What this is all about

Based on the WMRA show "The Spark", hosted by Martha Woodroof, this project looks at the creative passions of college students in the Shenandoah Valley area.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Max Chapnick, Physicist and Poet

          I drove down to Lexington a few weeks ago to meet with Max Chapnick at Washington and Lee University. He is from White Plains, New York, so he’s probably used to our recent snowy weather. We sat down in the WLUR recording studio and talked about poetry.
In Tel Aviv, Israel
           Max started out at W&L as a Physics major, but quickly added on English as a double major. “I felt like I didn’t have enough literature in my life,” he says, “so I took an English class and I loved it.”
          Max then tacked on a creative writing minor and started taking some poetry courses, which is how he met Leslie Wheeler, a professor at W&L. She was working for Shenandoah, an online literary magazine run by the University, to create a special feature on New Zealand demonstrating the huge variety of poetry from the country. Over 100 poets submitted samples of their work. Max and another student, Drew Martin, were picked to help select twenty-five for publication. For some this was their first time being published.
            “Working on this project was a lot of responsibility and pressure, like nothing I’d experienced before,” Max says. “We met twice a week, like a class, and sometimes it was just like we would hang out and discuss poetry.”
           So much time reading poetry inspired Max to work on his own portfolio. He prefers formal poetry styles and, although it would take a tremendous amount of work, he aspires to write a verse play.
           “For me, poetry is a very mechanical thing. Even if there’s no line or meter there is a certain sense of craft, and it’s the same with physics. You’re trying to describe the universe, and that’s a less emotional thing, but in the end it is emotional in that you’re on this quest to discover what the universe is, and using the power of your intellect to do it. So that inspires me – the combination of human element and the intellectual element.”
In the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity house
           His love of physics inspires much of his work. It is a unique combination, this mixture of science and the arts, but he is not the first to try and unite the two. The book Are Angels Ok?: The Parallel Universe of New Zealand Writers and Scientists, edited by Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan, blends science with philosophy and literature.
           “It was a really cool book,” Max says. “It was all of these writers writing about physics, so it was my two passions, especially the poetry. That sort of inspired me to write a few poems about physics.”
           When I spoke with Max he was waiting to hear back on his Fulbright proposal. He plans to go to New Zealand and work on a master’s in Creative Writing at the Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. Just this past week he received the news. Max will be spending the 2013-2014 academic year in New Zealand, to continue combining his love of poetry with his passion for science. He was kind enough to share one of his poems with us, titled “Quantum Physics Love Song.”

Quantum Physics Love Song

We carry our shells with us as we stroll
along the sand. Generally, Hermitians
are tricky to recognize. I ponder

whether the wind is a normalized distribution,
you whether I am cold. We exist both discretely and
together. The approaching tide releases

wave packets, sloshing randomly, which you meet
with evaluative sighs. Let us commute
into the sea of possibilities, each

of us an uncertain operator. But shhh,
boundaries require maneuvering. Truth,
the coarsest measurement, might collapse our shells.

So do not tell me where you stand and I
will not tell you how fast I’m going.

           Until then, Max is enjoying what is left of his time at W&L. He has a lot to do before graduation this spring. A play he wrote for one of his classes was picked up by a student acting group. It will be performed May 10th, 11th, and 12th at the Lenfest Center at W&L, directed by senior theater major Mary Rodriguez. His work with the Shenandoah may be done, but he has only just begun writing his own poetry.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Jessica Romero, the Volunteer

Looking out over Haiti

Mon Lopital sits on top of a mountain in Haiti. It is a tiny village of about three thousand people, nearly five and a half hours from the nearest large town. The villagers used to make the trek up and down the mountain on foot in order to get food and supplies. But now, thanks to the work and dedication of people like Jessica Romero, they have a general store of their own. And she hopes to give them so much more.
A sophomore at Blue Ridge Community College, Jessica is a member of Enactus, an international community of students who see entrepreneurial action as a way to change lives. Enactus focuses on environmental, social, or economic projects to increase people’s quality of life. The Blue Ridge branch has programs focused on everything from the empowerment of women to tutoring the mentally disabled. When Jessica came in to speak with me at the WMRA recording studio, her shirt had a small logo with the words Enactus stitched beneath it. Clearly, she is proud to be a part of this organization.
Jessica was born in New York and moved to Harrisonburg 8 years ago. When she was a child she wanted to be a veterinarian or a teacher. She has only been a member of Enactus for two years, but it helped to shape her goals for the future. Her new dream is to help people.
“For me, once I started looking into Enactus I was like ‘I have to be a part of this’. This is just too awesome to let it pass by.”
The Enactus team
Jessica and four other students to went to Haiti this past January to work on a new project. Last June they built a general store for Mon Lopital, but this time their mission was to provide something simple, yet essential: Light.
“Ninety percent of Haitians have no electricity,” Jessica said. “They use kerosene lamps, which are really expensive. Instead we figure we could use solar powered lamps.”
It is called the D-Light Initiative. “We raised money for 600 LED lights, and met with a Haiti committee of twelve people, who chose the seven women most in need. Each woman is given a box of lights to sell, all profits to them, in order put money aside to re-invest in more lights.”
These lights do more than just light up their homes. By giving these women lamps it gives them a job, and the opportunity to improve their lives. The lights provide sustainability, so that the village could thrive on its own.
“Hand-ups,” Jessica calls it. “Not hand-outs.”
Jessica was drawn to Haiti because of its potential. There is a desperate need for change, but lack of infrastructure and support make this difficult. She and the other Blue Ridge students had the resources and ability to help, and all they needed was passion.
Jessica with one of the children from Mon Lopital
“To see that light hanging there and lighting up the home, with the kids studying, the mom cooking or sewing, it speaks for itself,” she says. “I’m passionate about doing something bigger than myself, and this is way bigger than me. I never experienced a feeling like this.”
Of course there are always challenges. Even with all their work and research, there are always more areas of need.
“It’s important to see opportunity where others see obstacles,” she says with a smile. “I’m one person and I want to do all these things, but there’s so much to do, so many people to help, so many things to change.”
It can be discouraging, but Jessica keeps faith. And it is her faith that partly drives her.
“God, he’s doing mission work every day. I’m a believer and I feel like we are called to help. The least I can do for Him is follow His footsteps. He’s given us love and life, and I want to carry that on.”
Jessica hopes to work for the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, after graduation. She would like work in Latin America, where she speaks the language and knows the culture, or back in Haiti, a place that has become dear to her. But she also hopes to challenge herself and eventually move on to other parts of the world. Jessica aspires to speak at least five or six languages, and continue with her work of helping those around her.
“Maybe I can learn Swahili and go to Africa!”
Until then, her heart is with the people of Mon Lopital. Her dream would be to provide the children with a school well-stocked with supplies and with teachers that are paid a proper salary. It would take a lot of work, and a lot of resources. But Jessica already has the passion, so she’s already one step closer to achieving her goals.
Children of Mon Lopital
My next interview is with Washington and Lee's Max Chapnick, to be posted next week.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Paulo Dorado, the Guitarist

         When I brought Paulo Dorado to the radio station to record our conversation, he said he wasn’t nervous. He seemed more comfortable with the situation than I was, being familiar with the equipment from having spent time in a recording studio. I could tell his hands were itching to play around with the dials on the soundboard and explore the computer program. Paulo may be a science geek, but his passion is for music, and once I got him talking our conversation flowed so naturally you’d think he was interviewed all the time.
Music had been a part of his family before Paulo was even born. His father was a musician, and used to tell Paulo stories about how he had been born into a family of musicians.
“I thought that was B.S for like the first half of my life,” he said with a laugh.
But when Paulo was thirteen, his family moved to Northern Virginia from the Philippines, and his older brother bought a guitar. Like most siblings, he refused to share with Paulo, so Paulo had to get one for himself. He practiced every day for four hours at a time, teaching himself to play and even writing his own songs.
“It was like, I’m living up to something, a goal.” With a father who was a professional musician, Paulo felt motivated to become a skilled musician himself. But that was not the only factor that drove him.
Paulo spoke almost no English when he moved to the United States. He had to overcome not only culture shock, but a massive language barrier as well.
“I was from the, I guess “ghetto” part of the Philippines. And, you know the way we solve problems is we tussle it out... First day, someone threw my lunch tray away. And I was like dude... I couldn’t say anything. I was stuttering, I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t come up with the words... couldn’t come up with English. And I punched this dude in the face....I just couldn’t explain myself back then...There was just no outlet for my emotions.”
At a loss for words, Paulo needed a new outlet to express himself. He delved into music and focused on creating his own songs. After a few years in the US he developed a close group of musically inclined friends and they formed a band. Their nerdy side came out and they named the band Amion, taken from a band member’s misspelling of Amino Acid. Being in this band has been, so far, the highlight of Paulo’s musical career.
With his old band, Amion

            When I got him talking about the band he was so excited he was almost having trouble sitting still in his chair. “Once you learn how to perform and can get people listening or looking up to you, the excitement is insane,” he said. “Nothing can drive you, exhilarate you, like being on stage.”
            His time with the band, however, was short lived. After being offered a management contract with the band, Paulo backed out, citing the unfair distribution of the money, and the rest of the band followed suit.  Some band members were not as dedicated as others, and so eventually the band fell apart. But Paulo doesn’t blame only the other members of his band for its gradual decline.
            “I was being an asshole.”
            Although he remains friends with some of his old band mates, getting back together with them wouldn’t be an option. Their friendship has been easier without the strain of working together, and the thought of returning to his old bickering self prevents any temptation to return to that.
            Since his band fell apart in high school, Paulo has only performed on stage once. His four hour a day practices have dwindled down to an hour every week or two, and although he continues to write lyrics he rarely comes up with the music to accompany it. He wasn’t exactly sure when this cycle began, and he began to neglect his music, but the combination of classes and his devotion to the Asian Student Union (ASU) took up much of his time and made it even more difficult to focus on his music. But it’s hard to completely give up on something after having spent so much time dedicated to it. 

Performing for the ASU Culture Show
   He performed in the ASU Culture Show last fall, his first performance since high school, and he’s been trying to get more time into his schedule to devote to music. There is a talent show JMU is hosting this semester, and he’s interested in competing in it. It will take a lot of work to get back to the level he was at in high school, but Paulo is a passionate guy. He’s been busy these past few months, but his love of music has not died.
           In the meantime, the gap left by putting down his guitar is being filled by another passion. Paulo was recently elected president of ASU, where he has been able to express himself in a whole new way. Learning about his birth culture has helped him have a greater understanding of his own and his family’s past. All the energy and spirit he once poured into music is now focused on this club. And he’s got big plans.
            “I’m trying to push a parade. First time at JMU an organization organizes a parade for everyone to see. It’s going to be super cultural…That would pretty much accomplish my dream for my organization… to incorporate as many unsung talents… that’s why I’m so passionate about this.”
            I don’t doubt that Paulo can achieve this. It will of course take a lot of work, and with him trying to get back to guitar and music he will have an even busier schedule, but there is nothing standing in his way.
            Before our conversation ended, I asked Paulo if he would ever want to be in a band again.  
“What I would do to be in a band again...you need to have the most trusted people, the most committed people, and also the people you have great chemistry with. I wouldn’t go as far to say you’re home, but it’s really close to home.”
            Although it may be a little while before Paulo finds a new band, in the meantime he has his hands full.
            My next conversation, with Blue Ridge's Jessica Romero, will be posted with next week’s show. So stay tuned until then. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rachel Ratkowski, the Actor

When I ask her how to pronounce her name she says, “Rachel Ratkowski. It’s like a rat and a cow go skiing.”
Rachel has worked with children in the past, so I could tell that this introduction was one that she’d used often. She was talkative and enthusiastic; exactly what you would expect a performer to be. Rachel’s a graduate student in Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare and Performance program, and I can imagine her outgoing nature brings her characters to life. Rachel’s passion is not only for the stories that she is a part of, but for sharing them with the world. 
Rachel was three years old when her parents put her in her first play. She was the “kid with the turkey in a Christmas Carol”. She’s come a long way since then; all the way to the biggest female speaking role in Shakespeare, as Rosalind in As You Like It.
Her father is an actor, and she says her parents love telling the story of how she nagged them throughout her childhood, saying over and over “I want to do what daddy does”.
Her theatrically inclined parents (they met at Catholic University while working on their Master’s in Theater) fully support Rachel in her acting dreams. She received her undergraduate degree in theater at Adelphi University in New York, and took her first job for Prairie Fire Children’s Theater, a traveling theater, in Minnesota.
With one of the children at Prairie Fire
“It was me and one other person, and we would go into a town every week and teach up to 80 kids a whole musical in a week and perform with them. It was fun. It was theater boot camp-and-a-half, but it was wonderful.”
Spending her time working in the children’s theater helped Rachel realize how much she loved sharing her passion for theater, but in order to teach she needed to go back and get her master’s degree. Her love of Shakespeare brought her to Mary Baldwin, where there was a perfect mix of theater and education.
The first two years in the program are focused on scholarship and academia, but in the final third year the students are really able to dive into the theater aspect. The program turns them into their own theater company, Roving Shakespeare, where they put on five productions a year. A third year student, Rachel is almost done with her theatrical journey, at least in this program. They just put on a performance of King Lear, and in March will be performing As You Like It.
One of the greatest benefits of Mary Baldwin is its close relationship with The American Shakespeare Center. I’ve been to Blackfriars Playhouse several times— originally as part of my undergraduate Shakespeare course, but even after it was over I kept coming back. It’s a small theater, without any of the fancy lighting that modern theaters show off, but it’s precisely that intimacy that I found so appealing. The theater program at Mary Baldwin is privileged to be able to use the theater for performances, and the actors even occasionally teach courses.
Of course acting is not the only part of theater. In Rachel’s program they get to try a taste of everything, from directing to lighting, even costuming.  Rachel’s favorite play so far has been The Queens, a modern piece about the women in Richard III, directed by fellow student Michael Wagoner. Although she’s been grateful to taste all the different facets of a theater production, Rachel’s favorite part remains acting.
From the Original musical "Mashed Monsters in Minneapolis"
             with the theater group People Sitting Around Doing Theater.
            But being an actor isn’t all smiles and applause. Rachel says the challenge of balancing coursework with performances, as well as working a job on the side to help pay the bills, can be difficult, but in the end she’s sure it will be worth it. After graduation she hopes to teach, although ideally she’ll continue performing. She says she would like to teach any age group, and go wherever someone will need her, but after her time working in a children’s theater it seems to her that children just might be the ones who need theater most.
“Even if kids don’t grow up to be actors, I think it’s really important to have theater in the sense that, it builds your confidence to get out there and do a book report. . . it’s a fun way to do it.”
Rachel is the Fool. She is Miranda of the Tempest.  She is Puck, Rosalind, Gonzalo, and any other character she decides to become. She loves her craft and fully embraces every aspect of theater, and it was wonderful to have the chance to speak with her. Of course I did not think this interview would be complete without seeing her perform.
I drove down to Staunton to see the performance of King Lear at Blackfriars, but, unfortunately, it seems I will need to wait until their next performance to see her on stage. I got stuck behind an accident, so I decided to find a new route. What normally would have been a half hour drive turned into an hour, and after several wrong turns I realized the play had already begun and I would not make it. As disappointed as am I, I am even more excited to see her perform on March 16th. This time I think I’ll aim on getting there an hour early instead of twenty minutes, because there is no way I’m missing this for a second time.
Although I missed the full performance, I did manage to get a small taste of it. Rachel recited several lines from King Lear, which she is letting me share with you now. 

         If you’d like to see her on stage, Roving Shakespeare will be performing As You Like it March 16th,  in the Masonic Building at Mary Baldwin, and March 18th at Blackfriars. Both shows will begin at 7:30, but if you get there early you can enjoy the music starting at 7:15.
So stay tuned. My next conversation is with JMU's Paulo Dorado, to be posted with the next show.