newbies shine so brightly that you’d be hard-pressed to tell them from the old hands in the cast. (This production boasts top-notch talent, including choreographer Sonya Tayeh of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame.) The director says all three apprentices can memorize dialogue and nail dance steps with the best of them.

“It’s not about lowering the standards of what we do,” says Lombardo, who also cast San Jose State students in “The Dresser” last year. “They’ve got to hold their own.”

Being young and baby-faced is a real advantage, because “Spring” grapples with the angst and ecstasy of adolescence, a theme these three aren’t far away from.

“Just having them in the building raises the energy level,” Lombardo says. “Their enthusiasm is infectious.”

But if nailing the sexy decadence of the show and belting out the irreverent rock songs (such as “Totally F—ed”) came easy for these students, it took awhile for them to wrap their minds around the social and emotional repression of the 19th century.

“We had to do a lot of research to understand what it was like back then,” says Majetich, 22. “Children weren’t treated like people then.”

Clustered together during a rehearsal break, the undergraduates — Majetich, Manuel Rodriguez-Ruiz and Ernestine Balisi — chat about everything from bling to Broadway like BFFs. Although they have different levels of experience (Rodriguez-Ruiz is making his professional debut, while Majetich has paid her dues at the Sacramento Theatre Company and Balisi was a child actor at American Musical Theatre), all three say they feel fortunate to have made the cut at auditions.

Rodriguez-Ruiz, a 19-year-old sophomore, comes off as thoughtful and a tad shy.

“I’m the youngest person in the building,” admits Rodriguez-Ruiz, who plays two schoolboys, including the innocent Ernst. “I had no idea what it would be like working with professionals. We staged the whole show in a week. Everything goes so fast.”

While the parts these rookies landed may not be leading roles, the learning experience is still huge. From grueling tech rehearsals to stomach-churning opening-night jitters, these students may well learn more in one Rep production than in a whole semester of note-taking.

“I never knew how time-consuming it is. You work from 10 to 7, and when you get home, there is more to do. You have no life,” says Balisi, 24, who plays the naive Thea. “I bow down before people who do this for a living.”

Majetich’s forceful personality will be a plus playing the tormented Martha, who is sexually abused by her father. She says this collaboration will give the university’s drama program a big boost. The chance to get a foot in the door at the Rep is a powerful recruitment tool.

“This business really is about who you know,” says Majetich, a senior who plans to pursue acting as a vocation. “This is an amazing way to make connections.”

The bubbly Balisi, a senior aiming for a career in arts education, couldn’t agree more.

“This program gives students at State a goal, something to reach for,” she says. “It’s a chance to work with your idols.”

Certainly this trio already has a rowdy cheering section back on campus.

“When students get cast, we all go crazy,” Glazer says. “In the middle of a class, Kristen got the message from Bruce Elsperger (the casting director), and we all started screaming.”

And this program isn’t just a big break for the students, who get school credit for the production. The Rep now has a way to create instant buzz within the student body. Nothing sells tickets like word-of-mouth even in this social media era.

“Hundreds of students stroll past the Rep every day,” Lombardo says, “and we are always looking for new ways to get them to step inside.”

‘Spring Awakening’

Book and lyrics by Steven Sater; music by Duncan Sheik; based on the play by Frank Wedekind
When: Preview performance Tuesday; opening night is Wednesday. The play runs through Sept. 25.
Where: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
Tickets: $35-$79 (student discounts available),