In September, four teaching artists — Francesca Fernandez McKenzie DRA ’18, Julian Elijah Martinez DRA ’16, Sohina Sidhu DRA ’19 and Jenelle Chu DRA ’16 — launched the Encompass Collective, an offering of classical scene study, movement, coaching and acting consultations. Since then, the collective has thrived.
The collective aims to create “brave spaces” for Black, Indigenous, multiracial and other artists of color to develop professional acting skills. Students “pay what they can” for its services and partake in workshops with professional actors.
“I feel like a big reason to establish the collective was because we had a need and we recognized a need,” McKenzie said. “All of us are professional actors and doing the various hustles of what it looks like to sustain yourself as an artist in New York City.”
McKenzie noted that the collective emerged out of both financial and educational needs. She said that since the pandemic resulted in the dissolution of jobs across industries, she did not have “consistent artistic work” to support herself economically. She and the other founding members decided to take advantage of the moment to educate up-and-coming artists of color.
As young artists, the four articulated the need for a community of BIPOC students and educators, especially in the country’s current political climate.
Martinez — who featured in the first season of Hulu original “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” — said the collective creates a space for BIPOC students and teachers to “embody themselves” and engage in theater “without the pressure of a white cis heterosexual patriarchal system.”
“For me, the whole ethos of it is that artists are revolutionaries,” Sidhu said. “It’s just about creating a space where the minds of the future can begin to create. Especially in a climate like we’re in right now I feel like voices are needed more than ever — especially BIPOC voices [and] women’s voices.”
“Canon Crash Course,” one of the courses offered by the collective, is taught by Chu and McKenzie in sections of eight to 10 students. Over nine weeks, the course places the canon at the center of the experience, allowing students to engage with four playwrights that are part of the Western canon. The collective interprets this canon as a series of playwrights that have endured. Chu is currently teaching plays by Federico García Lorca, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Adly Guirgis.
McKenzie wants students to not only understand playwrights, but also develop independent opinions and disagree with herself and Chu. She stressed that in order to subvert and decolonize the Western canon, it is important to first become acquainted with it. Additionally, McKenzie believes that educating oneself enhances an actor’s ability to be open and empathetic.
“I think the classes have all been super successful,” Chu said. “There’s a dude in Hong Kong who’s taking this class with me at 2 a.m. … It’s 2 a.m. in his time and he’s in this class with me trying to learn how to get this.”
Students in the collective come from different countries and different experience levels. For instance, McKenzie has been able to connect with students in Brazil and India. Sidhu said several students are older than her, noting that Yale gave her a useful vocabulary to communicate with peers. Chu is teaching professional actors who are simply looking to “brush up” on their technique.
Martinez teaches the collective’s “Containers” course, a class on movement.
“The idea behind the class is to create physical gestures or movement that can contain our emotional states or images — things that you can conjure up in your imagination or emotional states in a safe way,” Martinez said. “It’s a way to explore those parts of your personality, parts of your psyche, parts of your subconscious, in a safe, healthy, physical way.”
According to McKenzie, the collective prioritizes commitment over tuition. Several classes begin at a fee of $25, but McKenzie said the team is flexible with payments as long as a student wants to be there.
Chu views the collective as affordable relative to other coaching services and hopes this makes it more accessible for people of color.
“We’re all kind of shocked that it’s already grown into this,” Sidhu said. “Our goal is to get more teachers [and] have all our friends teaching — just being a place where people can come, an endless well of love and professional training, a place where you can play and ask difficult questions.”
There are around 40 students currently studying in the Encompass Collective.
Zach Morris | email@example.com