Black History Month: Meet GTA Students Rentavious Buffington and Alexis Trammell

In celebration of Black History Month, I am honored to interview two Gainesville Theatre Alliance BIPOC students, Rentavious Buffington and Alexis Trammell. Both students share their experience as artists and what this month means to them. I hope that you take some time to learn why we celebrate; to see and understand the beauty and the importance of this month.

“Black history is American history. “Morgan Freeman

Rentavious Buffington
BA Theatre Junior

Alexis Trammell
BFA Musical Theatre Junior

When did you know you wanted to major in theatre?

Rentavious: It was my sophomore year when I was introduced to more careers I could have in theatre.

Alexis: I knew I wanted to have a major in musical theatre my senior year of high school, after I quit tennis after 12 years to pursue it.

What have been your favorite roles?

Rentavious: Some of my favorite roles would include being in The Wilson Project, Tin Man in The Wiz, and Soloist in Godspell.

Alexis: My favorite roles I have played were The Leading Player (Pippin) with Performers Warehouse, and in high school, Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Sylvia from All Shook Up.

What’s the best part about being a performer?

Rentavious: The best part about being a performer is that I’m able to bring my personality to my craft and add my take to the role I’m in. It is also exciting to tell stories that help inspire others.

Alexis: The best part of being a performer is getting to inspire others.

What do you think when you hear “Black History Month”?

Rentavious: When I hear Black History Month, I think of the people who have paved a way for this country and the amount of courage they had to face the discrimination and disrespect that black people face in this country. I also think about the people to come that will continue to make black history and break those glass ceilings for future generations.

Alexis: When I hear Black History Month I think of celebrating all the things black people have accomplished despite oppression.

Is there a specific black figure that inspires you today?

Rentavious: My nephews inspire me to keep being who I am and to keep striving for bigger and better things.

What does being a black person mean to you?

Rentavious: Being black to me means being unapologetically black. It means that I, as a black person, have to fight extra hard in my career because in my experience there has always been a status quo that is met with black people being involved. It also means that I can be black and be happy about it. I can be who I am and love that about it because my darker skin was once seen as dirty and it is now trending. Being black means I am capable, I am worthy, and I am important.

Alexis: Being a black person means to me that despite what people say I am still worthy even when I feel like I’m not.  It means that I stand out and that’s a good thing!

What would you tell your younger self?

Rentavious: I would tell my younger self to be who you are and don’t let anyone try to change that, because “if you can’t love yourself, how can you love somebody else.”

Alexis: I would tell my younger self to keep dreaming big and there are going to be naysayers but just ignore them

How did you discover GTA?

Rentavious: I discovered GTA through Fair Street Elementary School. I was a student and we would walk from school to Brenau’s Pearce Auditorium to watch WonderQuest (Theatre for Young Audiences) productions. Then in high school, I got involved with theatre and found myself watching these productions as a young adult and thinking about my career. I landed at GTA and am finally getting the opportunity to perform on the stage I grew up watching others perform on.

Alexis: I discovered GTA through my mom. She told me about it and I did some more research on the program and the rest is history!

When did you realize GTA was where you wanted to be?

Rentavious: It was my second year in GTA when I knew GTA was where I wanted to be. My first year was a time of hardcore self-discovery and finding out what I wanted to do with my future. I switched my major twice and thought about dropping out of college. On closing night of The Wilson Project, the spark hit and it became clear to me that I am here for a reason and this is where I want to be.

Alexis: I realized GTA was where I wanted to be once I got to my audition. It already felt like home. GTA gave me a chance. They saw my potential and gave me a shot at my dream.

What is something you look forward to for the future?

Rentavious: In the future, I look forward to getting over the pandemic and start auditioning professionally.

Alexis: I look forward to all the fun adventures I will embark on in the future as I accomplish what God planned for me.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”Martin Luther King Jr.

Self-Tapes: Advice from GTA Students

It’s audition season and high school seniors are finalizing their self-tapes. Virtual auditions can be challenging and online submissions are not as easy as they seem. At GTA, we want to make sure you have the best experience with your self-tapes. I have asked fellow GTA students Zafyre Sexton, Josh Turner, Hannah Love, Ryan Vander Linde, and Ethan Baez for their best virtual audition advice.

How has the auditioning process changed?

Zafyre Sexton
BFA Acting Senior

Zafyre: Everyone is self-taping right now, and this will not be something that goes away post-pandemic! Self-taping allows companies to see double or triple the amount of auditionees as traditional in-person auditions. Typically, a singer would be looking for sheet music for in-person auditions, whereas now, finding quality piano tracks for self-tapes is becoming the norm! It is very difficult to find someone to play live piano for a self-tape, especially in a pinch.

Ryan: Due to COVID-19, almost all auditions are virtual. I find myself spending hours at a time filming and editing self-tapes to send in to companies.

Josh: Moving to virtual auditions is a lot less different than you may think. The objective is still the same: tell the story, represent yourself well, and make them picture you in their cast. Auditioning virtually can be a challenge due to how much it requires the actor to provide on their end, but you can still present great work virtually! The benefit of virtual auditions is that you can cast a wide net and audition often from your home base.

Hannah: Before the pandemic, GTA auditions were completely in person except for preliminary self-tapes, and this was the same for most theatre programs as well as professional theatres. While film was used to self-tapes, everyone had to adjust as an arts community and learn the ways. It has made auditions much more accessible, but it also takes out the excitement of being in a room full of people with passions for the projects. We have had to look at how we present ourselves through self-tapes and see if we are bringing our authentic personalities within the one or two-minute videos we share.

Ethan: In a sense, it’s gone from blocks to pieces. Before, if we had two monologues required for an audition we would be expected to do them both in one fell swoop, but now there is the opportunity to separate the two and send one full package of audition material.

 What equipment do you use for self-taping?

Hannah Love
BFA Acting Senior

Hannah: I use my ring light, a gray king size bed sheet that I ironed and have hanging on my bedroom wall, my Canon camera (but also sometimes my phone if I need to send and edit super quick), and an external microphone. I also always have a bottle of water sitting by me just in case, to take breaks in between tapes!

Josh: I have a tripod and an iPhone 11 which works well if I’m in a bind. Fortunately, I have buddies that will let me use their setup as well. Faculty are also a great resource if you can reach out ahead of time. I auditioned virtually at the URTAs this year and I was able to get a lot of help from GTA. I was able to use one of our spaces and I also had help setting up the room, checking sound, framing, etc. Your faculty and friends are a really important resource that should not be forgotten. Just make sure you give plenty of notice so it doesn’t mess up what they have on their own plate. Your community is there to support you as much as you support them!

Hannah’s self-tape setup

Zafyre: I use a grey sheet I bought at Walmart that I steam to get all the wrinkles out, and I thumb-tack it to a wall in my dorm for an appropriate and non-distracting backdrop! I use a ring light I got from Amazon to ensure good lighting no matter where I’m filming. I use a small tripod that I have to stack up on a bucket, rolling cart, and three textbooks to get the correct height and framing!

Ryan: I use a ring-light on a stand for lighting, a black sheet for a backdrop, my laptop connected to a speaker for the music if I am singing and, for right now, my iPhone to film. Soon, I am hoping to get an external microphone for my Canon camera to be able to film on there and still have it sound good.

Ethan: I personally use my phone and a tripod. After I feel satisfied with the filming, I send the videos to my personal cloud, edit them on my computer, and then send it in to the director for review.  

What do you suggest to people new to self-taping? 

Josh Turner
BFA Acting Senior

Josh: The first thing you want to do is figure out your framing and run your pieces so you know how everything looks. Do plenty of takes so that you can get warmed up and have options to choose from. If you have to do a live virtual audition, record yourself before so you know how your pieces read. Lastly, don’t be scared of self-tapes! Self-tapes give you the added benefit of choosing which take is best. You can’t do that in live auditions, so make the most of it.

Hannah: Treat your first take like it is the only take that you can film. Allow yourself to breathe for a minute, and then film another take with the same mindset. Watch these over, and decide if you need to film any more takes. Act like the amount of takes you have is limited, and do not get too into your head and compare yourself from one video to the next. Also, when you do your slates for self-tapes, be yourself because this is the best chance for you to show who you are to the people watching.

Ryan: Don’t take too many videos of yourself. For me, the more videos I take of myself the more I overthink them, so it’s best for me to take three or four shots and pick from that, and doing it with only one shot is what I have been trained to do had it been an in-person audition.

Zafyre: GET CREATIVE!! You do not have to spend hundreds of dollars for this! Work with what you have and do not stress over whatever this may be. By the same token, I also stated that self-taping is here to stay, so instead of a new pair of expensive shoes or that Ulta splurge, invest in your craft at some point soon and buy the equipment you know will be reliable. It’s worth it. Instead of asking for gift cards and clothes for Christmas, ask for acting equipment. The more you invest in your craft now, the less stress these tapes will cause you in the future!

Ethan: Do not be afraid to keep rolling, and do not be afraid to have multiple takes. Although the nature of theatre is not something that can be exactly replicated, there’s an advantage to allowing yourself to experiment while you’re still recording so you can find and use the best take, as well as giving yourself space to play.

Have you ever self-taped pre-pandemic?

Ethan Baez
BA Theatre

Ethan: No, not at all. For me, the draw of the stage was that there was no recording necessary, and the moments in a play only exist within the walls it’s being performed. So, the idea of filming my own acting had never truly occurred to me, especially considering I’ve never had to audition for a company that wasn’t at least a drive away from home.

Ryan: I had not self-taped prior to the pandemic. My very first self-tape was actually for one of my classes, it took me about 30 tries to get it right.

Josh: I have several times before, but the number of self-tapes required has ramped up significantly for all performance arts. It’s always been a requirement for film work especially.

Hannah: Yes! I had done a couple self-tapes before the pandemic, but I had not yet invested in the backdrop, ring light, or external microphone then.

Zafyre: I filmed a self-tape for the very first time my junior year, in my Acting for the Camera class with Zechariah Pierce! THANK GOD FOR THIS CLASS! I got to get all my self-taping struggles out of the way pre-pandemic!

What is the best and hardest part about self-tapes?

Ryan Vander Linde
BA Theatre Senior

Ryan: The best part of self-tapes is being in the comfort of my house and not having to leave. The worst part is not being able to show as much of my personality as I usually am able to.

Josh: The best part is that you can do your audition over and over again without the auditioners seeing it. The hardest part is coordinating your auditions and maintaining that same sense of “play” that you should have in normal audition circumstances.

Hannah: The best part about self-tapes is that if you go up on a line or don’t like the choices that you make in one take, you can always film again! However, this is also one of the hardest and worst parts about self-tapes is because you can spend hours making 45 different clips of your monologue, and you may just end up stressing out and not being able to decide on a take that you enjoyed. Also, because you’re not in the room with the people, it can be hard to capture that personality you have that comes with walking into a room.

Zafyre: The best part about self-taping is the convenience! You make your own schedule when it comes to filming an audition. Whether you prefer to get up bright and early before you start your day and get a tape out of the way, or film at night when the day is over, it’s completely on your own time (with respect to the deadline of course). The worst part about self-taping is the obsession to film over and over again until you burn yourself out with self-criticism and frustration. Unless I make an obvious mistake while I’m filming, I give myself a five take limit! I know that may sound like very few, but this way I am not trying to choose between 10+ tapes that are either identical or only minutely different from one another. Save yourself the headache and give yourself a take max! Do not spend hours and hours trying to get the “perfect” take, because it won’t happen, and you’ll be crying by the time you decide to stop.

Ethan: For one thing, the notion that I get to have multiple versions of the same monologue that I can send in does help take out a lot of the stress of the process. But when I’m playing to a camera, in all honesty, I feel empty. I don’t mean to put down filming, and I’ve practiced a performance alone many times before, but that was always for the sake of memorization and familiarization. The lack of any audience at the time of filming takes away the “this is it” excitement I really enjoy from being in theatre, and as much as there are ways to solve that problem, I’ve unfortunately yet to learn them.

Do you prefer self-tapes over in-person auditions?

Ryan: Personally, no. I would much rather be in a room filled with other actors and actresses where the energy is high and adrenaline is rushing than be in my kitchen in front of my phone. I think I can blame my past in competitive sports for that. There really isn’t anything that can compare to the feeling of a live audition, it’s one of those feelings I live for. I also feel like it is easier to get to know the director you’re auditioning for and for them to get to know you when you are standing right in front of them and they are able to ask you questions.

Josh: There are pros and cons to both. Self-taping is an essential part of the industry and that will not change post-COVID. In-person auditions are loads of fun, and that is what feels normal/comfortable for me. Self-tapes get a lot more fun/comfortable with practice. My best advice is to learn to love it because it is an essential skill that can be very rewarding.

Hannah: While the nerves of in-person auditions are much more intense, I do prefer the in-person audition due to the fact that I have the ability to engage much more with the director and show them who I am. The adrenaline kicks in knowing that you don’t have multiple takes, and it is exciting.

 Zafyre: I prefer in-person auditions! I love being able to have one shot at what I bring into the audition room. I go in. Audition. Leave. And hope for the best. I also do not necessarily enjoy watching myself on tape, I am getting more accustomed to it, but I’m always still slightly uncomfortable watching myself. Although there are many self-taping pros, I’d opt for an in-person audition any day!

What are your tips to high school seniors auditioning for their dream school? 

Ryan: Show as much of your personality as you can. Be the person they have to have because of your personality. Be the person they look at and immediately want to work with.

Josh: Pay attention to the faculty in your audition, and the vibe of the school. Your dream school may not be what is right for your development as an actor/person. Keep a keen eye out for what environment feels like a good fit. Focus on the joy you get from performing/sharing your art during the audition because they will have fun if you allow yourself to have fun first.

Hannah: Choose materials that you love and would love to share with the world. Do not try to pretend to be something that you are not because the perfect school for you is the one that sees you for who you are and loves that. It is much better to bring material in the room that you love and enjoy working on rather than extremely challenging material that you cannot find any fun within or does not hold any piece of your heart. Also, envision someone in the spot where you look in your audition that you would want or need to perform your material to. Make your own audience to cheer you on!

Zafyre: My number one tip is to not try to be something/someone that you’re not. If you don’t feel comfortable wearing a lot of makeup and a bold red lip, don’t do it for an audition. If you don’t feel comfortable wearing a dress and high heels, don’t wear them for an audition. If you aren’t extroverted and bubbly, don’t pretend to be on camera. The closest to your authentic self you can be, the better your audition will be! In a career path where you are constantly being judged, you must stay grounded and centered in who you are.

Ethan: Stay excited! Unfortunately, stress is always a given, but the last thing you want to do is let it take over the fun of starting a new chapter in your life and creating new possibilities for yourself. If you show your dream school you can maintain some semblance of play and fun in the face of stress, that shows them you have qualities they are always going to need.

What is something you know now that you wish you knew then when auditioning for schools?

Ryan: I actually never auditioned for schools because I was originally a Math Major, but what I wish I knew for auditions in general is to not take not getting the part personally or as an attack on who I am as a person. Be able to put not getting the part in the past and move forward.

Josh: Pick pieces that you are super excited about. Make sure you do work that is representative of the style of shows you want to do in the future. Don’t pick pieces that you feel so-so about just to meet the requirement. It’s ok to bend the rules in auditions if that choice represents you and your work better. Innovation in the structure/piece selection is a great way to stand out. Just make sure that your choice has a payoff if you break the rules.

Hannah: I would have loved to have known how to have a proper setup for self-tapes such as we are doing now. After taking Acting for the Camera, I was able to find a much better backdrop than my wall that had a door slightly in the video frame. I would love to have known the great ways of relieving tension in the body so that I could let myself go and be as authentic to the pieces as possible. For clothing, it is way more important to dress comfortable and authentic to you than to wear a dress that makes you look professional. You should be professional in how you present yourself in the audition room and outside of the audition room!

Zafyre: I wish I knew that I didn’t have to adhere to a certain appearance of what a professional actor looked like. I wish I’d known that my big curly hair was something to be confident in, not something to hide. I wish I knew that there is an entire world of theatre OUTSIDE of your undergrad theatre program (side note: your talent isn’t measured on what schools you get into- train, hustle, take classes, polish your skills; you don’t need a degree to do these things!)

Ethan: More than anything, I wish I knew it was possible. It wasn’t uncommon that I would let my own stress overcome me throughout the process of being accepted into GTA (woo hoo!), but almost every time that happened it was because I didn’t believe I could achieve any kind of college acceptance. Looking back now I’m not sure why I felt that way, but I did, and it was because I didn’t think I could do it when in reality I absolutely could.

Lastly, what is your go-to outfit for auditions?

Ryan and GTA alumna Margaret Holtkamp show off their favorite audition looks

Ryan: I have two go-to outfits for auditions. My go-to for a more dance-heavy show is a red leotard with a flowy black knee-length skirt over the top of it, some nude tights, and my black LaDucas. With this outfit, I am able to simply take off my knee-length skirt and replace it with a sheer black wrap skirt for the dance call. This way I am keeping the exact same color scheme when both singing and dancing so the directors remember me.

My singing-heavy/play-audition outfit, which also works best for self-tapes, is a flowy mid-thigh length burnt-orange dress with a white turtle neck, cheetah-print belt, and cheetah-print booties to match. My (Alpha Psi Omega) Big once told me to “always wear fun shoes to an audition, that way they’ll remember you.”

Josh: I always wear something I can move in, even if the audition is a bit dressier. I don’t really like wearing collared shirts all the time so I will usually wear a solid-color long-sleeve henley and some chinos. I usually dress up/down with what shoes I wear, but I can move freely in my dress shoes as well. I always make sure they can see the silhouette of my body unimpeded by ill-fitting clothes or distracting patterns. Personal opinion: I’ve always felt that a suit is tacky to wear to audition because it feels/looks way too dressy to move freely and play in.

Hannah: For in-person auditions, I like to wear this one blue top with cute red paper-bag pants. For self-tapes, I put on a green t-shirt and jeans!

Ethan: Shorts, sneakers, and a t-shirt. This is the most comfortable outfit I wear on a day-to-day basis, and it has the added advantage of showing the director a part of my personality in which clothes I choose to put on regularly. I always have all-black attire for when needed, but my goal when I audition is to give my audience a sense of who I am as a person when I am working, and I think my clothing helps with that a lot.

Zafyre: My go-to outfit for auditions would have to be either:

  • Comfortable+contemporary: Dark wash, no-rip jeans with a red sweater and snakeskin booties.
  • Feminine+classy: Forest green mock-blazer dress with knee-high black boots.
  • Movement: Fitted grey shirt with black leggings and jazz shoes or sneakers

** I wear medium-sized gold hoops with all of these looks. No shame in the game, they are my confidence boosters and lucky charms**


If you want more tips on how to film your future self-tapes, watch our self-tape audition tutorial.

Good luck to every student sending in your auditions. We believe in you!

A Day In The Life Of A GTA Student: Isabel Owens

The 2020-2021 year has been unlike any other year at Gainesville Theatre Alliance. Students and professors alike have had to learn to adapt to new learning styles. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s safe to say that GTA is making the best of it and using the latest technologies to ensure all students get the most enriching learning experiences possible. GTA freshmen were immediately thrown into online learning and did not get to experience pre-pandemic GTA. They have now settled into a routine that best suits the circumstances.

Isabel Owens is a B.A. Theatre freshman at the University of North Georgia. I’ve asked her about her typical day in hybrid classes and her experience so far here at Gainesville Theatre Alliance.

What does a typical day look like?

Isabel: Well, a typical day for me this semester looks different every other day! I have Acting 1 on Monday’s and Wednesday’s, then Painting Practicum on Tuesday and Thursday! The rest are my core classes online. In my free time, I am either writing music, hanging out with my family or animals (including our 3-month-old bunny), or rollerskating, which has been my newest hobby!

 

What is your favorite part about having hybrid classes?

Isabel: The blessing that comes with participating in hybrid classes is being within the comfort of my own home and having a bit more time to get more assignments done due to not having to drive back in forth from home and classes!

What is the most challenging?

Isabel: The most challenging part would be not feeling super connected to others like I would be if most things were to be in person. As well as having to learn how to do school online, that has been super tricky!

What led you to stay in school even during this pandemic?

Isabel: I stayed in school because I didn’t want to become idle with my time and lack in my work ethic. I knew that if I stayed and pushed through, I believed that fruit would still come from my labor ( although work is done differently). Pushing through has actually created a stronger work ethic in me and has shown me that we can do what we love doing, even if it’s hard.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started college?

Isabel: DON’T BE AFRAID TO JUMP RIGHT IN! Haha, I lacked confidence walking into this year, and I think that slightly held me back from friendships and even some opportunities to be a bit more involved.

What is something you look forward to this semester?

Isabel: I am really looking forward to new friendships and more opportunities to grow in all aspects of theatre as this year plays out! I am excited to work with people who are like-minded to help create something that changes lives!

Q&A with Jayme McGhan, incoming GTA Artistic/Managing Director and UNG Theatre Chair

GTA is thrilled to introduce our new Artistic/Managing Director and UNG Theatre Chair, Jayme McGhan. McGhan replaces 30-year GTA veteran Jim Hammond. Mr. McGhan is a playwright, theatre artist, and educator from Minneapolis, who received his BA in Theatre at Southwest (Minnesota) State University and his MFA in Playwriting from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has held the Head of Theatre position at both Ridgewater College and Concordia University, Chicago, was the Director of the School of Stage and Screen at Western Carolina University, and most recently was the Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Houston Baptist University. Jayme is an avid backpacker, runner, snowboarder, skateboarder, music lover, beer connoisseur, reader, poker player, amateur theologian, and die-hard Minnesota Twins fan.

What drew you to University of North Georgia and Gainesville Theatre Alliance?

I served as the Director of the School of Stage and Screen at Western Carolina University, just an hour and a half North of Gainesville, for almost four years. I was well aware of GTA’s reputation, especially considering the fact that WCU was a regional competitor for student talent, but I never could quite figure out how the program worked. Two universities? Two departments? How does that function? More importantly, how does that function well? The fact that the Alliance has been as successful as it has for forty years speaks a great deal to the faculty’s willingness to pivot and collaborate. And that’s a big draw for someone like me who loves the collaborative spirit and process. I’ve served as a Dean for the last year and a half and have found that the kind of collaborative processes that I’m able to contribute to are on a much higher level, but that the impact isn’t as immediate, direct, or gratifying as working with colleagues and students to tell stories on the stage. I’ve missed that a great deal. And I’m thrilled that I get the opportunity to step into that space once more.

How did you first get involved in theatre and what keeps you involved?

I’m a first-generation college student from a blue-collared family in Minneapolis, so the arts were never really a part of our lives. But, as my folks tell it, I was constantly telling stories. It came naturally to me. I played sports growing up (and am still a huge sports fan—sorry about ’91 Braves fans—I still have my Twins World Series homer hanky), but was never given an access point to harness that significant part of who I was. Not until high school, when I joined the speech team. Speech was a sort of hybrid form of acting in so many ways, although often quite unnatural in form and presentation. But it was a sort of gateway into theatre. I didn’t start doing theatre until I made my way to University. I auditioned on a whim and was cast as Bo Decker in William Inge’s Bus Stop, and that pretty much altered my path and pushed me towards a career and life as a theatrical storyteller. Although my focus was on acting and directing in undergrad, I was also extremely interested in playwriting, design, construction, lighting, and dramaturgy. I spent a great deal of time messing around with script ideas, building, hanging, painting, you name it. Really, I just loved the process of making theatre. That hasn’t changed for me. Opening night, the run, closing night—that’s all certainly enjoyable, but they don’t hold a candle to the process of creation. For me, that’s where all the fun happens. I’m still a generalist, meaning that my focus is broad. I direct, design, build, produce, etc. But most of my professional focus has been on writing plays. Hearing the initial draft of a new play read aloud for the first time is one of the most magical moments any theatrical practitioner can experience. It’s a birth in so many ways. And seeing a new play get on its feet for the first time in production, taking its first step, well—that’s a little slice of heaven for me.

What is a memorable theatre project you have worked on that you felt made a great impact or moved you in a significant way?

There are so many. I can say that the older I get, the more I’m interested in redemptive narratives—honest, powerful, beautiful stories of human beings connecting, reconnecting, and finding hope once more. Those are the narratives I’m drawn to the most. When I think back on the 250+ productions that I’ve been involved with over the years, I tend to gravitate to those particular productions as standouts. But, really, every production has its own inherent value. Even the occasional flop is worth a great deal to the artistic process—probably more so than knock down drag out hits. You learn so much from those moments. I tell my students all the time that failure is not an option, it’s a requirement. My plays have received glowing reviews from some of the biggest theatre critics in the country. They’ve also been categorically panned by others. There’s nothing like opening the Chicago Tribune or the Times and seeing the thing you’ve poured yourself in to for years get brutally thrashed around in print. It’s a big ol’ slice of humble pie, especially when they’re mostly right. But, frankly, humble pie still tastes pretty good to me. Because it means that at least I have a place at the table and a fork to eat with.

What are your first steps to prepare for your new position with GTA?

Moving my family from Houston to Georgia in the middle of a pandemic. That’s certainly not been an easy task. I’m also busy winding down my time as Dean here at HBU and helping the School of Fine Arts and the rest of the University prepare for the Fall semester. Houston is a wonderful city and we’re going to miss it.

I’m mostly trying to listen right now. I know my counterpart at Brenau, Tracey Brent-Chessum (who is wonderful by the way), is doing the same. And I expect that that will last for a few months before that preparation season winds down and the future course starts to clarify. If I’m doing my job correctly, I should be listening in perpetuity. There’s a lot of voices that have gone unheard for a long time in the theatre community. Significant and justifiable anger has built up because of personal violations and systemic biases and bigotries that have been maintained in our art. The theatre has been very good at turning a blind eye on these things for quite some time, but it’s starting to wake up. I’m trying to figure out on a personal level how I’ve either explicitly or inadvertently maintained these practices and systems so that I don’t perpetuate them. The only way to do that is to listen, try to understand as much as I am able, and, finally, to act.

What are your long-term goals for Gainesville Theatre Alliance and the UNG Theatre Department?

GTA has come so far in its forty years. It’s really quite impressive. I think the faculty will want to continue to honor the history of the Alliance while keeping a very keen eye to the future. I’d like to see us become the premier undergraduate theatre training program in the South in ten years’ time; even eclipsing storied institutions like the NC School of the Arts. I’d like to see GTA students all over Broadway, the West End, Regional Theatre, and moving seamlessly on to the big screen. Atlanta is in our backyard. Let’s harness it. Moreover, I’d like to see GTA students becoming exceptional educators, advocates, and leaders—helping to usher the next generation of students on to the stage to share their stories with the world. I’d like us to double down on the creation of new plays and musicals for the American stage, world-premiering at least one new play or musical every season and pushing towards a much larger summer festival of new works that will bring students and professionals from across the country to Gainesville. The way we’re going to do all of this is through exceptional training and curriculum, fantastic productions that challenge, move, and inspire, celebrating diverse voices and stories, substantial new initiatives, and keeping the community involved and engaged. How that looks at this juncture is anyone’s guess. But it will, no doubt, prove to be extremely exciting.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance students?

I’m truly honored to help lead the GTA into its next chapter. I can’t wait to make incredible theatre with all of you. Remember, your voice matters. You will help shape what Gainesville Theatre Alliance will become. Speak up. Take agency. Don’t be shy. I’ve been working in theatre for over two decades and in higher-ed for sixteen years. I can handle criticism. In the midst of all of that, please be kind to each other during this time. It’s a really wild world right now. Show a little grace, mercy, and understanding. It will go a very long way. Finally, my door is always open. Always. Except when I’m in the bathroom. Please leave me alone in there.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance patrons?

Thank you for your support. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your support. Stay tuned. Big things to come.

Gainesville Theatre Alliance Cancels Fall Shows

Jul 13, 2020— Based on current public health information, state and local guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and campus restrictions of both Brenau University and the University of North Georgia, Gainesville Theatre Alliance has made the difficult decision to cancel its fall 2020 performances. Both the WonderQuest production of James and the Giant Peach and the GTA mainstage production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat are cancelled. Patrons with tickets to these productions will receive a letter regarding their options.

GTA’s spring performances of Little Women, In the Red and Brown Water, and The Arabian Nights are scheduled to proceed as planned, with necessary safety protocols in place. Tickets for these productions will go on sale on October 1, 2020. Patrons may purchase tickets at that time through GainesvilleTheatreAlliance.org or by calling the box office.

GTA’s Discovery Series production of The Laramie Project is rescheduled for April 2021. More details on this event will follow.

Retiring Artistic/Managing Director Jim Hammond assured students that the fall semester will still be an important and educational undertaking. “Limited productions this year place even greater emphasis on the importance of our curriculum, and the faculty have been researching and developing new strategies and techniques to make the most of every class,” Hammond stated. “As GTA transitions with new dynamic leadership, fall semester will focus on classes and important discussions about this program’s future.”

Q&A with Tracey Chessum, incoming Brenau University Theatre Chair

Tracey ChessumGTA is overjoyed to introduce our new Brenau University Theatre Chair, Tracey Brent-Chessum. Chessum replaces Dr. Ann Demling who retires in May. Dr. Brent-Chessum hails from Los Angeles, CA and is an active director, producer, music director, conductor, and new work development consultant. In the academic world, she is passionate about curriculum development, accreditation, and academic leadership, and their intersections with the arts. In the past 10 years, she has been privileged to work with faculty and students in the theatre programs at the University of Maryland, Ball State University and Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts.

Brent-Chessum holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies from UMD, and her scholarship focuses on propaganda and nationalism in American musical theatre (with an emphasis on six “Salesmen of Americanism”: John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., Oscar Hammerstein II, Stephen Sondheim, and Lin-Manuel Miranda). She was the founding Managing/Artistic Director of Pallas Theatre Collective in Washington, D.C., developing new works to ensure the continuance of America’s musical theatre legacy (Helen Hayes Award Nominee, John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company).

What drew you to Brenau University and Gainesville, GA?

After spending time in many different types of theatre programs, I was looking for one that focused on education rather than the new buzzword “training.” At Brenau, I see faculty and leadership who understand that a college education should produce our nation’s next generation of thinkers and leaders—through whatever they choose to study. Theatre education today has moved so far from this. We tend to cram so much training into a course of study that students have no time to process how to use their training effectively or build on that training and become effective thinkers and leaders. I was looking for a university and faculty who, first, understood the balance needed between education & training, and second, were already thinking about how it could produce the next generation of artistic leadership. I found that at Brenau and GTA.

I spent a good portion of my artistic life in Washington, D.C. developing new musicals. At the time, many of the musicals going to Broadway were being developed by D.C.’s regional theatres. In the last few years, out-of-town tryouts have shifted from D.C. to—you guessed it—Atlanta! What an exciting time to be relocating to Gainesville! I’m excited to watch the development of the American musical in this new regional center.

Can you elaborate on Atlanta as a “new regional center” for musical development?

Throughout its history, the musical has been a distinctly American art form—it’s a cultural product that we can truly claim as our own. After the AIDS crisis of the 1980s virtually wiped out the up-and-coming generation of musical librettists and composers, several regional musical theatre centers (as opposed to Broadway) saw the need to develop and teach new talent to ensure the continuation of the genre. In the early 90s, it was theatres like The Public Theater and the O’Neill Theatre Center that started new work development programs designed to teach young creators what they used to receive as mentorship from established artists. It was the forethought of these regional theatres that saved musical theatre from becoming a Disney-only phenomenon, and led to the explosion of new work and creative talent that characterized the new Golden Age of the 2000s. I saw this in Washington D.C., where the city’s more transient population provided audiences that were willing to be part of a development process, not just an entertainment experience, and these audiences gave valuable feedback in a geographic area far from the Great White Way. Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away—all of these shows started in D.C. And, look at the shows we know and love that began their journey in Atlanta—The Color Purple, The Prom, Bull Durham, and Becoming Nancy. . . . Atlanta has clearly found the right audience to keep American musical development moving forward.

What excited you about Gainesville Theatre Alliance?

I can’t find one other program like GTA anywhere in the country. This program is set up to thrive on collaboration, rather than the single vision of a repertory theatre company. This is a gift and a legacy we can give our students: to learn the art of collaboration well. Given the current situation in higher education, I truly believe that GTA will become a model for other programs around the country in the future.

Could you speak more about the importance of collaboration, specifically the “art of collaboration,” as it relates to students and graduates in their professional careers?

Like Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita’s famous line “Politics: the art of the possible” (originally by Bismarck)—I would say that collaboration is the art of balance (my favorite word—and one my colleagues are probably already tired of). On its surface, collaboration is about necessity. In the theatre, one person simply cannot do everything; I cannot design, direct, conduct, play, act, market, and manage a show. If I tried, I would fail miserably, and it would have taken over every corner of my life. Also, theatrical art is at its best when it incorporates many artistic perspectives; we need others to help us see a work from all vantage points, and to add their great ideas to the mix. Collaboration ensures we complete the task and create better art. Brenau, UNG, and GTA model this for their students every day. Our faculties and facilities pair well to create a thriving program that covers anything and everything our students may need to be successful in this arena. Both universities—and Gainesville as a city—are getting a program that is double the size of what they are putting into it, and everyone reaps the benefits. Our students learn from our example how to use artistic resources to their best effect.

However, the “art of collaboration” lies in avoiding the trap of over-collaborating. I think when we finally learn how to collaborate productively, we dive in and try and work on and create as many projects as possible at breakneck speeds (often a necessity given the relationship between art & capitalism). The work gets done, and sometimes we hit on genius, but most of the time. . .we’re very, very tired. It’s efficient collaboration, but it’s not always effective. Collaboration—as the art of balance—should allow us to bring our best artistic instincts to the table, provide time and energy to grow through the process, and allow us to maintain the other aspects of our lives. The art of balance means that we use collaboration to make our best art, not necessarily more art. I want students to graduate knowing how to work effectively to create something beautiful, while prioritizing their artistic needs and skills and their wellbeing. That is where the most meaningful art comes from.

What are your first steps to prepare for your new position?

Honestly, the first step is trying to sell my house in Pittsburgh in the middle of a pandemic! However, if we catch a break—if everyone observes social distancing and stay-at-home orders and helps “flatten the curve”—we should be able to make it to GA smoothly. In the meantime, I’m contemplating the changes ahead of us. GTA, Brenau, and UNG have long, rich histories and traditions, and we’re replacing all the leadership at once with people from the outside who don’t have the same institutional memory. I have great respect for all my future colleagues (and those from the past who have been instrumental in building this partnership) and I’m excited to forge a path that honors this past and leads to new discoveries. I’m cognizant that UNG’s new Chair and I are going to need the faculty to help us navigate these waters. I’ve started my “listening tour” with faculty members, and I’m already planning to hold some town halls with students in the fall. It’s important to first get a sense of the program and community from the people involved. I always try to sit down with as many individuals as I can and listen to their perspective—what do they need? How do they like to function? How do they define artistic education? Where do they see Brenau and GTA going in the future? My goal is to explore the balance between the needs of the art and the artists, and I’m thankful that so many people are already reaching out to help me learn more.

What are your long-term goals for Gainesville Theatre Alliance and the Brenau University Theatre Department?

Any long-term goals I have will be defined by a collaborative partnership with the next Chair of the UNG theatre department, so I’m going to hold off on announcing any major plans until there’s someone in place for me to set those goals with! However, I would like to see GTA and Brenau eventually start recruiting on the national level (it’s a fabulous program in a fabulous theatre town, who wouldn’t want to come here?), and fully establish itself with a national reputation among collegiate theatre departments.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance patrons?

GTA may be going through some changes, but I don’t believe that GTA patrons will see that when they come to our shows. There might be a new face giving the curtain speech, but audiences will continue to see what they’ve come to expect from GTA: high-quality collegiate theatre performances.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance students?

Come into this transition with as much flexibility as you can muster! Change is never easy, but it can be a refreshing time of growth if we approach it that way. Learn now how to roll with it—it will make you a better performer, designer, technician, artist, and person. Changes like the one we’re about to embark on together are the only constant in life; they require patience, positivity, resilience, and respect. All of us—faculty, staff, and students—want the same thing: for GTA to thrive! Remember that as we recalibrate this year. I’m so excited to meet each and every one of you, and get to work!

How did you first get involved in theatre?

Like many of us, I was just a little awkward growing up (okay, more than a little awkward), and I found some safety in my high school theatre program. From a young age, I’d found a voice in storytelling, and theatre was a perfect medium to create the environments to tell those stories. As such, my teachers saw pretty early on that I could direct, and gave me not only opportunity to create but the ability to fail miserably in a safe space. These early experiences allowed me to be comfortable with artistic experimentation and gave me the curiosity to figure out why these experiments worked or didn’t work.

What are some of your favorite musicals, plays, or playwrights?

Each musical or play serves as a mirror to society at that particular time. As such, I tend to have favorite groups of playwrights/plays/musicals that mirror social or cultural history. For example: Sousa, Cohan, Hammerstein, Sondheim, and Miranda: these are the Salesmen of Americanism in musical theatre. Their musicals redefine the American in each generation (some more responsibly than others). Contrast these with the Saleswomen of American Womanhood: Betty Comden, Mary Rodgers, Marsha Norman, Jeanine Tesori, Jennifer Lee & Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Anais Mitchell, whose musicals tend to show us the disparity between male and female opportunity and expectation. It’s so hard to pick “favorites” when each play/musical serves a purpose in telling our national stories!

What is a memorable theatre project you have worked on that you felt made a great impact or moved you in a significant way?

I was privileged to work with Steve and Karen Multer on their new musical code name: CYNTHIA in 2014–2015. We did several workshop readings over the first year (including one at the International Spy Museum) leading up to our small blackbox production. The Multers’ fantastic musical got rave reviews and several BroadwayWorld award nominations, but we kept coming in second to an out-of-town tryout running at the same time—Dear Evan Hansen. At the time, Dear Evan Hansen was still in development, and wasn’t quite what we see on stage today; but Pasek & Paul were a known quantity, and Multer & Multer were not. It was one of those moments where I realized how important small development companies were to the health and wellness—to the pipeline—of American musical theatre. Pasek & Paul were once in a small blackbox trying stand out among bigger names and bigger budgets. It reminded me to keep working with and giving to the smaller companies, so that audiences can always be both comforted by the voices they know and love, and challenged by new voices and new perspectives.

Read Brenau University’s offical statement here.

GTA’s April Shows Postponed

Mar 18, 2020— In light of ongoing developments resulting from the coronavirus (COVID-19) and recent campus restrictions of both Brenau University and the University of North Georgia, Gainesville Theatre Alliance has made the difficult decision to postpone the previously scheduled April productions of The Arabian Nights and The Laramie Project. This action is designed to safeguard audience members, performers, and staff.

The March 24 Stage Tour of The Arabian Nights is canceled, and the show will be reprogrammed into the April slot of GTA’s 2020-21 season. Patrons with tickets to The Arabian Nights will be receiving a letter regarding their options. The GTA box office is closed due to teleworking conditions for the UNG-Gainesville campus. Box office staff will be checking messages and returning calls and ask for patience while they handle this unusual situation.

GTA’s Discovery Series production of The Laramie Project is rescheduled for late August. More details on this event will follow.

In a letter to patrons, GTA Artistic and Managing Director Jim Hammond said, “Our theatre is the “Gathering Place” where we come together to celebrate the spirit of our community. Our greatest disappointment is the inability to deliver that vital service at this time, but this too shall pass.” Gainesville Theatre Alliance’s 41st season will be announced in the coming weeks. We appreciate your understanding as we do our best to protect the health and well-being of our students, staff and audience members. Thank you for your patience and support.

Jim Hammond Announces His Retirement

A Letter from GTA Artistic/Managing Director Jim Hammond

Jasper Sams and Jim Hammond in GTA’s 2010 production of Eurydice

Dear Friends of GTA,

Exactly 30 years ago, I returned to Gainesville to interview as a candidate for Artistic and Managing Director of the Gainesville Theatre Alliance. The offer of that job has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve received in my life. As a former student of Ed Cabell, it has been my honor to carry the vision of this extraordinary collaboration between the University of North Georgia, Brenau University and the northeast Georgia community. As I told my students, I didn’t become a teacher just to teach, but to continue as a student at their side striving to learn and grow. After 30 years, it is time for this student to graduate and move into the next chapter of my life.

Jim Hammond in GTA’s 2016 production of Dracula

I assure you that I’m not disappearing. I will be sitting next to you in the audience rather than giving the curtain speech. I am so proud of what we have all accomplished together and look forward to witnessing the great work ahead. Both Brenau and UNG are committed to finding the leadership that will continue to lift the Gainesville Theatre Alliance to new heights.

Please accept my deepest gratitude for the love and support you have given to our work through the years. The stories we told on our stages have shaped lives and helped to launch hundreds of careers. This will forever be my artistic home.

See you at the theatre,

Jim Hammond
Artistic and Managing Director

Jim Hammond in 2012’s The Grapes of Wrath

Q&A with Juan Suarez, Pippin, Pippin

Juan Suarez is a sophomore at GTA and is very excited to be doing his second production with the company. You may recognize him from Cabaret where he played Victor, now he’s excited to be taking on this new challenge and adventure of playing Pippin and can’t wait to tell you all this story.

What part of the production are you most excited for?

I’m most excited to share this story with many audience members for the next few weeks. It’s such a blast!

What is the most challenging part of the production?

The most challenging part of this production for me so far is all the high notes. I mean, they come one after the other after the other, and all the while I never get to really leave the stage for more than 10 seconds! So, there will be plenty of water bottles randomly hidden around the set.

What has been your favorite moment of the rehearsal process?

It’s not really a moment exactly, but meeting all these new people and bringing them into the GTA family, like the dance majors, or Lisa Phifer and Carson Shelton (who is such an incredible kid, by the way. Such a joy.)

What do you most want audiences to take away from the production?

Live in the moment. Don’t waste your life worrying about the future. Life is so short, so just live it. That is the only truly fulfilling thing. 🙂

← Back to Pippin

Q&A with Rachel Finazzo, Catherine, Pippin

Rachel Finazzo is a Senior scholarship recipient at Brenau, with a BFA in Acting. Some of her favorite work at GTA has been: Legally Blonde (Paulette), The Wizard of Oz (Glinda), Cabaret (Fritzie) Secret in the Wings (Princess Allerleira), and RepCo. She is so excited to be directed by Jim for her final production, and cannot wait for y’all to see the show! Follow her journey on YouTube and on Instagram @rahrahrahrachel.

What part of the production are you most excited for?

I am most excited for the way that the audience will be able to relate to it. It’s a universal story that is essentially about figuring out our purpose and I think that everyone has struggled with that at one time or another.

What is the most challenging part of the production?

The most challenging part for me is the ideas of playing an actor that is playing someone else. It’s a beautiful concept, but it is definitely challenging in its own way.

What has been your favorite moment of the rehearsal process?

Arriving every day. Truly. With it being my last GTA production I am savoring every second.

What do you most want audiences to take away from the production?

That there is no right answer to the question “What does my future hold?”. As long as we hold true to the convictions that we feel, then I believe that we cannot do any better than the discoveries that we make on that path.

← Back to Pippin