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A group photo of the EITEA master class presented by the CMU School of Drama.

CMU School of Drama Hits the Road for EITEA Master Class at Florida High School

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing
Pam Wigley
College of Fine Arts

Imagine a group of high school students standing in line, waiting to have their t-shirts autographed. It may be a rock star or sports hero that first comes to mind. But at Dr. Joaquín García High School in Lake Worth, Florida, it’s drama teacher Jason Zembuch Young(opens in new window) who has drawn a crowd of adoring teens. They just wrapped up a day of master classes taught by Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama(opens in new window) professors, and the excitement and energy in the air is palpable. 

Zembuch Young is the winner of the 2023 Excellence in Theatre Education Award(opens in new window), presented by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University. The award recognizes a K-12 theatre educator in the U.S. who has demonstrated monumental impact on the lives of students and who embodies the highest standards of the profession. As part of the prize package, a team of CMU Drama faculty and alumni travel to the winner’s school to share their expertise and give high school students a glimpse into the rigorous and rewarding training CMU Drama students receive.

Robert Ramirez(opens in new window), head of the School of Drama, kicked off the day by emphasizing to the group — which was  made up of students from both Dr. Joaquín García High School, where Zembuch Young is currently on faculty, and South Plantation High School, where he recently moved from — how fortunate they are to have a teacher like Zembuch Young. 

“To know that there are people like Jason out in the world who are teaching at this level of excellence and with this kind of commitment, preparing students for entry into college and beyond, it's really heartening and really, really gratifying,” Ramirez said.

The students’ love and admiration for their teacher, and his genuine care and connection with them made it easy to see why he is a rock star in their eyes. Zembuch Young is dedicated not only to his students’ theatre training, but also to their development as human beings. 

“I can’t think of anything that is as interdisciplinary as theatre arts,” he said. “Whether it’s the literary analysis of the script, or the math and science behind building a set. But most importantly, when these kids walk out of a theatre arts training program, they have a work ethic that is second to none.”

And that work ethic was on full display as his students dove into their master classes. Their first session was with Lisa Velten Smith(opens in new window), an assistant professor of voice in the School of Drama’s acting program. She led a series of vocal exercises developed by world-renowned vocal methodologist Kristin Linklater, which are designed to release the voice by addressing and reducing tensions in the body. Knowing that the students were coming into these classes with varying levels of experience and confidence, Velten Smith invited them into the exercises in a way that honored who they are as individuals. 

“I like to introduce this work not in terms of anything that’s missing or the idea that there's a deficit, but that they're already coming in with something of value, and we build upon that,” she said. “It creates space for the student to look inward and really think about, ‘what do I want, what are my strengths, what are my values, what are my interests, and how can I tap into all of those?’”

Kyle Haden(opens in new window), senior associate head and associate professor of acting in the School of Drama, then led the students in a series of acting warmups and exercises designed to heighten their awareness of their bodies in space, and focus their connection as an ensemble. Haden introduced them to methodologies he has used in his own professional acting and directing career, from a “tasking” exercise he learned while working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to the “Viewpoints” practice developed by Mary Overlie and adapted by Anne Bogart, one of Haden’s own professors at Columbia University. 

Philippe Arroyo and Jason Zembuch Young.

Philippe Arroyo and Jason Zembuch Young.

This kind of intergenerational education and the passing along of artistic practices is part of what makes these master classes so meaningful — a point that was brought into focus during a Q&A session between the students and recent CMU Drama alumnus Philippe Arroyo, moderated by Ramirez. Arroyo is currently performing on Broadway as François in the new hit musical “& Juliet.” For him, being back in Florida (he attended Martin County High School, just 40 miles away), and talking to students about his own Broadway career is a full-circle moment.

“I remember being in high school and having people come and speak to us about their time on Broadway or being a professional actor and you kind of idolize that,” he said. “You hope and dream that that will be you someday. So it's really heartwarming and touching to be here, and I hope that I can instill that sort of inspiration to these students.”

The final session offered to the students was one of the most highly anticipated: a movement and choreography workshop with Professor of Dance Tomé Cousin(opens in new window). Cousin’s impressive resume includes studying with the renowned Alvin Ailey School of American Dance, appearing for nine seasons as Ragdoll Tomé on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and dancing in the original Broadway cast of the Tony Award-winning musical “Contact,” to list just a few of his many credits. His goal for the master class was to give the students “the full Carnegie Mellon experience in one hour” — one that culminated in a School of Drama tradition called “Monster.” 

“Every student that goes through the School of Drama knows ‘Monster,’” Cousin said. “It's basically a big theatrical warmup, but it involves your inner character and personality coming out and being unleashed.” 

The exercise was a big hit at Dr. Joaquín García High School, and a perfect way to wrap up the day. The students walked away with new skills, perhaps a little more self-confidence, and a reinvigorated sense of pride for what they are learning with Zembuch Young as a teacher.

The Excellence in Theatre Education Award gives a vital platform to arts education. It also gives Carnegie Mellon the opportunity to share its own excellent theatre training across the country, and to honor and celebrate teachers like Jason Zembuch Young, who are, without a doubt, rock stars.

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