University of Texas at Dallas senior Angela Cheryl Willis joined the Navy at age 18 for one reason: She needed a way to pay for college so she could pursue her lifelong dream of a career in the arts.
Thanks to the military education benefits she earned from four years of active duty and two years in the Reserve, Willis started to work on her degree in 1987 but put schooling on hold in 1989 to start her family. Thirty years later, she has finally realized her dream by earning a bachelor’s degree in visual and performing arts from the School of Arts and Humanities.
Willis was recognized along with other military and veteran graduates during a special cord ceremony on May 6. Students who serve or have served in the U.S. military are invited to wear a special red, white and blue honor cord at commencement in recognition of their service.
“I’m so honored. Spending most of my life caring for my family, and happily so, I’ve always felt like I’m in the background. I’m not used to being catered to,” Willis said.
Since her adolescence, Willis said the arts have fed her soul — from community theater to music, photography and drawing. Though she wanted to pursue a career in arts and performance, her family couldn’t provide the financial means.
“I wanted to go to college, but there was no college fund for me. And my mother wanted me to pay rent. That wasn’t going to work,” Willis recalled.
After she saw the 1980 Goldie Hawn movie Private Benjamin, she thought, “Hey, that’s something I could do.”
Her father pleaded with her not to join the Army because he feared she’d experience combat, so Willis opted for the Navy. Boot camp was as hard as she expected, but the experience helped the 80 or so women in her unit to bond tightly.
“I’m a pretty stoic person. I was driven to get through boot camp and do whatever the commander told me to do,” Willis said. “They just tear you down to your core so they can build you up as a unit. When you graduate, you’re just in love with the others in your unit. These women became a part of my extended family.”
A UT Dallas alumna has taken her penchant for comedy and improvisation to Los Angeles, where she is honing her craft through classes at The Groundlings Theatre & School.
Emily Joyce BA’15 enjoys comedy and hopes to make it to a big stage where she can impact a lot more people.
“I am an entirely silly person; I just have a knack for making people laugh,” she said. “I like being able to do really silly characters and to do voices. I know it’s weird, but I like making other people feel good.”
Along with The Second City and a few others, The Groundlings is known for the development of some of the best comedy talent in the country. Alumni of the program include well-known comedians and actors such as Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Phil Hartman, Maya Rudolph and Lisa Kudrow.
“I’m the person that just soaks up comedy,” Joyce said. “A person who wants a career in comedy has to look at places such as The Groundlings, Second City or Upright Citizens Brigade. ‘Saturday Night Live’ pulls from these places, so if you want to be a writer or performer with ‘SNL’, then you have to look into these places.”
She said she would like to not only be an improv actor, but also a sketch writer for “Saturday Night Live.”
“It’s one of the top improv and comedy shows in the business, and working there can open a door to take you wherever you want to go,” she said.
While Joyce had learned a lot about theater before she attended UT Dallas, it was at UTD where she discovered her love for improv, said her mentor, Kathy Lingo.
“Emily told me after she had taken her first improv course that this is what she wanted to do for a living. And I knew she would do it,” said Lingo, clinical associate professor in the School of Arts and Humanities. “She’s got the smarts; she’s got the drive; she’ll make it.”
Growing up in Richardson, VJ Boyd BA’02 dreamed of being a screenwriter, crafting his first screenplay at age 16.
“I did make many short films as a teenager and in college, but none of them were technically sound,” he said. “The writing was decent, but I had little skill or help in the camera and lighting departments.”
Now, after a stint in corporate sales, VJ is living the Hollywood dream, penning scripts and producing episodes for a variety of shows including the award-winning series Justified, which aired over six seasons on FX. His brother, Justin Boyd BA’06, left a university post teaching philosophy to join him in California two years ago and now writes for SyFy’s Channel Zero.
The two frequently see movies or meet at coffee shops and write together, whether on their new comic book, “Night Moves,” or on separate projects. While Justin is prepping for future installments of Channel Zero, VJ is working as a co-executive producer on CBS’ S.W.A.T., a remake of the 1970s TV show of the same name. (Their sister, April, is a current UT Dallas student.)
“I imagined both of us working out here, but I didn’t know if it was a realistic idea. It was one of those things you think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be awesome?’” Justin said. “It really wasn’t until shortly before I made the decision to also come out here that I thought, ‘Oh, wow. This is actually a possibility. We both loved film and television growing up — wouldn’t it be cool to create that stuff?’”
Chasing the Dream(s)
That’s when he took a fiction-writing workshop and a scriptwriting course with then-School of Arts and Humanities lecturer Tony Daniel, a Hugo Award finalist for his short story “Life on the Moon.”
It was Daniel who planted the seed in VJ’s — and later Justin’s — mind about pursuing a career as a TV writer. The process isn’t complicated: move to LA; join a TV show as a writing staff assistant — “that is, a coffee-getter and note-taker,” Daniel clarified — and write. Then write some more. Followed by more writing.
“From there, you work your way up,” Daniel said. “VJ followed my advice to a ‘T.’ It didn’t hurt that he is incredibly hardworking, proactive and generally a nice guy, of course.”
VJ relocated to Los Angeles in May 2008, and within a month got an assistant job on the series The Beast, one of the final projects of actor Patrick Swayze, who died in 2009.
After working as an assistant on several shows, VJ landed a gig on Justified, a Western-type saga with a modern spin that aired from 2010 to 2015. His break had arrived. Hired as a writer for the show’s second season, he moved to producing duties by the series’ end.
As an admirer of classic crime noir and science fiction films, VJ dreams of one day writing in one of those genres. It just so happens that’s exactly what Justin does on Channel Zero, a sci-fi/horror anthology series. “I’m jealous sometimes that he gets to make up all this crazy stuff,” VJ said. “He can pitch giant flies in his episodes.”
When he was an undergraduate at UTD, Justin almost racked up more hours playing pool in the Student Union than in class. His passion for pool would later pay dividends.
“The script that got me hired by Channel Zero was about the pool scene in Texas,” said Justin, who earned an economics degree in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.
While working full time, he took evening graduate classes at UT Dallas including a screenwriting class with Daniel and courses with Dr. Clay Reynolds, director of creative writing in the School of Arts and Humanities.
“I knew I could do it (screenwriting) and I enjoyed doing it, but I wasn’t sure I was good enough to do it professionally,” Justin recalled. “I was also committed to being an academic.”
Justin eventually moved to Chicago, ending his hiatus from studies to earn a master’s degree from DePaul University in 2012. During a stint teaching philosophy at DePaul while working on a doctorate, Justin got the itch to try his hand at TV writing like his brother. So, in May 2016, he moved out West.
He got a job as a writer’s production assistant — “the lowest rung in the writers’ room” — on the FX show Snowfall the month he arrived. That job lasted until the end of the year when his script about the Texas pool scene landed into the hands of Nick Antosca, showrunner for Channel Zero.
“I always tell Justin, ‘Man, don’t tell anyone you got lucky enough to write on a show as soon as you came out here,’” VJ said. “He’s only been out here a year or so, but thus far it’s been great. We haven’t lived in the same city in a decade.”
At the 2018 Honors Convocation, David Lozano BA’09 received the Undergraduate Alumni Achievement Award. Recipients of this award are accomplished in their industry or profession and engaged in their local community.
Lozano is executive artistic director at Cara Mía Theatre in Dallas, writing, directing and producing original bilingual plays for the Latino community. He is also an activist who advocates for funding of culturally specific arts organizations.
When he came to UT Dallas in 2001, it was only to study theater performance under drama professor Fred Curchack. At the time, he had no intention of pursuing a degree, but was cast in a play that Curchack was directing. He was hooked.
“I was passionate about research and learning my craft,” Lozano said. “I felt like I was breathing nutritious air. I decided I was where I needed to be.”
It took him longer than most to earn his bachelor’s degree in humanities from the School of Arts and Humanities, as he also worked full time at the theater. Trained in physical theater, Lozano prefers to work on collectively created plays that focus on actors’ improvisations rather than a script.
“The presence and dynamics of the actor are the starting point,” Lozano said.
Besides creating new works, Cara Mía’s resident artistic ensemble produces classic plays by nationally acclaimed Latino playwrights. It has produced world premieres of major Mexican-American writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Cherrie Moraga.
“My experience at UT Dallas has helped me to become a better storyteller through theater, filling out my capacity as an artist,” Lozano said.
For 80-year-old Suzanne Stricker, a hobby of taking college classes soon will turn into a UT Dallas bachelor’s degree. And, even then, she will not be stopping her path of lifelong learning.
Stricker plans to participate in commencement ceremonies for the School of Arts and Humanities on Friday, May 11, as she earns her degree in visual and performing arts.
“I’m excited about it. And my family is proud of me,” she said.
Born in New Zealand, Stricker speaks with a slight accent, which was much stronger when she moved to Texas in 1967.
“Because I felt that people were having a hard time understanding me, I practiced rolling my R’s,” she said.
Stricker stayed at home as she raised her family. But when the last of her three children began high school, she saw it as an opportunity to begin taking classes: first at a community college and then, after she worked for a local nonprofit organization, at UT Dallas in 2006.
Because she enjoyed music and played the piano, Stricker chose an academic path that focused on the humanities. Her classes included history, geography, communication and, of course, music.
“She came into my classes probably over age 70, yet she was one of the most energetic and enthusiastic members of the class,” said Dr. Kathryn Evans, senior lecturer and director of the UT Dallas Chamber Singers.
As a member of the Chamber Singers, Stricker participated in “The Best of Broadway,” a traditional University show that involves singing, costumes and movement. But none of that proved to be an issue.
“I appreciated that they would let me be in it because I was so much older than everybody else,” she said.
Evans said Stricker kept up well.
“She’d get up there and do the steps, and do her best, and she would say she was a little bit older, but it didn’t even slow her down,” Evans said.
For Stricker, one of the major attractions to enrolling at UT Dallas was the special state of Texas tuition waiver for individuals 65 years old and older. The waiver allows senior citizens to take up to six hours each semester with no tuition costs, as long as a minimum GPA is maintained.
“That means I don’t have to pay for classes,” she said. “It was something I could take advantage of so that I could continue my studies. And since I’m retired and have good health, thank the Lord, I can do things like this that I enjoy.”
Stricker said she has enjoyed her time at UT Dallas, and especially appreciated her “excellent” instructors and the diverse student body.
“You’re getting to know others of different persuasions, and what they can do. It’s such a diverse community at UTD,” she said.
Evans said Stricker is a great role model and inspiration for students, as well as for Evans herself.
“She was a very wonderful student and, in some ways, I think she inspired me to go back to school,” Evans said. “Suzanne is a great example of lifelong learning.”
Stricker said she hopes to continue taking classes at UT Dallas, perhaps working toward a master’s degree.
“I believe it’s good for your mind to be able to keep learning,” she said.
Texas in Paris is a musical written and directed by two School of Arts and Humanities alumni: Alan Govenar, who wrote the script, and Akin Babatunde, who directed the show. A production of the show ran at the Eisemann Center from Nov. 16 through Nov. 19, 2017. The lead actress, Tony award winner Lillias White, was nominated for the “Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical” in 2015 for her performance and the musical has also received nationwide accolades from publications like the New York Times and the Huffington Post.
The musical is based on true events and features two characters: a white former rodeo cowboy named John Burrus (Scott Wakefield) and a black South Dallas widow named Osceola Mays (Lillias White). The two strangers travel to France to perform in a concert series and struggle to get past their preconceptions of each other.
Alan Govenar is a writer, photographer and film maker who has his Ph.D. in Humanities from UT Dallas (May of 1984). Akin Babatunde (Calvin Royall) is an actor, director and writer who was a UT Dallas lecturer and has his Master of Arts degree in Humanities – Aesthetic Studies from UT Dallas (May of 2008). The pair have also collaborated on a previous musical titled Blind Lemon Blues that received awards and critical acclaim.
The mission of the commission, which was created by the Texas Legislature in 1965, is to advance economic and cultural development in the state of Texas. The agency invests in cultural tourism, art education, and direct funding of nonprofit arts organizations, arts institutions and schools, local agencies, community groups and individual artists throughout the state.
Yu laid the groundwork to his commission appointment by serving on boards of directors of such nonprofit organizations as the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce, where he served 10 years. He also served on the board of the Multi-Ethnic Education and Economic Development Center and Chamber Music International.
Yu is the founder and CEO of Coregami. The company specializes in what he calls “performal” wear — formal attire that keeps musicians comfortable during concert performances.
Desmond Blair BA’07, MFA’09 received the 2017 Undergraduate Alumni Achievement Award in the spring. Raised in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas, Desmond is an acclaimed visual artist who was born with a limb difference — he never uses the term “disability.” His works — primarily portraits in oils on canvas — have helped raise more than $20,000 for local charitable organizations. The importance of education was emphasized in Desmond’s life from day one, when his mother’s doctor urged her to give him the best education possible. “She did just that throughout my public school years,” he said, “by finding various academic and arts programs.”
Desmond graduated from Skyline High School in Dallas at age 16, and the challenge became finding a college that would enable him to excel and would be affordable for his single-parent family. “I got accepted to several out-of-state arts schools, but we couldn’t afford the tuition,” he said. Around this time, Desmond learned of the program that eventually became the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC) at UTD. “Everything I needed or wanted to study was right here in DFW,” he said.
Desmond credits his alma mater with more than leveling the playing field for someone with a limb difference — it gave him an edge in achieving his goals. “Having a group of really sharp peers combined with exceptional professors forced me to continuously push myself to new levels. I got the best education my mom could give me.”
Through the ATEC program, Desmond honed traditional-art abilities and transferred them to digital media. After a period as an ATEC adjunct teaching 3-D modeling, Desmond now works in the IT department for the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, where he was once a patient. “My time at UTD was just as much about learning life lessons as it was about education,” Desmond said. “Time management, prioritizing responsibilities, helping others and volunteering, and learning to adapt and do basic things most people with all of their limbs overlook — I learned all of these things at UTD.”
He participated in a charity art auction for Texas Scottish Rite Hospital in 2011, an occasion Desmond says changed how he viewed his artistic pursuits. “My first showing helped me get serious about my painting and using it to support causes that help others,” he said. “Since then, I’ve helped raise money for a variety of causes, from art education to cancer research.”
Desmond notes several faculty and staff members in particular, including Dr. Marjorie Zielke in ATEC, who set him on the path to his career as a project manager. “My time at UTD will always be cherished,” he said.
The University of Texas at Dallas will unveil a new 6,000-square-foot visual arts gallery complex with an inaugural exhibition celebrating the works of noted alumni artists.
“Critical Mass” features 45 artists who received visual arts degrees from UT Dallas and went on to have successful careers in the arts. The show includes works in video, computer-generated graphics, constructed photography, social practice, robotics and installation arts, as well as more traditional studio art disciplines.
The opening reception for the new space will take place from 4-7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1. The exhibition runs through Nov. 11.
Dr. Dennis Kratz, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities and the Ignacy and Celina Rockover Professor of Humanities, said the exhibition highlights diverse works of UT Dallas artists who have achieved recognition in the regional, national and international scenes.
“It is my hope that the retrospective exhibition and the new gallery call attention not only to the success of the visual arts during the past 20 years, but also — and more importantly — to the benefits that a vibrant and varied cultural environment bring to the University,” Kratz said.
The gallery is located on the northwest corner of campus in the Synergy Park North 2 building. The complex consists of two conjoined exhibition spaces dedicated to both student and professional creative research, including two project rooms, a reception area, an office and a preparation space. The gallery also will house the Comer Collection of Photography.
“I look forward to a future when UT Dallas provides not only world-class facilities and support for advanced achievement in the arts by our majors, but also integrates into the education of every student opportunities for active engagement with the arts,” Kratz said.
UT Dallas alumna and author LaToya Watkins BA’06, MA’11, PhD’15 recently joined the ranks of writers including Alice Walker, Thornton Wilder and James Baldwin as a fellow in The MacDowell Colony.
Watkins, who received her doctoral degree in aesthetic studies, took note of the selective program while attending a writer’s conference in 2014.