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Student Spotlight: Shenell McCrary at Ping Chong + Company

UMS

By UMS

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of reflections from students who are part of UMS’s 21st Century Student Internship program. As parts of this paid internship program, students spend several weeks with a company that’s part of UMS’s seasons. U-M Theater student Shenell McCrary was with Ping Chong + Company. The company brings Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity to Ann Arbor on February 18, 2016.

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Left: Shenell McCrary at Snug Harbor steps. Right: SoHo. All photos by Shenell McRary.

I was standing on the steps of the University of Michigan’s Hatcher Undergraduate Library with a group of actors from my theater program when I received the call. Jim Leija, the Director of Education & Community Engagement at UMS had called to tell me that I had received the highly sought after 21st Century Internship. I almost dropped my phone when I heard the news. Since I had applied the year before and didn’t get it, I was really hoping this year was my breakthrough. And it was. Finally.

Jim told me that I would be assigned to New York City with a theater company called Ping Chong + Company. Right away, I started to research them, going through websites, news articles, reviews, and YouTube videos. And right off the bat, I found their work to be very interesting, especially the Undesirable Elements series. And of course, I was also excited about the opportunity to travel to New York City. I had been to the city a few times, but never own my own or for as long as I would be during the internship. I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summer.

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Left: Harlem Brownstones. Right: Rooftop view.

As my plane descended, I began to feel those butterflies in my stomach. Would I like it here? Will I be ok? Will I get lost? Will I be alone? My shuttle took me from LaGuardia Airport to my new home in Harlem. I was staying in a spacious apartment that my theater professors allowed me to sublet. One of the many great things about Harlem for me was the liveliness of the neighborhoods. There is always something to do, and there is such a strong sense of community. What I loved most about the neighborhood is the lovely blend of culture and people of all ages. One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the stoop or at my window and watch the kids play. They opened up the fire hydrant on especially hot days, and let the water spray out into the street, splashing and playing to cool off.

One of the most challenging things for me was definitely learning my way around the city. I like to think of myself as someone with a pretty strong sense of direction. However, New York completely threw off my internal compass. Even looking at the map of the subways initially nauseated me. I had never been on a subway train without someone who absolutely knew what they were doing, so the thought of having to navigate the city on my own terrified me. I often imagined myself on the wrong train, ending up lost in the middle Brooklyn (which actually happened once). After many missed trains and rookie mistakes, I got the hang of it. With every week I knew more and more, and what initially terrified me became easy and familiar. Sometimes, I even offered transit advice to confused tourists.

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Left: Night skyline. Right: Sunny day at the High Line.

Ping Chong + Company’s offices are in East Village in Manhattan. Because the company was not working on performances during the summer, the bulk of my work was assisting in the office with day-to-day tasks in preparation for the end of the fiscal year, as well as helping to prepare and plan for upcoming tours and institutes. I also had the opportunity to prepare for one of Ping Chong + Company’s performances-in-progress, Where The Sea Break It’s Back.  What I enjoyed most about my experience in the office is the opportunity to gain insight into exactly how a professional theater company runs. Because I aspire to some day become the artistic director of my own company, seeing just how much work goes into keeping things running was especially helpful.

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Left: Ping Chong + Company office building. Right: Central Park.

Not all of my time was spent in the office, though. I took full advantage of my free time, exploring the massive city. Many of my adventures included sightseeing, going to Coney Island and Brighton Beach, visiting The Highline, popping into free art galleries around Manhattan, watching movies in the park, kayaking down the Hudson, taking yoga and spinning classes, and, of course, seeing shows.

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Left: Coney Island sunset. Right: At the beach.

The Training Institute was probably one of my favorite weeks in New York. I was so excited to actually be on my feet and learning how the Company does what it does so well: creates interview-based theater works. I had so many questions about the process and about interviewing in general.

What I loved about this experience was working alongside artists of all ages from all over the world. Before the intensive, we filled out a questionnaire, answering questions about our history, environment, and culture. We used those packets as well as in-person interviews to form pieces of theater. The intensive culminated in an unforgettable and deeply moving showcase of our work. In documentary theater, the interviewee shares a part of his or her story, which is funneled into a script. The process takes trust and communication. It really opened my eyes to how everyone has a history and many stories. To be able to have someone share these stories, and to then be able to turn these words into something artful, is a great honor.

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Left: Institute group, with Shenell in center. Right: Ping Chong.

The trip back to LaGuardia airport was bittersweet. I was sad to say goodbye to New York, but I couldn’t wait to go back to Ann Arbor and share and apply the cool things I learned. My time in New York was some of the most unforgettable in my life so far. The trip has taught me so much about myself, my craft, and the industry I plan to work in. I was so lucky to have the Ping Chong + Company family to take me under their wings for my six week stay. In such an enormous, dizzy city, I felt at home. I cannot thank UMS and Ping Chong and Company enough for the opportunity of a lifetime.

See Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity in Ann Arbor on February 18, 2016.

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