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Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The James ‘66 and Jill Gabbe Creative Leader Scholarship provides financial support to undergraduate students in the College of Arts, Media and Design who seek to pursue a creative endeavor that will have a positive impact on the larger community. Maren Flessen, a fifth-year theatre major and one of this year’s recipients, developed a two-part event for fellow emerging artists that aimed to break down the lack of diversity in the theatric community. Nicolette Tovstashy, a fourth-year computer science and design combined major, is utilizing game design to innovate a virtual reality (VR) environment meant to aid those with blindness and remaining light perception.

Maren Flessen – Decolonizing Our Hearts, Minds, and Industry; A Series of Events for Boston’s Emerging Generation of Theatre Artists 

Caucasian woman with brown hair and glasses smiles at camera. She's wearing a tan cardigan and black tank top with pink and yellow flowes.

Maren and a group of intercollegiate Boston theatre students formed Underepair Design Team, which stands for UN-learn, DE-colonize, and RE-define. This was done under the guidance of Maren’s faculty mentor Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Theatre Department. The team created a two-part event aimed at creating a more diverse theatre environment, specifically for current students and recent graduates. The workshops were dedicated to reflecting, acting, and building community in pursuit of creating a more accepting industry that does not discriminate on account of race, gender, or sexuality.

Each event included guided conversations with a trained facilitator on an aspect of racial justice or equity. It will also provide creative reflections designed to include a reimagined view of theatre through acting, visual art, dance, yoga, or meditation. These activities encouraged artists to discover ways to integrate a more diverse mindset into artistic practices.

The events took place in May, both happening a week from one another. The first event was called “In Motion and Underepair” and consisted of two workshops. The first, led by Jazzmin Bonner, a Bostonian artist and theatre connoisseur, focused on balancing internal and external pressures when making career decisions.

Christa Brown, founder and executive producer of the Free Soil Arts Collective, led the afternoon’s second workshop, “How to Show Up For Yourself in Show Business.” The seminar encouraged attendees to reflect on their internalization of white supremacy and how to overcome it to work in a field built upon it. Following the workshops, there was a panel with both Jazzmin and Christa involved.

The second event, “Self-Care and Decolonization,” also consisted of two workshops. The first workshop, led by Des Bennett, aimed at rooting out the corrupt theatrical garden, with many roots in racist and oppressive policies, and instead work on cultivating an industry that is more compassionate and inclusive.

The second workshop led by Ava Nordling, an Experience Design major at Northeastern University, organized a drawing activity that mapped out where white supremacy lies in the body and what release may look like on a molecular level.

Both events closed with a dance party meant to re-engage students with their bodies and spirits led by Ava Nordling, a CAMD student and a member of the Underepair Design Team.

These events built participants’ networks and empowered them to further develop skills in anti-oppressive theatre-making, providing a benchmark that allows the next generation of artists to take responsibility for the future of American theatre.

“The process of working on this project with this incredible intercollegiate team of young artists has been one of the pleasures of my artistic life thus far. We’ve been able to do a lot together, especially when you think about how much the world has changed in the last six months, and how much everyone is carrying. Through that though, everyone on this team has really brought their hearts, minds, and selves to this work and that enormous act of generosity made this whole project possible. I am leaving this project grateful for the opportunity, inspired by the brilliant folks doing this work, and hungry for more,” explained Maren.

The attendees, the majority of which were undergraduate theatre students, loved the event, leaving raving reviews stating that they felt “connected,” “energized,” and “centered.” Since the team has been working hard on the event for upwards of six months, Maren mentioned that they are now taking this time to rest and recuperate with no set plans for the near future.

Nicolette Tovstashy – ContrastVR: Leveraging Remaining Light Perception in Virtual Reality for People with Blindness 

For more than a year, Nicolette Tovstashy, has been doing research that leverages the remaining vision of the blind, allowing them to see within a Virtual Reality (VR) environment through her project, ContrastVR. Most people who are considered blind can still see object forms to a certain extent with their remaining light perception. Her project utilizes a custom black and white filter that helps to accentuate what the user sees.

The project will be completed in collaboration with The Carroll Center for the Blind, a local organization that provides vision rehabilitation services. With the assistance of Casper Hartevald, Associate Professor of Game Design, she plans to have a group of volunteers from the center test out the filters with a small game that she had set up. The game resembles an escape room and the players report to Nicolette on whether or not the filter aided them in navigating the virtual space. Nicolette’s hypothesis claims that the filter will increase the perception of a VR environment to a usable level. There are currently no vision-based interventions for this demographic of users.

ContrastVR’s goal is to make VR available to not only those who can see normally but to the visually impaired as well. With enough research, she hopes to create a VR system with optimal perception and the ability to perceive texture and outlines. The findings from Nicolette’s research could potentially inform future assistive technology and can be replaced or used in conjunction with traditional assistive technology.

“The grant gave me the opportunity to conduct a formal user study, which allows me to test ContrastVR with real users with light perception vision. I’m excited to start this process as soon as COVID restrictions lift,” concluded Nicolette.

Due to COVID and other restrictions, Nicolette has not had the opportunity to do any in-person work on her project. However, she hopes to begin testing this month in August.