Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff

Aurelia Clunie, Education Associate for Student Audiences

By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

Aurelia ClunieTell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. I love my hometown. It’s the birthplace of Creative Dramatics, which Winifred Ward developed at Northwestern University in the 1920s. Now called Creative Drama, this teaching practice is defined by the CTAA Drama/Theatre Continuum as an improvisational, non-exhibitional, process-centered form of drama in which participants are guided by a leader to imagine, enact and reflect upon human experience. I was privileged to have access to drama and theater classes throughout my public school education. At Northwestern University, I studied Creative Drama as well as acting and directing. In college, I was lucky enough to study under professors working in the field and from whom I’d taken drama classes as a child. I got to intern with Anne Lefkovitz, my childhood drama teacher, and she became a mentor guiding me in education best practices.

“The ability to create worlds and tell stories should be a cherished skill.”

I feel lucky I can bring such unique perspective to the Hartford Stage Education Department. Quite a journey—from someone who experienced the power of Creative Drama as a student in the home of Creative Drama, then getting to study the theory behind it at the college that essentially started the Creative Drama movement, and now getting to use it regularly at Hartford Stage. Sometimes I can tell a lesson is gelling, not only because I had to write papers about it in college, but because I remember the feeling of being inside of those moments as a child.

Tell us about the first time you experienced live theatre and how it impacted you.

I was probably in the womb the first time I experienced live theater. It’s in my blood, my bones, my DNA. It’s nurtured me since the day I was born. I’m grateful for that, but I also understand that is a very unique and privileged experience. My mother is a playwright and director, and founded Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre in my hometown, so I was a theater baby – and I guess it stuck. There are stories of me as a toddler standing on the coffee table at home singing songs I’d heard in rehearsals. I remember doing “Umoja means unity,” the pre-show ritual, with casts before they went to places…I think my first memory of seeing a show on stage was during a tech rehearsal of Fences by August Wilson. I was playing by myself in the balcony while the “grown-ups” ran the show onstage. I remember being struck by such larger than life men who were so vulnerable in the show – the characters Troy and Gabriel in particular. Now, I cherish the special moments when seeing a show—when the air gets still, and everyone is focused on the same thing. It’s powerful! I saw one last night – Andre De Shields and Billy Eugene Jones in Seven Guitars at Yale Rep. It was magical!   

Take us through a typical (or not-so-typical) work day…

Aurelia teaching students in the classroom.
Aurelia teaching students in the classroom.

My typical workday might include: Teaching up to three Connections classes in a Hartford-area school—these have a set process drama curriculum based on a children’s book; coming back to the office and getting some work done at my desk – maybe coordinating workshops for the InterACT program, or Write On young playwrights program; then directing a play at a local school or district, teaching an afterschool class or teaching an evening adult studio class. Sometimes facilitating a student matinee post-show discussion of one of Hartford Stage’s plays gets thrown in mid-day for good measure. Days are full, but very exciting! 

You are actively involved with the Hartford Stage Youth Council, after-school Breakdancing Shakespeare, and youth playwriting programs, such as Write On.  How do you feel these programs enhance a student’s appreciation for theatre, and what do you hope youth will ultimately gain from these programs?   

I believe these programs help students develop as artists and arts patrons, and encourage them to feel comfortable with both going to the theater and making their own when they feel the need to tell a story.  I’d seen examples of youth councils sprouting up in theaters in Chicago, and across the country, and suggested at an education retreat that Hartford Stage start one. Our department ran with it and after a year of development and focus groups with area youth, we started the Youth Council as an opportunity to develop youth arts leaders. Participants can learn about the ins and outs of professional theater, represent the voice of young people to Hartford Stage staff and the broader community, host events that connect Hartford Stage to teen audiences, and cultivate community and enthusiasm for Hartford Stage. I hope to give students a platform to explore their creativity and dance with Shakespeare in the Extended School Hours Program, and to amplify youth voice in Write On and the Youth Council. Often teen voices are the ones our community needs to hear.

“Acting outside of Hartford Stage keeps the tools in my toolbox fresh. Also, it’s wonderful to work with companies that are so connected with the community.”

I believe if you’ve ever made a piece of theater, or even shared an improvised scene in front of a class, you can appreciate the work and bravery it takes professional theater makers to do what they do. Likewise, if you’ve ever seen a professional show and are curious about the process, you should have the opportunity to try your hand and learn about yourself as an artist. The ability to create worlds and tell stories should be a cherished skill.

I have always seen myself as an artist-facilitator. I enjoy amplifying unheard voices and helping people hear their own voices and creativity expressed. I love doing this in multiple capacities. As a director, I love to facilitate the “world-making” that goes into creating a show. As an actress, I love interpreting the written word, standing it up on its feet and gifting it to the audience. As an educator, I love to facilitate students’ creative play. I also enjoy working on new plays as actor, director, or dramaturg, and doing all I can to support the playwright’s work. I love that I get to do this as coordinator of Write On.

You’ve acted with several local theatrical troupes (Hartbeat Ensemble, Capital Classics) – how do you feel that acting complements the work you do with students at Hartford Stage?

Aurelia directing a scene at a local theatre.
Aurelia directing a scene at a local theatre.

Keeping my skills sharp allows me to feed the artist part of being a teaching-artist. By doing my own work, I can contribute a richer perspective to teaching and facilitating programs. I love being an active artist because when I teach adult studio acting classes, or young people in schools, I can draw on those experiences. I went to a training a couple years ago, and a master teaching artist suggested to us, “Always go back to your art.” If things start getting unfocused in class, go back to the art and if you’re excited and focused on your craft, the students will follow you.

Also, the Connections program requires performing monologues as characters and as teacher-in-role. The levels of focus and commitment an actor needs to have when the audience is 25 fourth graders all asking questions are often much higher than when on stage and the house lights are low. I often say Connections classes are my best audiences, and I sometimes do my best acting work there – trying to share a life changing moment as the character with 25 curious students. As an artist, I feel my “pie-graph” is made up of three parts: acting, directing, and teaching. Acting outside of Hartford Stage keeps the tools in my toolbox fresh. Also, it’s wonderful to work with companies that are so connected with the community. I meet Hartford audience members who are so enthusiastic and collaborate with other artists, which always keeps the creative juices flowing. Recently, I’ve been working on creating a new piece with Vanessa Butler (who was in Queens for a Year and A Christmas Carol this season). Hartbeat Ensemble will do a workshop performance of it in the spring. It’s a little scary to venture into the world of writing, but also exciting!

Our Student Performance Matinee Series, including InterACT, offers students the chance to see live theatre and cultivate their identities as scholars, critics and fans of live theatre. Have you noticed students whose lives have been positively affected by this program and what it offers?

Sometimes I hear students who have seen our Saturday matinees come back and say, “Miss! I saw an adult and she had her phone out! That’s not okay!” I just tell them “You know better than her. You know why that is distracting to actors and audience. Lead by example.” Students surprise me in the best ways. In the last few seasons, we’ve had some one-and two-person shows, including The Pianist of Willesden Lane and Having Our Say. I was worried that these text- and storytelling-heavy plays would not keep the interest of students who might expect spectacle. I was wrong. Students really responded to them! More than one student said seeing Pianist changed her life and caused her to contemplate her future.

Last story: a former InterACT student who was also in after-school Breakdancing Shakespeare got the special honor of performing at our Annual Meeting. This was the year Darko Tresnjak had just won the Tony for Best Director of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway. All the adults wanted to congratulate him about his well-deserved Tony win, but this student wanted to meet him because he had directed Twelfth Night the season before, and she loved seeing that show. This has happened more than once. When students end up in a space with Darko, adults may be trying to talk about his latest accomplishment, but students just want a moment of Darko’s time to get a note or geek-out about Shakespeare with him. They are so focused on the work sometimes! 

Do you have other talents or passions outside of working in theatre?

When I’m not in a theater, I enjoy running, baking, and going on adventures! I’m starting to write more, so I wonder where that will lead. I’m also a news and non-fiction junkie. I love listening to podcasts and reading true stories.

What is your personal motto in life?

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”
– Matsuo Basho

I love this quote. It reminds me to hold onto what I’ve learned from those who have gone before me, but also to pick up the baton and keep running the race. I’m so curious what new discovery we’ll find when we get there!