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Meet an Emerging Arts Leader: Kenya Gayles

We're partnering with Emerging Arts Leaders: Philadelphia to introduce you to some of the exciting arts and cultural professionals working on behalf of our sector. This month's interview is with Kenya Gayles, Drama Manager at ASAP/After School Activities Partnerships.

Number of years working in the arts: Professionally, 11 years

Degrees/certificates: BFA in Theater from the Brind School at The University of the Arts, concentration in stage management and playwriting 

Current occupation: Drama Manager at ASAP/After School Activities Partnerships

Other work experience in the arts: Freelance Teaching Artist for the last 6 years, freelance stage manager for 10 years, Stage Management Fellow at the Wilma Theater, Stage Management Intern at Le Reve at Wynn Resort Las Vegas

What keeps you engaged and passionate when it comes to arts and culture?  
I have been really engaged in the arts and culture community since high school. I feel I was really lucky to go to a public neighborhood high school that placed a strong value on arts and culture. I went to a place that had a well-funded and supported theater and technical theater program, a multi-level in-school dance program, a full band, choir, and orchestra program and trips to museums and to the ballet, and where the cheerleaders and the football players were the band geeks. It sounds unbelievable that such a place existed, especially when you think of the state of arts education today. I am passionate about arts and culture because I think it’s a huge injustice that the young people of Philadelphia and many other cities don’t all have that experience. The arts have been transformative in my life. I am always looking to learn more, see more, and participate in the culture of the community I am a part of. The arts and culture of Philadelphia is what brought me here in the first place.

What’s the most exciting or rewarding aspect of your current job?
Being in arts education at its core, in my opinion, is giving students a voice. At many public schools in Philly, the arts are being erased from the curriculum and students have less access to what this vibrant sector has to offer. I find it really rewarding to work with people in the community like teachers, Out-of-School-Time professionals, volunteers, etc. and share with them everything I know. As a teaching artist myself, I am only able to reach a few students, maybe up to 20-30 in a single residency, maybe less. In my position as the ASAP Drama Manager, I am working with these adults who are already working with youth and I am able to affect the lives of hundreds of Philly’s young people; More than 800 students were served in just the last school year. I think it is a great use of my knowledge and skills to ignite passion for the arts into the greatest number of teachers, administrators, and other adults who make the decisions about these young people. At ASAP Drama, we aren’t teaching with the expectation that everyone will become actors. We are instilling human life skills that are transferable to any field or profession they could go into. We are forming world citizens. One of the most rewarding moments I’ve had was when I went on a site visit to an after-school program at a local public school. After the lesson was done, I asked a 3rd grader what she had learned. She looked me in the eye and said, very matter-of-factly, “I learned how to work on a team today, Ms. Kenya.” Imagine if every 3rd grader in Philly could say that and really understand what that means. This is impactful and meaningful work. 

How did you get involved with Emerging Arts Leaders: Philadelphia? How does being active with EAL:P fit in with your long-term career goals?
I am new to EAL:P. I have heard great things about the organization's professional development and networking events, and have started attending. I am excited to get more active in the arts administration community, as well as learn and connect with like-minded arts professionals. I think this is a great way to be a part of Philly’s art scene as it continues to grow and evolve. 

Have you had any mentors also working in this sector who have had a significant impact on your professional development?  
I have had many but two in particular come to mind. The first was my high school acting and technical theater teacher, Carrie Vlaming. She taught me hands-on techniques using current industry standards. I took what I learned in high school and was able to work on the big Vegas shows on the strip. My first theater experience was my sophomore year in high school when I was recruited from my school’s dance department to be a core dancer and chorus girl for Guys and Dolls. Carrie saw how curious I was about how the light board worked and the difference between the fog machine and the hazer, and how I started showing up early to rehearsals to help the crew mop the stage or paint the set. She nurtured me from a chorus girl into a confident stage manager and producer/director. Because of her, I decided to build a career in theater. 

The other most influential mentor was Maureen Sweeney. Up to my senior year at UArts, I thought that I was going to be a stage manager and tour big Broadway shows all over the world and that was that. Maureen offered a Teaching Artist class that year and I signed up on a whim. Through her class, I learned so much and got my feet wet with teaching my first lesson to young people. Because of the impact that my high school theater teacher had on me, it made me reconsider where I saw my career going. I jumped head into learning everything I could about being a Teaching Artist and the status of the arts in education. I was chosen my senior year to be a Scholar in Service to Pennsylvania, an Americorp program where I would be awarded a grant upon the completion of 450 hours of service. I chose to donate my time to a new organization at the time, Mighty Writers, as a volunteer tutor and workshop leader. Maureen guided me through developing my workshop into a 10-week theater residency. It was such a great experience that it left me conflicted at the end of my senior year. I thought I was going to be a touring stage manager but I saw such a need here in Philly for arts education that I couldn’t ignore. If it wasn’t for Maureen and that class, I don’t know if I would even be doing this work.  

In your opinion, what is the most significant issue arts leaders will have to grapple with in the next 10 years?
The most significant issue is arts education, hands down. If we don’t raise the next generation of theater-goers and arts professionals, there might not be much of a theater industry in the future. In my job, I go on the offensive about trying to connect the schools and the communities I work with, with professional performance opportunities. I still have students who are juniors in high school that I am taking to their first play If we don’t do the work now, we could all be out of a job and our vibrant arts community could cease to exist. Arts and culture bring too much to our students (creative thinking, builds academic aptitudes, confidence, decision making, perseverance, focus, collaboration, accountability… I can go on) for us to just let it be erased from the lives of future generations.  

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
I have 10 months of experience being a crazy cat lady. I love my teenage kitten, Bagheera. She is a gorgeous, non-verbal black cat who loves to wear dresses and sleep in her Victorian cat canopy bed. We will be celebrating her birthday shortly.