My Take: Mentorship has Changed the Way I View Collaboration
Sitting in a space that is wholly new to me, an art and technology space called Culture Hub, I can’t quite wrap my head around how I, an actress and fairly new playwright, became the associate producer and outreach coordinator of a livestream theater piece. In the past, I’ve attended different kinds of production meetings, as an actor. I’ve also taken notes in these kinds of settings in the professional world, while working as a production assistant. Yet I’d never had a literal and figurative seat at the table, during the pre-production process for a project of this magnitude, until now. This kind of role, with so much responsibility, was entirely new to me - daunting, but so exhilarating. I push past my awe and settle in as Catherine Filloux starts the morning’s meeting. She, myself, the creative team begin to discuss the technical logistics of her latest project, turning your body into a compass, a 360° web story that tells the urgent account of two women who work to sound the alarm about the irreparable harm our immigration separation policy inflicts on children. Catherine is an award winning playwright and a human rights activist of over 25 years- she’s also my mentor.
I met Catherine almost four years ago, when she was a visiting professor at Vassar College, teaching my “Introduction to Playwriting” class. She had the class read her play, Eyes of the Heart, a one act about psychosomatic blindness in Cambodian refugee women. I was intimidated, not by Catherine herself, but by the simple yet weighty call to action she assigned. We each had to bring in images that represented things we care about.
I care about the stigma surrounding mental illness, so I brought in this image. I remember being incredibly nervous to discuss these issues that are personally important to me, in the public setting of a classroom. Catherine created a nurturing environment where students could give constructive, yet fair, feedback. What remained constant throughout was Catherine’s genuine desire to support our visions, and guide us through the process of playwriting, which was new to many of us. As a very shy child, and now often introverted adult, I’ve always been drawn to patient, supportive educators, who hold space for both students with everything to say, and those who need more time to figure out what they want to share.
Connections and opportunities are important, but they truly aren’t what make a mentor valuable. It’s about having someone truly in your corner. Someone who believes in your abilities and gives you opportunities to grow, opportunities a bit bigger than where you are at that moment that stretch you. It’s about a relationship with a genuine, open individual who is much further along than you, yet treats you as an equal. Someone you look at and think “I hope to live a life not identical to yours, but just as full of passion, uniqueness, and hard-earned success.”
At our final class that semester, Catherine told our class not to hesitate if we ever wanted advice, or feedback in our future writing endeavors. When I decided to write another play about a year later -- my very first- full length drama, Fine, largely centered around the patients of the same therapist from my one-act -- I took Catherine up on her offer. She’s read almost every draft of the play, and also wrote a faculty recommendation for my senior project proposal application at Vassar, when I decided that I wanted to put the play on at Vassar.
My relationship with Catherine began to grow from teacher/student to mentor/mentee, as I was working on the first few drafts of my play with her. While working on Fine, I was also auditioning and taking acting classes in New York City, as I spent the first semester of my junior year away from Vassar, yearning for more real-life experience in the theater world. Catherine asked if I might like to help the lead actress of her latest project, Kidnap Road, practice her lines. Kimber Riddle was playing Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped by Colombia’s infamous guerrilla terrorists, FARC, in 2002. I eagerly agreed to work with her, and we started meeting every Monday to run the play once or twice. I also attended a few rehearsals to take production notes, and help with various behind the scenes tasks. About to head abroad to study at LAMDA that Spring, I was so grateful have an up close and personal view of what it’s like to work on such an intense, complex piece. Reviewing the script of Kidnap Road with Kimber and having the opportunity to observe her in rehearsal was like my own personal master class in acting, and the discipline that it takes to hone your craft. To me, the commitment Kimber poured into learning her lines was an homage to the words of the play; a desire to honor the story Catherine had created.
When I came back from London, Catherine not only continued to help me revise Fine, but also continued to share opportunities with me. I’m constantly grateful that she trusts me enough not only to include me in her own projects, but also enough to recommend me to her friends’ and colleagues’ productions. Through hard work and a willingness to say yes to any room Catherine invites me into, I was able to earn my first New York Times Review, for a role in There’s Blood at the Wedding at La MaMa and also produce my play, Fine, at The Wild Project.
During an average workday in the pre-production of turning your body into a compass, I might send 5 + emails to Catherine, discussing different outreach strategies, schedules, logistics, and just generally checking in. Sometimes, when emailing her, I think about the fact that when I first met Catherine, as my professor, I would read every single email I sent her 5 times or more. I was so excited by the prospect of having any kind of relationship with her beyond the classroom, and thus so anxious during many of my interactions with her.
Just five years later, we had coffee at our regular Starbucks and I informally yet passionately told her that I would love to be involved in her new project, turning your body into a compass, in any capacity possible, and voila, here we are. The bravery to ask for opportunities transformed into self-confidence while handling a role I never expected. Confidence I never saw coming, that was a direct result of Catherine’s continued willingness to support and include me.
Through all of our many coffee meetings and email exchanges over the years, I often think back to a sentence from an email Catherine wrote me, commending my play. The line “The compassion you put into this piece is wonderful, you are so brave to have done this” will stay with me forever. To be admired for possessing the very qualities that I most admire in my mentor, is a feeling I will never be able to put into words. My personal and professional relationship with Catherine, my former professor from a class that I truly took on a whim and easily could have missed out on, has truly been the greatest gift that keeps on giving.
Alexa Jordan, a recent graduate from Vassar College, is an actress, and playwright. Her first full length play, Fine, a drama about a therapist and her patients, was awarded the Marilyn Swartz Seven award in 2017. Alexa also recently produced and performed in Fine at The Wild Project theater. She currently works with The Mustique Charitable Foundation, as their development assistant. As a passionate mental health advocate, Alexa couldn’t be more grateful to be working on turning your body into a compass. (Alexa has also worked on Kidnap Road, and All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go, with Catherine Filloux.)