Artists Caitlin Strokosch (BA ’98), Rachael Albers (BA ’06) and Shawn Lent (MAM ’06) step out of the spotlight and find fulfillment through nonprofit pursuits.
In the arts, timing is everything: the musician’s backbeat, the actor’s delivered line, the dancer’s choreographed leap. For many artists, knowing when to transition from center stage to a supporting role can make all the difference in their lives and in the lives of others.
Three Columbia College Chicago alumni spent much of their time practicing toward artistic perfection before even starting kindergarten.
Caitlin Strokosch (BA ’98) would have been dwarfed by the cello she first played as a 3-year-old in her Oak Park home. Rachael Albers (BA ’06) recalls always performing, acting and singing in Chicago’s western suburbs. And Shawn Lent (MAM ’06) may have only dreamed of the places the arts would take her when she danced as a child in Saginaw, Mich.
These three women are linked beyond the intense training they followed through their college years. Each has parlayed artistic backgrounds into successful work in nonprofit fields. Strokosch is the executive director of Alliance of Artists Communities, an organization in Providence, R.I., that has helped lift artists’ voices worldwide. Albers has set up a nonprofit shop in Chiapas, Mexico, working with indigenous women to use theatre as a tool of popular resistance. And Lent has traveled the globe, creating dialogue through dance, raising money for children’s cancer hospitals and recently inspiring thousands through her writing about what it means to be an artist.
A CELLO’S IMPRINT
As much as she enjoyed playing cello, Caitlin Strokosch had a bit of a rebellious streak when it came to the instrument she played almost daily for 25 years. “I wanted to be in a setting that wasn’t a traditional, conservatory style,” she says.
Strokosch majored in classical cello at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., but transferred to Loyola University in Chicago and started playing with rock bands. One night, an emergency put her music in perspective. When Strokosch’s apartment building caught on fire, she risked her life dashing back to retrieve her beloved instrument from the flames. She says, “I remember thinking: ‘Why am I studying English at Loyola when all I really want to do is play the cello?’”
Strokosch spent her senior year taking classes in Columbia’s music department. The lone cellist in the program, she earned performance credit in theatre productions and fostered collaborations that offered career possibilities outside of an orchestra pit.
“Columbia was so different from the strict, classical training I had,” says Strokosch, who loved being taught by professional musicians like Gustavo Leone, Athanasios Zervas and Joe Cerqua.
Cerqua hired her to play the cello on a couple recording gigs while offering a bit of a backhanded compliment: “You’re not the best cello player I know, but you’ll show up on time and be prepared,” he said.
Strokosch knew he was right. She was a good cello player and could probably make some sort of living with it. But her professionalism also prepared her for other fields.
“I’m very comfortable [facilitating] other artists’ dreams.”
Encouraged by professors, Strokosch learned the logistics of putting on a concert: creating a flier, paying the accompaniment and so forth. “It never occurred to me that there was a whole field of administrators out there supporting artists,” she says.
Strokosch’s first foray into the nonprofit arts world came with managing Chicago music ensembles such as Bella Voce and CUBE. She began her work at the Alliance of Artists Communities in 2002, learning the ins and outs of artistic administration. “I liked the idea of being part of a team that brings new work into the world,” she says. “And I’m very comfortable [facilitating] other artists’ dreams.”
As executive director since 2008, she’s furthered those dreams in spades, launching several major initiatives, helping to grow Alliance membership by 40 percent and leading an organization that has granted more than $2 million in funds to artists and residency programs.
One recent project, New Voices of Modern Arab Literature, found safe residential havens for emerging writers from 10 different countries in the Arab world. “In a three-year project, we found 30 residences at 18 different sites around the world,” Strokosch says. “Some writers were literally running [from] countries that were falling apart.” The vast logistical concerns, such as obtaining visas and securing translators, paid off. “On a small scale, we were able to offer real, intimate interactions for cultural understanding,” Strokosch says. That good work she’s able to share makes her journey worthwhile.
“I struggled for a long time with not having the cello as strongly in my life. But I started playing the electric guitar in bands and still have music in my life in a way that’s incredibly exciting,” says Strokosch, who now sports a tattoo of the cello’s f-holes. “So it seems okay now. My cello is always with me.”
AN ACTING ACTIVIST
Rachael Albers was destined to be a star. She says she chose Broadway over the Backstreet Boys as a kid, memorizing entire musicals, such as A Chorus Line, for bedroom performances. Columbia’s theatre program seemed the perfect fit for the driven actress.
Her transition away from performance started as she neared graduation. “I became very frustrated with the arts as I had experienced them at that point,” says Albers, who was tired of what felt like a self-centered focus and didn’t want to play the real-life part of a struggling actress.
She settled on law school, at least for a time, enrolling at DePaul University and dedicating herself to learning legalese. After completing her first year in 2008, she landed a summer internship in Mexico to work at a nonprofit for an indigenous women’s rights group. The project fell through, however, and to salvage her summer, Albers volunteered with a Mayan women’s collective called FOMMA that used theatre as a tool for education, empowerment and popular resistance in lives marked by poverty and lack of opportunity.
“For the first time, I saw theatre and art being used for social change,” Albers says. “It was amazing to me to see how powerful it was in the lives of these women and in these communities.”
Law school didn’t stand much of a chance after that. Albers says all she wanted to do was research the theatre of the oppressed, a concept (coincidentally introduced to her at Columbia by Jeff Ginsberg, associate professor of theatre) that asks the audience to become participants, or “spect-actors,” in attempts to transform the realities of their own lives. “I knew I wasn’t doing what I call my heart work [in law school],” she says. “I had to go back to Mexico.”
“This work is about empowering people to find the artist within themselves.”
Fluent in Spanish, Albers volunteers with established schools and community-based organizations to help them prepare and stage theatre shows in the Mayan heartland. In one city, a production drew in a crowd of nearly 400 people—“all hungry” for the message of resistance. Sometimes the groups share cautionary tales, true accounts of their experiences of discrimination and violence.
In addition, Albers runs her own freelance web design business, RKA Ink, using the marketing skills she picked up at Columbia. She has since worked with several repeating clients to enhance their online presence, which has helped further her humanitarian work.
As for the meandering path to her current position, Albers wouldn’t change a thing. “Columbia gave me this solid artistic foundation,” she says. “Law school helped to inform and amplify my radicalism. Through the process of learning the legal language our country and world speaks, I’m able to use that knowledge to help people who are fighting the system.”
Albers wants to take that fight further. Last year, she traveled to Kenya to work with the nonprofit Girls Shift Africa. Through an art and theatre workshop, Albers helped the organization establish a group that could continue in her absence.
“I believe everyone’s an artist,” Albers says. “This work is about empowering people to find the artist within themselves.”
FUNDRAISER / BLOGGING SENSATION / ARTS EDUCATOR
A DANCER DEFINED
Shawn Lent started stepping away from the idea of being a “professional” dancer not long after she graduated from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. She says she knew she was very good, but maybe not great in a business that’s quick to pick up on faults. The demands on a body and the long odds of finding steady work played into her decision to find a practical alternative.
Days after 9/11, Lent was in a predominately Muslim neighborhood in East London as a youth worker and dance critic. She then began pondering the role of dance in divided communities, forever altering her own professional path.
At Columbia, Lent enrolled in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management master’s degree program and joined a small cohort of students who embraced financial planning, applied marketing and fundraising. She began exploring arts in education and youth development. She volunteered to teach children with cancer how to dance and began applying some of her newfound business skills to help raise money in hopes of bettering their lives.
“Once I got involved with the Children’s Hospital of Chicago, I got much more comfortable asking for money,” Lent says. As advised by faculty and peers, she applied for “everything,” writing proposals for fellowships and applying to attend conferences about integrating arts into various aspects of life. Passionate about her own global education, she has since traveled from Belfast to Bosnia, Palestine to Uganda—often embedded in war-torn communities—both teaching and engaging in dialogue through dance. In 2010, Lent returned to Millikin University to talk to students about her evolving role in arts education. During the question-and- answer period, a student nearly stopped her in her tracks by asking, “Did you have any sort of breakdown when you gave up on your dreams [of being a professional dancer]?”
“I decided to be an artist in this world. I teach dance, I lead dance experiences … . And it certainly feels like fulfilling a dream,rather than giving up on one.”
Lent calmly explained that she had not given up on her dreams; they had, in fact, gotten bigger. But the question nagged at her.
A full-time arts integration dance specialist at Columbia for six years after earning her master’s degree, Lent obtained a Fulbright scholarship that took her to Egypt in 2012 to explore a project called “The Artist as Catalyst.” The Fulbright required her to write a blog about her experiences. For one post, she revisited the Millikin student’s question in the reflection, “Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?”
“I am dancing, with and for others. I am and will always be a dancer. I take that with me, in the ways I think, develop ideas, move,” she wrote. “I haven’t been on a professional or semi-professional stage in six years, but I am a dancer. … I am an artist who had decided to join tables off the professional stage.”
Almost overnight, the blog went viral. It was “liked,” forwarded and eventually reposted as a feature in Huffington Post Arts, receiving more than 140,000 hits. Clearly, Lent’s experience had struck a chord with artists who also had found professional fulfillment away from the spotlight.
In the hectic aftermath, Lent has tried to maintain running dialogues with many people to somehow “mobilize the energy.” In her current Egyptian setting, she’s seen firsthand the revolutionary reactions that social media can help stir.
Today, Lent advocates the need for artists to be “at the table”—from school boards to community development organizations. Their perspectives, centered in creativity, can help shed light on any problem. And she doesn’t feel diverted from her art at all. “I decided to be an artist in this world. I teach dance, I lead dance experiences, I choreograph, I manage and evaluate programs, consult, share, think, write …,” she blogged. “And it certainly feels like fulfilling a dream, rather than giving up on one.” –By William Meiners (MFA ’96)