Shelly Gaza has taken over as the new Interim School Director for the School of Theatre Arts and Dance (STAD) for the 2019-2020 school year at the University of Northern Colorado.
Gaza is in her ninth year working at UNC and started in the fall of 2011 as an Assistant Professor of Voice, Speech, and Dialect. In 2017, she moved into the Assistant School Director position. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from Milliken University and a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from Wayne State University. When asked in an interview about her favorite experience working at UNC, there was no debate for her that our students are the most rewarding part.
“The students are my favorite thing at UNC,” Gaza said. “I’ve worked at many universities but the students here, theatre students in particular, are different. They are hardworking and more down to earth than any student body I’ve ever worked with. They’re here because they want to be here.”
This is the longest institution she has worked for thus far. When asked about her new position as Interim Director, she explained the behind the scenes process. The Assistant School Director position that Gaza stepped into two years ago was primarily a new position for the institution because the school had been exponentially growing and needed more administrative support. When former STAD director David Grapes retired in the spring of 2019, he asked Gaza to step in while the school began to make plans to start a national search to fill the position permanently for the following year. UNC’s current financial crisis and $10,000,000 deficit has put permanently filling this position on hold; therefore Gaza has stepped in for the school year.
“I think it’s a vote of confidence for our school.” Gaza said. “The dean feels we’re in a good place and I’m happy to serve as Interim Director.”
With an extensive educational background, Gaza says she is grateful to have had so many mentors throughout her life, and her wish is that college students and young professionals will find and connect with their own mentors as well. Two academic mentors she remembers fondly are Dr. David Golden and Professor Gillian Eaton, both from her college years. Dr.Golden was the head director and professor at Millikan University and gave Gaza a newfound outlook on her abilities.
“He was the first one who expressed to me that he thought I had leadership qualities and no one had ever said that to me,” Gaza said. “For someone in a leadership position to say ‘I see this in you.’ and tell me I should explore being a college professor was everything. It completely changed the perception I had of myself.”
Professor Gillian Eaton was a professor at Wayne State University and is still a good friend of Gaza’s today, going on 20 years of mentorship and friendship.
“She was my favorite teacher ever and really lit my fire for Shakespeare!” Gaza said excitedly.
Most of Gaza’s professional acting career was in Shakespeare. Eaton is from Great Britain and was part of the royal Shakespeare Company and a direct link to the world of classical theatre.
Gaza also credits her journey to the senior faculty here at UNC. To name a few: Ken Womble, Mary Schuttler, Gillian McNally, Anne Toewe, etc.
“They were so kind to teach me the ropes of the academic processes at UNC,” Gaza said.
She is also the co-founder of Statera Arts, a national mentorship program specifically for women in the arts.
“I believe it will be the most important thing in our work towards gender equity and gender parity within the arts.” Gaza said.
She also holds a Certificate in Acting from the Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia. During her graduate work, she spent a summer in Moscow to study under professional educators and instructors rooted directly in the Konstantin Stanislavski and Michael/Anton Chekov techniques. The Stanislavski technique is the core acting method here at UNC.
Gaza describes it as “The single best and hardest thing I ever did for my acting training. I was completely out of my comfort zone, not only the geographical distance but the cultural exchange, and language barrier as well.”
Translators were utilized for the instructors as most of them did not speak English. When asked about the structure of the program, Gaza exclaimed “They are not fooling around! We trained Monday through Saturday, 9am-6pm. Then we’d have a quick dinner break and then see theatre almost every night. We had Sunday off to rest, do homework and rehearse. I was mentally and physically exhausted but in that state, I was able to let go and be open to learning about myself as an actor and a person.”
Gaza viewed her time in Moscow as a very rewarding life experience and definitely recommends study abroad for college students.
“Anytime a student can have that international experience, it can be really life changing,” Gaza said.
During the interview, Gaza also commented on the concept of comfort zones and how making the choice to move out of them is extremely beneficial for students.
“I think it happens a lot when you move to college,” Gaza said. “It is equal parts joy and pain. But to make a student comfortable doesn’t open them up to growth.”
When asked to give advice for students here at UNC, Gaza really advocates for knowing and utilizing campus resources that are available to you, including Financial Aide, Mental Health Counseling, Physical Health clinic, Clubs and Organizations, Dean of Students, etc.
“Your college life is so much more than what happens in the classroom,” Gaza said. “We want you to be academically focused but it’s only a small piece of why it’s important to go to college. Those years between the ages of 18 to 23 are so important in a human being’s development and is the greatest opportunity that a young adult has to transition into the next phase of their life.”
She suggests seeking out your professors, teachers, and administrators, to keep them involved in what’s happening in your life and know that they are there to assist you in a multitude of ways.
For theatre students, she had the perfect words of wisdom.
“Yes you are to here to learn how to be a theatre professional but that is not your whole life,” Gaza said. “You are a better theatre artist/educator when you are a curious human being and when you’re engaged in the world around you.”
Gaza holds high hopes for this current generation and beams with pride when she describes how excited she is for their future.
“You are going to save the world!” Gaza said. “The students now are practicing how to engage in those conversations and how to be part of the productive change I know we’re going to see when this generation finishes their education and takes the world by storm”