Texas Tech University

From Raiderland to the Big Apple: TCVPA Students Take Talents to New York City

Amanda Castro-Crist

July 22, 2019

Doctoral student LyaNisha Gonzalez and sophomore Luke Weber have each earned spots in prestigious theater programs after performing in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

Two students from Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts have earned spots in prestigious theater programs in what is arguably one of the most coveted cities to study and work in the industry: New York City.

Luke Weber, a sophomore musical theater major, and LyaNisha Gonzalez, a doctoral playwriting and arts administration student, will each travel to the city this summer. Weber will work and learn at the Open Jar Institute's weeklong summer intensive, and Gonzalez will produce and present her original play, "On a String," at the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival (OOB). Weber and Gonzalez also participated in the 2019 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) earlier this year in Washington, D.C.

"The Open Jar Institute is one of the best places to further studies in musical theater in the country, and the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival picked the best 30 out of more than 900 submissions to be produced," said Mark Charney, director of the School of Theatre & Dance. "Luke and LyaNisha are recognized among the top practitioners in the country and will be among the best going forward after receiving these opportunities. Their success distinguishes Texas Tech as a strong place to study both musical theater and playwriting."

The Open Jar Institute

At KCACTF, Weber was one of nine musical theater fellows from across the U.S. chosen to compete in the festival's Musical Theatre Initiative.

"Luke has impressed me from the first moment he arrived," Charney said. "He's exceptional as an actor, singer and performer."

Luke Weber in
Luke Weber in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" / Photo by Dori Bosnyak

After performing the musical theater song, "It's Hard to Speak My Heart" from the musical "Parade," Weber was the only student to receive a full scholarship to the Open Jar Institute this summer.

"When I found out I was selected, I was in shock," Weber said. "Out of all the people who competed across the nation, I was the one chosen. It was a very surreal and rewarding experience."

Established in 2003, the Open Jar Institute is the "most Broadway-integrated, actor-training program" in New York City and allows students to participate in a five-day summer intensive that includes one-on-one training with Broadway performers, directors, choreographers and agents. Weber will be in New York Aug. 4-10.

"I will spend the week in New York doing several acting, singing, dancing and auditioning workshops with industry professionals," Weber said. "I'm excited to learn more about what it's like being a professional actor in New York. I also will have the opportunity to make a lot of connections."

Weber said he wouldn't have had the chance to study at the Open Jar Institute without the things he's learned and the people he's worked with at Texas Tech.

"I didn't win this award on my own," Weber said. "It took a lot of hard work and a lot of support from my peers and mentors to get me to where I am now. I owe a lot of my success to the School of Theatre & Dance at Texas Tech. I haven't experienced anything this big before. Without Texas Tech, this opportunity wouldn't be possible."

Samuel French Off Off Broadway Play Festival

LyaNisha Gonzalez / Photo by Dori Bosnyak
LyaNisha Gonzalez / Photo by Dori Bosnyak

Gonzalez will be in New York City Aug. 19-24, producing and presenting an original play at the 44th annual OOB. Each year, festival staff read through submissions – this year, more than 900 plays – and choose 30 semifinalists to present their play at the festival. Of those, 10-12 will move on to the finals, during which six plays will ultimately be chosen for publication by Samuel French, Inc.

"We'll be taking our production of it to the festival," Charney said of the play, which was presented earlier this year at the annual Raider Red's One-Act Play Spectacular (RROAPS) / Raider Red's Awesome Dance Spectacular. "If chosen, they also will publish the script. As LyaNisha's mentor and director of her dissertation, I couldn't be prouder that her singular voice is reaching national recognition."

Gonzalez found out "On a String" had been chosen for the festival while in Washington, D.C., at KCACTF to receive a separate honor as the national runner-up for the Kennedy Center's Paula Vogel Playwriting Award for her play, "Black Girl, Interrupted."

"It was just compounded excitement," Gonzalez said. "I've been writing since a very young age and have never received any kind of honors for my plays or for anything I've written. To get that recognition at KCACTF, then on top of that, to find out I'm going to be in this well-respected, well-known festival – I could not stop smiling for days."

Gonzalez said "On a String" tells the story of a black woman who is being controlled by unseen voices and is forced to perform dances. She said the play is inspired by the things black women in America face, including some of her own experiences, and the ways people silently resist when they don't have the option of quitting.

"They have her on a string, like a puppet, and they're forcing her to do these physical movements," Gonzalez said. "She has a metal slab affixed to her mouth, so she can't speak. While they're forcing her to do these dances, which are just steeped in racialized connotations for African Americans, like tap dancing, they're also hurling abusive language toward her. Sometimes it sounds like they're being her friends, sometimes they're being overtly hostile, but it's all about how she finds the strength to endure through those kinds of difficult moments.

"She has to sort of keep her head down, and she's not allowed to speak, but she can't just quit, because there's a lot at stake," Gonzalez said. "There's a lot riding on these choices she's made, so how does she continue on her journey? Most people would think, 'Well, I would just quit,' right? But if you can't, what do you do? How do you how do you keep moving forward?"

She said she feels like the play will resonate with anyone who identifies a similar struggle.

"I think you can extrapolate pretty much any kind of struggle for yourself," Gonzalez said. "If you see yourself in her, your particular struggle will manifest in what she's dealing with. I think it is fairly universal in that way. For me, it was about digging down into what this degree means to me, the reasons I chose to come back and what I have given up to be here. I'm from New Jersey, and I came down here specifically to get this particular degree at this particular university. Reminding myself of why I'm here and what I need, and then sort of looking to my family and the way I was raised, that sort of galvanized my strength and allowed me to put those difficulties aside and put my degree at the fore."

Gonzalez said because she usually writes full-length plays, she hadn't thought about submitting a play to the festival, which limits the length to 15 pages or less. That changed during an independent study course she completed with Charney, when he encouraged her to submit it to the festival.

"Dr. Charney said, 'I have a really good feeling about this play,'" Gonzalez recalled. "He said, 'I think it's really important and saying a lot of things. You're dramatizing issues that exist not only here, but wherever you have issues of diversity and inclusion, and it speaks to a whole swath of people and a whole swath of issues.'"

Gonzalez said while the goal is to be one of the six chosen for publication, there's so much more she will gain from returning to New York City – where she earned her master's degree at the Actor's Studio Drama School – and participating in OOB.

"My friends joke around with me now and say, 'You're already an award-winning playwright,'" Gonzalez said. "It feels weird, but to say that I also am a published playwright would be amazing in terms of the early stages of my playwriting career and the opportunities it could give me. But even if that doesn't come to fruition, I am looking forward to meeting the other playwrights involved and meeting some of the judges who are going to be there, people who are professionals in the New York theater community, and sort of reintroducing myself to that community."

She said the festival is an important tool for emerging playwrights because it helps get their work seen and helps them get introduced not just to the New York City theatrical community, but beyond. It's served as a launching pad for many careers, Gonzalez added.

"When I put this on my CV, it's one of those things that will make people take me seriously as a playwright," Gonzalez said. "It's an honor, obviously, but what it can do, for me for my future is really just at this point sort of unquantifiable. The dividends haven't been paid out yet, but they're on the horizon."

Texas Tech on the national stage

Charney said participating in the Open Jar Institute and the OOB will open the door to even more prospects for Weber and Gonzalez.

Jacob Henry, Luke Weber, Dori Bosnyak and Lyanisha Gonzalez at KCACTF
Jacob Henry, Luke Weber, Dori Bosnyak and Lyanisha Gonzalez at KCACTF

"It offers them opportunities they cannot get anywhere else: recognition, publication, impressive training and a host of folks to be around who are going to make their names in theater," Charney said. "At KCACTF, artistic director Gregg Henry says, 'Look around. These are the artists with whom you will work your entire life. This isn't a competition. It's just recognition for excellence.' Both of these students represent the best in the country, and I imagine they will continue to thrive in their crafts."

Their success also shines a national spotlight on the programs offered at Texas Tech, reflecting not just on the training, guidance and support they receive at university, but also how far the School of Theatre & Dance has come.

"When I arrived seven years ago, I said we'd be a top-10 program within the first 10 years," Charney said. "This helps to prove that our students are among the best, and our mentors are as well. I honestly think our program offers the best training in the country right now, the most empathetic, and the most student-centric. As we continue to thrive, I expect we'll find more recognition in the near future. I'm proud to direct a program with such fine professors and students."

Gonzalez said Charney's support is a key factor in student success and for the reputation of excellence the school continues to build.

"He was the driving force behind me submitting to these different play and award opportunities," Gonzalez said. "Without him, I wouldn't have known about half of these things. He's awesome and a fountain of information, encouraging students to get out there.

"As our name continues to get out there, and we start to garner awards and respect for the work we do here, being able to call yourself a theater Red Raider is going to have a lot of weight because we're really turning out some quality work. We're doing some phenomenal things across the board, the acting, the directing, the design, the arts administration. I'm really proud to be in a school with people who also are functioning at the top of their game, because that forces everybody to elevate themselves. I'm proud of the group of people I get to call companions, compatriots, my cohort."