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CCRI theatre students gain valuable insight during summertime internship

CCRI theatre students gain valuable insight during summertime internship

Two Community College of Rhode Island theater students are wrapping up a four-month paid internship at the Spectrum Theater Ensemble, a Providence-based theatre company showcasing neurodiverse artists.

Elissa Parente, 19, of Cranston and Jalen Rodriguez, 22, of Woonsocket, who is blind, have handled a variety of roles with STE, including marketing, publicity, social media, and even performing on stage during STE’s 4th Annual Neurodiversity New Play Festival (NNPF) this weekend in Providence.

Neurodivergence is the term for when someone's brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered “typical.” The term includes a variety of conditions, including, but not limited to: autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injuries, dyslexia/dyscalculia, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Tourette syndrome, Down syndrome, bipolar disorder, and various others.

STE, founded in 2017, first partnered with CCRI’s student-run theater group, the CCRI Players, in March to host a free series of play readings by neurodivergent artists at the Warwick Campus. The two collaborated again in May for a playwright workshop, at which point Parente and Rodriguez began exploring ways to become further involved with STE. Artistic Director and founder Clay Martin came up with the idea of a paid, summerlong internship – 10 hours per week – that would allow Parente to improve upon her publicity skills for her role as the Players’ publicist and give Rodriguez the opportunity to gain artistic experience while working as a disability consultant for STE’s cast, crew, and administrative team.

Their work as interns culminates with this weekend’s NNPF, a collaborative effort between STE and the Die-Cast Collective in Philadelphia featuring six original short plays produced by STE and one-man shows produced by Die-Cast Collective that is taking place during PVDFest at various venues in Providence’s Jewelry District.

Parente worked with STE’s marketing and publicity team to support the NNPF through social media posts, online calendar listings, and event websites in addition to launching STE's TikTok account and developing unique social media content. She is a General Studies major at CCRI with a Film/Media concentration and plans to transfer to the University of Rhode Island next fall through CCRI’s Joint Admissions Agreement (JAA) program.

Although she is not neurodivergent, she relished the opportunity to work with what is widely considered an overlooked segment of the theater community. “Getting to work with them hands-on and understand their experiences, and how that transitions into their art means everything to me,” said Parente, who hopes to one day own her own theater company or work as a film or theater director, “because art, especially theater art, is everything to me.”

Rodriguez, who began losing his eyesight at a young age, helped STE make its marketing material more accessible to the blind community by implementing image descriptions on the STE website and social media posts and will also star this weekend in the performance of Space ­– his first on-stage role.

“When I heard about an all-disabled theater company, I was intrigued, and when I saw they had talent, I was obsessed. I've been gunning for this internship with everything I have,” said Rodriguez, who first learned of STE through its collaboration with CCRI. He is currently working on his own screenplay and is a General Studies major with a Performance Theatre concentration who plans on transferring to Rhode Island College – also through JAA – after completing his studies at CCRI.

“With a year and a half left of studying theater here at CCRI, I really hope I build the skills to be a part of other people's stories as an actor,” Rodriguez said. “I'm happy to do my part to raise the voices of those who don't often get this chance to speak to a crowd and I hope a good show is enough to inspire people toward positive action. 

“My end goal is to be a voice actor. When I had better vision, I watched cartoons and played video games all day. I'd pick up comics from the book fair, and rush home to ask my [grandfather] to read them to me. The idea that I could be a part of someone's life in the same way [voice actors] Yuri Lowenthal and Kevin Conroy were a part of mine, and the fact that I could give voice to one of these characters I love, is almost dizzying, but, at the same time, incredibly exciting. Whatever I end up doing, I'm confident I'll make the most of it.”

As members of the Players, Parente and Rodriguez are also busy preparing for the launch of the group’s 2023–23 season, which begins October 12 with a production of The Laramie Project, a play written by Moisés Kaufman that focuses on the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.

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