Coming Full Circle: Celebrating the Inaugural Contemporary Theater Graduating Class

As Boston Conservatory at Berklee celebrates the graduation of its first class of contemporary theater students, graduating seniors reflect on their growth as artists and the development of this pathbreaking program that they helped shape.

May 10, 2019

What is contemporary theater? Boston Conservatory was the first conservatory in the country to tackle this question at the undergraduate level, in the form of a B.F.A. in contemporary theater.

Launched in 2015, the program combines the rigor of conservatory theater training with a wide range of contemporary practices, including ensemble collaboration, designing and producing new work, and reimagining classics. This year, graduates from the inaugural contemporary theater class are entering the modern theater scene ready to shape the future of the art form—not only as actors, but as directors, playwrights, dramaturgs, entrepreneurs, and multidisciplinary theater makers.

Graduates Amanda Bowman, Shreya Navile (who also happens to be Boston Conservatory’s 2019 student commencement speaker), Audrey Owen, and Shanelle Villegas reflect on the development of the program and how it is has impacted their artistic growth and future plans.

What role did the students play in helping to shape the contemporary theater program since its launch in 2015?

Bowman: It was important to our class to both develop into strong, classically trained actors and also to be able to create and produce our own work. The program now has a stronger mix of traditional, experimental, and ensemble-based classes; I think the students helped take it in this direction.

Villegas: The classes to come after us have a curriculum based on our feedback. I think the program has done a great job reflecting on our experience and refining it for future students.

How has this program helped to shape you as an artist?

Navile: It helped me understand the importance of my own voice. I came here looking to be an actress in other people’s narratives, and my idea of what I could achieve as an artist was so limited. Now, I am a creator, and I know the possibilities are endless.

Bowman: The program challenged me creatively and as a team player. Because many of our assignments are done in ensembles or pairs, I’ve developed into an artist who is strengthened by collaboration and can work with anyone.

Owen: My versatility was born here, from saying yes to experimenting in class. My work ethic was born here, from the passion of my teachers and classmates. My awareness and listening skills were born here, out of the vocal and physical techniques I was taught. As I went through the program, I became a better person, which makes me a better actor in any setting.

What’s your favorite memory from your four years in the program?

Bowman: Performing our devised piece Tales of a Sandman in Martha’s Vineyard last year. It was my first time on tour and I loved sharing the piece with new audiences.

Navile: Tales of a Sandman was a truly special experience. It brought our ensemble together as a professional team and as a family.

Owen: During our junior year Ensemble Performance Lab, we had the chance to work with acting legend Tina Packer on And Speak I Will, a mash-up of Shakespeare plays, and perform it at the Boston Center for the Arts. We worked so hard and put everything out there on the stage, and I remember afterwards feeling giddy and proud of myself for the first time in a long time.

Villegas: My favorite memory is traveling to the Farm, Double Edge Theatre’s property in Western Massachusetts, to train with them and assist with one of their shows.

What are your post-graduation plans? Are they close to what you expected?

Bowman: When I first started school, I wanted to join an established ensemble after graduating. Now, I’m still auditioning for acting gigs, but I’m also producing my own devised project from the ground up, a show that will be performed next year in an empty bank building in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Navile: I am working on three Indian film projects over the summer, and will be moving to Los Angeles in the fall. If I was told this would be my reality when I first started school, I wouldn’t believe it!

Owen: Early on in my college career, I wanted to end up anywhere but New York City. I was scared of the difficulty and of becoming an acting cliché. But after four years of growth, fear has turned into a challenge, and I am running towards the opportunities of New York City right after graduation.

Villegas: After graduation, I will be performing as Nana in School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play while working as a teaching artist for Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Over the summer, I will be interning in the training department of Shakespeare & Company, and in the fall I will start a 10-week school tour with the New Repertory Theatre.

Do you have any advice for future contemporary theater students?

Navile: Find what you want to do you with your art and allow the school to help you. Everything is available if you advocate for yourself.

Owen: This is not going to be easy, and you are going to be pushed. But through it you will explore your own emotions and truth, and grow in beautiful ways. So don’t let growing pains be a reason to give up. Instead, commit to being passionate and proud, fighting for opportunity, and practicing patience, respect, and self-love. Listen, listen, listen. Be present. Play.

Learn more about the Conservatory's B.F.A. in contemporary theater program.