In the Loop
Faculty News : Jun 17, 2020

Devising community with Ryan Hope Travis

By Caroline Lockwood (BFA Dance & BS Industrial and Systems Engineering ‘21)

After working as a freelance actor and director in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Ryan Hope Travis returned to Gainesville and his alma mater in the summer of 2019. He directed Hills on Fire and co-directed The New American Dream: How to Teach a Pig to Fly at the UF School of Theatre + Dance before serving as an adjunct faculty member for the 2019-2020 school year. During the academic year, he taught courses and directed We Are Proud to Present... in the fall. 

Now, headed into the new academic year, Travis joins the faculty as an assistant professor to continue teaching acting courses, conducting research, and directing productions. 

His move to academia wasn’t a move away from artistic production. Travis knew he was a mentor at heart, but his year of teaching made him realize something more. 

“The biggest epiphany was the discovery that my teaching is an expression of my artistry,” Travis said. “What makes me a complete artist is being an actor, director, filmmaker, and teacher.”

His experiences both behind and in front of the camera helped him teach two courses in the fall: Acting for the Camera and Acting 1. 

Travis said that being a student, especially in the performing arts, can become a very insular, individual experience. 

“You often see yourselves in comparison to your peers,” he said. “There’s what feels like baked-in competition, especially when you’re talking about auditions and casting.”

But in his experience, it’s more important to build connections with each other. Every person he worked with on his film, Pupae, was from UF, aside from some post-production elements. The film was accepted into several festivals, including the Atlanta Film Festival—an Academy Award-qualifying festival. 

“I like to inform students that your community is what you foster and create now. These relationships will take you way past this four-year cycle,” he said.

Travis brings these lessons into the Acting 1 course, a prerequisite for all BFA and BA theatre performance majors comprised of mostly first- and second-year students. 

“What is more vital for an actor in training is the recognition of their community, because it is from their community that they will create and be cast and be performers way beyond what they even thought was possible,” he said. 

“I love Acting 1 because it’s a space where we get a chance to reintroduce students to their passion and we get a chance to build a community of actors,” he said. “My intention is that it serves as the foundation for the rest of their journey here at UF. This is their community, and they know they can lean on these artists.”

As he moves into his second year teaching at UF, Travis looks forward to continuing to help students develop those relationships, both within their immediate peers and across disciplines. 

“What I’m most looking forward to is helping to foster and continue the legacy of the actor, dancer, designer community,” he said.

To help convey the principles of community and professionalism to his students, Travis has distinct strategies for establishing the classroom and rehearsal environments. In the classroom, he views his role as sort of a head coach. 

“The classroom is a space to stretch and explore and mine the full range of your artistic instrument,” he said. “My job is to try to encourage and provoke the very best out of you. It’s really stretching the range of that body, that emotional depth, to see what are the limitations right now and let’s see if we can push past it.”

In rehearsals, it’s about being a collaborator. 

“We’re not going to be talking about beats and actions and tactics and given circumstances in the rehearsal,” he said. “We’re going to be dealing with the work of art that all of us are intending to create.”

Much of Travis’s work is in devised plays. Before moving to Los Angeles, he was the executive artistic director of a community theatre in Syracuse, New York, called the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company. To meet the needs of that community, Travis used devised theatre, a method where the cast, director, and entire team create a play from scratch.

“It was important for me that every artist that came in could find a home in this community space,” he said. “Quickly, I learned we can create our own work. We could devise plays around social movements, around social activism, around issues that were relevant to that particular space and talent.”

Travis’s research background is in African American and Pan-African studies, including critical race theory, criminal justice, sociology, and pre-law. The next play he’s directing at UF combines his understanding of these topics with his experiences in devised work. The play, Remove Before Flight, focuses on the U.S. criminal justice system. 

“Even though the U.S. is only 4% of the world’s population, we represent nearly 25% of those incarcerated bodies,” Travis said. “We’re talking about over two million people that are incarcerated. What we find is there’s a disparity between how racial groups are represented within that system.”

Travis will teach Acting 1 and Acting for the Camera again this fall. He is spending some time this summer reflecting on ways he can adapt the courses to be ready for possible in-person or virtual instruction. 

“Right now, I am thinking about redesigning the class so in the event that we do go to an online format, we still retain that physical awareness, the trust, the community of actors, all the elements that are germane to our actor’s experience,” he said. “I’m teaching the classes I’ve taught before, which is super exciting because I get a chance to be a part of a first-year’s very first acting experience and also be a part of upper-level students’ journey toward becoming a better actor for the camera.”

Now as a full-time faculty member, Travis plans to continue helping build the community of theatre and dance at UF. 

“You lean on each other and you grow together,” he said. “You rely on each other. You inspire each other. You keep each other motivated. If students recognize the power in developing that early, then I think we’ll be better off as a community as a whole."

In 2018 and 2019, the UF College of the Arts launched a faculty hiring wave that sought change-makers and challenged biases in the hiring process. Read more about the process and the cohort of faculty Ryan Hope Travis joined.