On the fourth floor of the Randolph W. Bromery Center for the Arts, students in the TH240 class are involved in an icebreaker exercise, led by guest speaker and award-winning Cuban American writer, director, and California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) faculty member Marissa Chibás.
To get students warmed up for the class ahead, they’re asked to share both a story and a physical movement, like a hand or arm gesture, related to their name. Fellow classmates then reflect the speaker’s name and movement back at them.
Chibás goes first, followed by assistant professor in the Department of Theater Elisa Gonzales, and before long, the atmosphere in the class is transformed by warmth, movement, and laughter. It’s proof of how a small connection can go a long way.
That’s especially fitting given that Gonzales and Chibás—both Latine educators and artists working in theater who have developed an easy, natural rapport with one another—were only recently connected through the HFA Faculty Networking Initiative, a new program within the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Humanities & Fine Arts (HFA).
Launched in spring 2022, the initiative invited new, tenure-track assistant professors to work with distinguished scholars and artists at institutions beyond the local academic community. Through these mentorships, faculty further their professional network, creating relationships and resources they can draw on throughout their career.
“Inspired by [HFA] Dean Barbara Krauthamer’s call to reimagine faculty mentoring, we came up with this program to respond to faculty needs to foster a sense of connection,” says Jason Moralee, HFA associate dean of research and diversity, equity, and inclusion and member of the team behind the program. “It’s been especially useful for those who were hired during the pandemic when so many opportunities for networking weren’t available.”
The first year of the HFA Faculty Networking Initiative was jointly funded by the college and the Office of Faculty Development through a UMass Amherst Mutual Mentoring TEAM Grant.
Seven faculty members were selected from the departments of Music and Dance, Theater, Art, Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, Linguistics, History, and English. They each chose a project to collaborate on with their mentor, ranging from developing research articles to completing grant or fellowship applications to creating artistic or scholarly works.
From there, faculty members were then paired with mentors from institutions across the country, including CalArts, Yale University, Tufts University, University of Connecticut Storrs, and New York University. Duos worked on their project across periodic meetings throughout the academic year, as well as an optional in-person visit to the UMass Amherst campus.
Creating ‘Life Affirming’ Connections
Gonzales, who is one of the seven selected faculty members involved in the inaugural cohort, says this provided a great opportunity for her.
“For those of us who were new faculty members hired in 2020, we had missed out on a whole year of research and connection,” Gonzales says. “This was meant to give us back some of those opportunities.”
In addition to her work as an assistant professor, Gonzales is a professional voice and dialect coach, actor, and writer. When it came to finding a mentor who understood all the roles and identities Gonzales embodied, Chibás was a natural choice.
Like Gonzales, Chibás is an educator, and her esteemed screenplays, films, and theatrical works explore Latine identity. She also serves as director of Duende CalArts, an initiative of the CalArts Center for New Performance that produces innovative Latine and Latin American artists.
Plus, Gonzales had long admired Chibás and her work.
“There are so few Latines in the academy, so to have a mentor exist in both of these spaces—education and theater—means a lot,” she explains. “It has been hard for me to connect with other creators like me. This has been life affirming.”
For her project, Gonzales chose her original play with music, “Olvidados: A Mexican American Corrido,” which was a 2022 semi-finalist for the O’Neill National Music Theatre Conference and was workshopped at UMass Amherst as part of the 2021-22 season. The piece explores her family’s experience being repatriated to Mexico during the Great Depression.
As part of the mentorship, Chibás reviewed Gonzales’s script, which Chibás described as “beautiful,” to offer feedback and help her navigate how to move forward with it. One suggestion that emerged from their talks was to workshop the performance in front of designers, who may offer insight on the visual aspects of the performance.
As a selected mentor, Chibás recalls being “honored” when she received the invitation from HFA.
“A lot of my artivism has to do with supporting and guiding Latine artists and aesthetically adventurous artists, so this was a perfect fit,” she says.
“Marissa is so intuitive. I was so moved when we met,” Gonzales says. “She read the script... and she understood it. I felt seen as an artist. I think that’s a vital quality as a mentor—they see you and understand your voice.”
And that feeling is mutual.
“‘Olvidados’ is a beautiful and important work, a familial story and cultural piece,” Chibás says. “In mentoring, I, too, feel like I’m being seen. This has been wind in my sails.”
The two say their newfound connection doesn’t just serve their personal creations, but the larger community of Latine creators in the academy as well. Both artists will even contribute chapters to a forthcoming book about Latine theater.
“It feels like there’s this whole movement bringing to light Latine stories in theater,” Chibás explains.
Gonzales adds, “And bringing to light the lineage—”
“That’s very much alive and thriving,” Chibás finishes. “I think this is a wonderful initiative and I’m really excited—both for the work Elisa is creating and for the connections this program creates.”
Gonzales says she would encourage other new faculty in HFA to get involved.
“One great thing [about the program] is that you have the support of the institution behind you to set up the mentorship. I don’t know that I would’ve reached out to Marissa if not for that,” Gonzales says. “I know how busy I am, and I want to be mindful of others’ time, so it was easier to reach out knowing the institution was fully supporting me.”
Now in its second year, the HFA Faculty Networking Initiative will be funded entirely by HFA. Nine faculty members have been chosen from the departments of English, Music and Dance, Architecture, Philosophy, and Theater. Soon, they’ll connect with their mentors with projects kicking off in fall 2023.
“We hope that we’ll continue this program for years to come,” Moralee says.