Fine arts students and alumni connect and reconnect

Twenty-four York alumni – some with international profiles grounded in decades of professional experience, others recent graduates – returned to their alma mater to share stories and offer support and encouragement to those following in their footsteps at Connect/Re-Connect, the first career symposium of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

The Jan. 30 event gave students and alumni from all fine arts disciplines the opportunity to meet and engage in meaningful conversation about creating community and careers in arts and culture.

Right: Dance student May Linn Elli (left) and alumna Amanda Martinez

“The response was fantastic,” said Lynda Tam, director of academic affairs in Student & Academic Services in the Faculty of Fine Arts, who devised the event. “All the alumni we invited were incredibly enthusiastic, and those who were able to join us were so generous and inspiring to our students.”

Screenwriter Annmarie Morais (BFA Spec. Hons. ’95), whose credits include the 2007 Sundance Film Festival hit How She Move and the screen adaptation of Da Kink in my Hair for Global TV, made time for Connect/Re-Connect during a brief visit home to her family in North York from Los Angeles, where she now lives. “Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to connect with this new generation of storytellers,” she said. “It was an experience I would have wanted for myself as a student, and I’m honoured to have been invited as an alumna.”

Alumni participants included performer, choreographer and producer Yvonne Ng (BFA Spec. Hons. ’87), founder and artistic director of Princess Productions; actor, writer and director Christine Horne (BFA Spec. Hons. ’04), artistic producer of KICK Theatre and artistic co-director of The Thistle Project; photographer and educator Rafael Goldchain (MFA ’00); performer, composer and music director Andrew Craig (BFA Spec. Hons. ’93), host and associate producer for CBC Radio’s “Canada Live”; Francesca Accinelli (BA ’92), director of television – English market, Telefilm Canada; film and television writer, director and designer Jim Goodall (BFA Spec. Hons. ’01); and Toronto Star editorial designer Sharis Shahmiryan (BDes Spec. Hons. & Digital Design Certificate ’07).

Connect/Re-Connect kicked off with a get-acquainted luncheon in the Executive Dining Room of the Schulich School of Business, followed by breakout groups with facilitated Q-&-A sessions focusing on each fine arts discipline.

Left: Stafford Arima (left) and Barbara Sellers-Young, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts

A highlight of the day was the keynote address by award-winning New York City-based stage director Stafford Arima (BA Spec. Hons. ’92). “This gathering is proof that the arts are alive and well,” he said. “It’s an honour to be here to see you keeping the flame alive.” His presentation was an informal conversation with Faculty of Fine Arts Dean Barbara Sellers-Young about the development of his career and what it takes to make a life in the arts.

Arima’s path from his native North York to New York and beyond is a story of passion, persistence, the importance of building professional relationships, and above all, openness to experiences and possibilities. His journey started at age 10 when on a family trip to Los Angeles he saw the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita. “I was transfixed.” His desire to work in the theatre environment was the driving force that took him from a high school production of Guys and Dolls to York University’s theatre program and then his first lowly job in "the biz" as receptionist at Toronto’s Livent.

From there, Arima went on to become secretary to Livent head Garth Drabinsky, then press assistant before landing the job of production assistant for Mirvish Productions’ Miss Saigon. “I spent a lot of time in the back room photocopying scripts,” he said. “But I also got to know a lot of people and learned a lot about how a show is put together.”

His big break came when his letter-writing campaign to the legendary Broadway producer and director Harold Prince resulted in a job assisting Prince on the Toronto production of Show Boat.

Right: Alumni Ian Kelso (BFA Hons. ’92) (left), Francesca Accinelli and Cara Williams (BA Hons. ’07)

That opened the doors to work on major productions with other leading lights of the international musical theatre scene. He assisted director Mike Ockrent on Crazy for You, and director Frank Galati, writer Terrence McNally and lyricist Lynn Ahrens on Ragtime, followed by an opportunity to serve as resident director for the show’s North York run. Next came a stint as resident director for both the Broadway and touring productions of Ragtime, and then the offer to create a new, original production of the show for London’s West End, which received eight Laurence Olivier Award nominations. Arima went on to direct the smash hit musical Altar Boyz in New York, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and ran for five years and more than 2,000 performances.

Throughout his talk, Arima spoke about the importance of creating connections and remaining true to one’s creative calling. “Relationships are the key. Even if all you’re doing is sweeping the stage, you meet people, you make relationships,” he said. “Be open to the possibility of experience, and never forget the artist that lives inside of you. Go for it; don’t be afraid that you can’t make it happen. If it can happen to me, it can happen to everyone in this room.”

Left: Visual arts students Laura Crowell (left) and Jess Thalmann (centre), president of the Creative Arts Student Association, along with theatre student Beth Duffus, all in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts

Following Arima’s presentation was the premiere screening of So You Think You Can Network?, an original five-minute film created by a team of fine arts student ambassadors offering witty and pithy tips on the dos and don’ts of job hunting. The afternoon concluded with a tapas reception.

Design grad Michael Tjioe (BDes Spec. Hons. ’08), who currently works as graphic designer on Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Brand team, called Connect/Re-Connect a great experience “not only for the students, but also for myself and fellow alumni. I found it really beneficial because it gave me a chance to reflect on my time at York and also my time at RIM over the past couple of years.”

Epitomizing the spirit of the event were the connections it forged for third-year music student Nadia Younan, whose conversations with Latin jazz artist Amanda Martinez (IMBA ’99) led to an introduction to someone Younan has long admired – saxophonist, composer and former York student Jane Bunnett – at a show at Hugh’s Room in Toronto the following week.

Connect/Re-Connect was made possible with the support of the York University Alumni Office, the Career Centre and the Creative Arts Student Association.