Student playwrights draw inspiration from world’s largest LGBTQ+ materials repository

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Student playwrights draw inspiration from the world’s largest LGBTQ materials repository

An SDA playwriting class gets creative after a visit to the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries, writing scenes based on a photo collection of a gay wedding that took place in the 1950s in Philadelphia.

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Inspiration for writing a scene, or a play, can come from anywhere. Playwrights often make use of archival material and at USC, USC Libraries is fortunate to include ONE Archives, the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world, which is a treasure trove of undiscovered stories just waiting to be turned into dramatic works.

In early April, Oliver Mayer, professor of dramatic writing, took his undergraduate playwriting students on a field trip to the archives, and gave them a writing prompt utilizing an unusual photo collection there. Then, during the last week of classes, he arranged for MFA acting alums to do readings of the scenes the students wrote.

The photo collection is 18 small format black and white images of a gay wedding held in a home or apartment in Philadelphia in the 1950s. No one is identified in the photos and the wedding couple never saw the images, as the owner of the photo shop where the film was developed confiscated them. The daughter of the photo shop owner was selling the images online, and a ONE Archives donor bought them and gave them to the archives in 2012.

Michael Oliveira, a librarian who gave the SDA class a tour at the archives, located north of campus at 909 West Adams Boulevard, said the images present “so many unanswered questions.” All the window blinds in the photos are closed, he noted, and one man standing in the kitchen seems to be in distress. Another man is in drag, and it’s unclear whether he’s part of the wedding photos or not. “This wedding could have happened anywhere, and there’s so much you could imagine,” he said.

ONE Archives became part of USC Libraries in 2010, and Oliveira said that USC professors are increasingly making use of its letters, photographs, books, artwork and exhibitions in their classes. “We’ve had writing classes, library classes and history classes coming to see what’s here,” he said. Oliveira said he gave Mayer, who heads SDA’s undergraduate and MFA playwriting programs, a half dozen other ideas of material in the archives he might want to use for future classes.

Surprisingly, none of the 15 students in the class, many who were juniors and seniors, had visited ONE Archives before. Many were unaware it existed.

Some of the scenes the students wrote focused on the emotions of the men getting married, while others used the images as a jumping off point. Jonathan Pelster, a senior BA theatre major, learned from the archives trip that there was a strong connection between science fiction fandom and gay culture in Southern California, and his scene, “Qualon,” included that.

Cameryn Baker, a senior creative writing major at USC Dornsife, included in her scene reference to a character not shown in the images – a woman that one of the grooms was planning to marry as a way to hide his homosexuality from the world.

Some scenes had flashes of humorous dialogue, one included some shocking history of the grandfather of one of the grooms, and many referred to the clandestine nature of the ceremony via the shuttered blinds. “We’re risking our lives for our make-believe contract,” said one character. “We could go to prison.”

Actors Jered Hobbs MFA ’13 and Goran Ivanovski MFA ’18 read the scenes with great skill, helped out by Mayer who read stage directions and played additional characters as needed. On the first day scenes were performed, Lea Lanoue MFA ’20 performed with Hobbs and Ivanovski.

Hobbs called the writing in the scenes “kind of profound,” and both he and Ivanovski called on a full range of emotions to do justice to the words, depicting characters who were by turns scared, tearful, angry, jealous, witty or reflective.

Mayer was thrilled with the results. “It has been a wonderful exercise that has really focused the compassion and observational skills of the writers,” he said.

The project already has inspired one student to create his own collaboration with ONE Archives. Zack Rocklin-Waltch, a junior BFA acting student, asked librarian Oliveira if he could do a reading of a play he wrote, The Fire at the Edge of the Earth, at the archives. Oliveira and the archives agreed, and a reading with an audience of about 40, was held there April 18. The two-character play, produced by Wendy Hui, a ’21 design BFA, is headed for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. “The play deals with queer love and existence and the archives seemed like the perfect place,” said Rocklin-Waltch. “And the people at the archives were so gracious and open to doing it there.”

Rocklin-Waltch said his class visit to the archives was emotional. “Learning about the local queer history in L.A. and the different ways queer people have fought to be represented and respected brought me to tears just being there.” The ripple effect of the archives visit is continuing, Rocklin-Waltch said. “I’ve been telling my friends about the archives, and now one friend is applying for an internship there.”

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Julia M. Ritter named dean of the USC Kaufman School of Dance

USC has named dance scholar Julia M. Ritter as dean of the USC Kaufman School of Dance, effective July 1.

Ritter is currently a professor of dance at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where she served as chair and artistic director of the department of dance from 2010 to 2021. At Rutgers, she launched wide-ranging curricular and programmatic initiatives, establishing two new graduate degrees, multiple study abroad programs and numerous community creative engagement projects.

“Throughout her career, Julia Ritter has championed dance not only as a means of self-expression, but as a way to communicate and connect with others,” USC President Carol L. Folt said. “She is a creative, compassionate leader who cares deeply about students and helps them develop lifelong careers in dance.

She is a creative, compassionate leader who cares deeply about students and helps them develop lifelong careers in dance.

Carol L. Folt, USC president

“At USC, she will work closely with Kaufman students, faculty, staff and alumni to strengthen our vibrant arts community — and build even broader and deeper ties with our campus partners, Los Angeles and the world.”

An award-winning dance artist and scholar, Ritter has worked at the intersection of the arts, humanities and sciences to engage with social justice and community building. Her 2021 book Tandem Dances: Choreographing Immersive Performance examines the role of dance in the emerging field of immersive theater and performance.

“Over the past several years, the USC Kaufman community has created a program of education and performance that is changing dance as a creative discipline. The progress is nothing short of remarkable,” USC Provost Charles F. Zukoski said. “We now aim higher. We have found the leader who will enable us to achieve our aspirations. We can build on that foundation to strengthen our global leadership in the dance world, recruit the best students and train them to flourish in challenging and satisfying careers.”

Founded in 2012, USC Kaufman is known for its innovative New Movement educational model, which combines rigorous dance training with interdisciplinary studies and cross-campus collaboration.

“I am so excited to join USC Kaufman because of what has already been established here, including the stellar faculty and students, the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center and the New Movement curriculum,” Ritter said. “I know that there is an incredible amount of innovation happening across USC right now, and I feel there are no limits to how we can ideate and collaborate.”

New USC Kaufman dean: a commitment to interdisciplinarity

Crossing disciplines has been the hallmark of Ritter’s career. “During my undergraduate training at Rutgers, I was lucky to study with faculty who prioritized collaboration,” she said. “I studied with people like Don Redlich, who exemplified how to build partnerships with musicians, costume designers, set designers. Coming from that lineage helped me understand the interdisciplinary nature and potential of the arts.”

While earning her Master of Fine Arts at Temple University, Ritter studied with Brenda Dixon Gottschild, a leading scholar of African diasporic dance forms. “She introduced me to even more collaborative processes and ways of thinking about dance from different cultural lenses,” she said.

Her doctoral studies at Texas Woman’s University focused on immersive performance, an emerging field that bridges theater, dance, film and digital media. “As I’ve been studying these new ways to collaborate throughout my career, I’ve seen a real hunger from both faculty and students to build institutional and creative infrastructures that support those kinds of interactions,” she said.

While leading the Department of Dance at Rutgers, she pioneered projects with other schools, including environmental and biological sciences, engineering and the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice. She also co-founded the Integrated Dance Collaboratory, which brings together artists and scientists to explore the full spectrum of dance’s unique rehabilitative, therapeutic and expressive potential. “Producing projects that have an impact across campus and beyond is part of my DNA,” she said.

Exploring choreography and society

In recognition of her interdisciplinary excellence, Ritter received the inaugural Rutgers Presidential Outstanding Faculty Scholar Award in 2021. Other significant recognitions for Ritter include three Fulbright Scholar awards for choreographic research. Her work has been additionally funded by a host of state and national organizations committed to the role of arts in society, and she has presented her scholarship and choreography at conferences and arts venues across the globe.

Ritter’s book Tandem Dances “explores how choreography functions as a structural mechanism for mobilizing audiences during immersive live performances,” she said. “We’re living in an experience economy: People don’t want to simply watch something on the stage; they want to be in that world. We can now understand choreography as the composing of dancers’ movements and as a mechanism for organizing the kinesthetic experience of the spectator.”

Ritter notes that choreography can also be used in building diverse and inclusive communities through dance.

“One way to do that is through curriculum — to help our students build a literacy of different dance and choreographic forms through historical and cultural understanding,” she said. “I’m looking forward to brainstorming with USC faculty about creating platforms for USC Kaufman that are inclusive across all communities.”

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Showcasing the role of food in the lives of Mexican and Mexican American grandmothers in L.A.

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USC Dornsife professor Sarah Portnoy and USC Annenberg professor Amara Aguilar also collaborate on a related course teaching students how to use digital media to share oral histories.
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Growing up in Santa Paula, California, Rachel Aguilar watched her as her grandmother butchered chickens for family meals and recalls the fresh beans, tortillas and salsa her abuela would make from scratch. Now, at age 92, she credits her longevity to the fresh and healthy dishes her grandmother taught her to make and that she prepared, in turn, for her own children and grandchildren.

Aguilar’s tale, as well as the oral histories of nine other Mexican and Mexican American abuelitas, or grandmothers, are part of a new museum exhibition curated by Sarah Portnoy, professor (teaching) of Spanish at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Titled “Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories,” the exhibit takes those histories and combines them with recipes, kitchen artifacts and a documentary film to provide a glimpse into the role traditional dishes played in the women’s lives, and how they transmitted their culinary knowledge to their children and grandchildren.

The exhibit opens May 14 at LA Plaza Cocina in Los Angeles, with a special screening of the documentary film at the museum on May 12. The project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Food-centered life histories have the capacity to portray the voices and perspectives of women who have traditionally been ignored or marginalized,” says Portnoy. “This project aims to amplify the voices of a group of indigenous, mestiza, Mexican American and Afro-Mexican grandmothers who have cooked, preserved, and passed on Mexican food culture, while creating communities and cultures that are unique to Southern California.”

Digital media for the exhibit was created by students in a course titled “Recording the Voices of Latinx Women & Food in Los Angeles: A Multimedia Oral History Project” co-taught by Portnoy and Amara Aguilar, professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (and granddaughter of Rachel Aguilar).

The two USC professors taught students how to conduct interviews for oral histories, edit audio and video, make graphics and create a website featuring the stories. The students also conducted interviews with abuelitas (a different group from those in the exhibit), giving them the chance to partake in the passing of knowledge from generation to generation.

Food of life

Portnoy says the project aimed to capture not only traditional recipes but how food wove through the fabric of the women’s lives. Although food is often associated with joyful occasions and celebrations — and many of the stories featured these as well — Portnoy was surprised at the wide variety of emotions the dishes evoked in the grandmothers.

“They spoke of hardship, domestic abuse, slavery. There were a lot of tears,” Portnoy says. One woman, half-indigenous and half-Black, the descendant of slaves brought to Mexico, talked about an ancestor who helped feed slaves who had escaped from ships carrying them across the Atlantic. Another recounted how she spent long hours selling tamales from a cart to pay for the McDonald’s food her children desperately wanted to try.

Aguilar adds that some of the women discussed more topical food issues, such as the high rates of obesity and diabetes in the Latinx population.

“One grandmother talked about the fact that women can do more than cook. She said they can also make a difference by promoting healthy eating and nutrition. Another grandmother spoke about her work as an activist for street vendors. Many of these abuelitas are not only the centerpiece of their families, but they have also had so much impact on our communities, and it’s important to share these stories,” Aguilar says.

Portnoy says that the experience of interviewing the grandmothers was also humbling in some ways.

“It might take me a day to make these dishes, which they are preparing with such grace and ease and without stressing about it,” she explains.

Transmitting traditions

In the course, Portnoy and Aguilar taught the students about Mexican culture, especially food culture, and how to conduct oral history projects to preserve the traditions and histories of older generations.

Portnoy’s portion of the course involved an introduction to Mexican and Mexican American culture in L.A. There were field trips to Boyle Heights, Olvera Street and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and lectures on topics such as gentrification and the history of redlining and discrimination of Mexican communities in L.A.

Aguilar taught the students how recording an oral history differs slightly from conducting an interview and requires a few additional skills. She wanted her students to learn how to have empathy and compassion for their interview subjects, and how to convey the sense of a person’s story or personality accurately and in a way that was personal and genuine. She also instructed them on how to create digital content for distribution on different media platforms.

“They made short videos for YouTube, they created content for Instagram, and they produced and edited content we had shot for the exhibit. This project is multidimensional and is going to reach people in a lot of different ways. It is especially important in that it preserves stories of our cultures for future generations,” Aguilar says.

Portnoy adds that the students also learned lessons that went beyond the technicalities of recording oral histories. “They learned a lot from all of this, not just how to use the technology, but all of these different experiences, how to appreciate different cultures, the challenges of being an immigrant, and how to appreciate the work behind preparing complex dishes in Mexican cuisine.”

Aguilar interviewed her own grandmother for the project and joined her grandmother, father and daughter — four generations of the family — to prepare her grandmother’s traditional dish of enchiladas.

“My grandmother on my maternal side of the family has passed, and we lost all of her recipes. So, getting to do this with my paternal grandmother — to cook with her and preserve her recipes and her traditions — was just really meaningful to all of us,” Aguilar says.

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Robert Cutietta awarded Presidential Medallion for advancing USC’s values in the field of the arts

Every year from 1983 through 2020, USC has awarded the USC Presidential Medallion to one or two people who have brought great honor and distinction to the university community. Last year, all USC staff, faculty and health care professionals were awarded the Presidential Medallion after their continued work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, for their work to advance the university’s overall mission, three members of the Trojan Family were honored by USC President Carol L. Folt at the 41st annual Academic Honors Convocation on Tuesday. USC News is profiling all three winners. Today’s honoree: Robert Cutietta, dean of the USC Thornton School of Music and the USC Kaufman School of Dance.

Robert Cutietta had no idea USC would start a dance school when he came to the university in 2002, much less that he would become dean of it.

Cutietta originally was chosen as the dean of the USC Thornton School of Music, and almost a decade after arriving on campus, he was tasked with starting and helming the USC Kaufman School of Dance, the university’s first new school in 41 years. That service to the arts has earned him one of this year’s USC Presidential Medallions.

I’m a bass player at heart. And what that means is that I stay in the background, I provide the foundation, and I let other people take the solos in the leads.

Robert Cutietta, Presidential Medallion recipient

“I have to admit, I had to gear myself up for this,” Cutietta said of his dance school assignment. “I’m a bass player at heart. And what that means is that I stay in the background, I provide the foundation, and I let other people take the solos in the leads. I feel I’ve been that way with being a dean, too.”

Cutietta, a longtime academic, was the director of the School of Music and Dance at the University of Arizona before coming to USC. He has performed and composed music for movies and TV, including the television series Lost Legends of the West, and has published a range of articles and books on music education, notably Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents and Who Knew? Answers to Questions About Classical Music You Never Thought to Ask, both published by Oxford University Press.

Robert Cutietta: introducing innovative degrees

At USC, Cutietta introduced innovative degrees, including groundbreaking popular music performance program that Rolling Stone called “the cutting-edge department that’s become the site of Los Angeles’ most productive new music scenes.”

“The popular music program is still pretty much the only one that’s out there,” Cutietta said. “We expanded that into production and EDM [electronic dance music] — I mean, what schools can you major in EDM creation?”

He applied that same innovative approach to the programs at the USC Kaufman School.

“What started to emerge was a school where you’re not really training dancers,” he said. “You’re creating artists who are dance makers.”

Double duty as dean of USC Thornton School of Music and USC Kaufman School of Dance

Cutietta, who has pulled double duty as dean of USC Thornton and USC Kaufman since the dance school opened, will retire at the end of the 2022 academic year. For the last few years, Cutietta has assisted in the search for two new deans.

“The worst thing that could happen to any institution is it starts stagnating, and it’s hard to keep innovating when the same people are in charge of everything,” he said. “Someone has to come in and shake it up with new ideas. For the good of the schools, it really is the time for new deans.”

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Chernobyl opera makes U.S. debut at USC


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USC Thornton School of Music has collaborated with the University of The Arts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy to produce a new opera chronicling the social and environmental disaster caused by the nuclear power plant’s explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986.

All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story premieres in the U.S. on April 21 at 8 p.m. in the USC Bing Theatre, and its world premiere was held in Helsinki on March 15.

This winter, the Thornton Vocal Arts & Opera students forming the cast – Krishna Raman, Madeleine Lew, Christine Marie Li, Lily Smith and Lorenzo Zapata – along with opera program resident stage director Ken Cazan, who directs the production, traveled to Helsinki for several weeks of preparation for the production. The team enjoyed getting to know their Finnish castmates and acclimating to the snowy weather, but when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the preparation process took on greater importance for the performers.

“As living conduits of art, it’s our responsibility to tell the stories that instill change, that remind everyone of the past so that we can learn from our mistakes,” said Zapata. “Theoretically, one could learn the facts from a history book, but art takes history and fuses it with emotion, the most powerful teacher we humans possess. It’s hard at times to inhabit a character’s pain who was once real, but in doing so, reminding others of the past’s suffering may keep it just there, in the past.”

Glenda Dawn Goss, librettist for this work, said the themes All The Truths explores carry weight beyond the time period the opera covers, making it a timely production for audiences in 2022.

“Chernobyl embodies the fundamental conflicts of human existence: courage and cowardice,
love and hate, past and future, life and death,” she said.
Cazan said the work’s references to environmental disasters, incompetent leaders and human and environmental survival may help audiences draw parallels between the days following the power plant explosion in 1986 and the present day.
“It invariably happens that art anticipates reality,” he said.

Before the April 22 performance at the USC Bing Theatre, Sibelius Academy professor of opera Markus Lehtinen will join Goss and members of USC Thornton faculty in a discussion of the opera and the history that inspired it on Friday, April 22. He said the impact of this production is two-fold for both its performers and audiences.

“For me, the themes and questions we are dealing with in this opera make this project much more important than a normal co-production. The fact that students can be involved with the creative process also makes this process unique,” he said.

All The Truths was composed by Sibelius Academy doctoral student Uljas Pulkkis. He said the production is one-of-a-kind in its use of math and technology to ensure maximum sonic impact.

“My idiom is sound that fills the hall,” he said. “For this opera, I have created a new tool to create a big sound from the singers: a computer program that calculates the thickest orchestration that can be used for each singer without the voice being masked by the orchestra.”

USC Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta noted the “musical, political and social importance” of this production, a collaboration between two of the world’s leading music schools that exemplifies the power and impact inherent in cross-cultural collaboration.

“The event this opera explores had international implications and happened before most of our current students were born, and in light of current events, this story of Chernobyl remains especially poignant and timely. This collaborative project has the potential to make a life-changing impact on our students and audiences. Working in international partnership will amplify that message,” he said.

To reserve tickets for All The Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story at the USC Bing Theatre April 21-24, visit

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Nice purse — you’d never guess it’s made from recycled theater backdrops


Jennifer Wheeler Kahn BFA ’04 breathes new life into old theatre materials as sustainable fashion goods

The stage management alumna’s Scenery Bags transforms theatrical leftovers, including SDA’s recycled Bing Theatre curtain, and donates a portion of proceeds to theatre programs.
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When a theatre production closes, ever wonder what happens to all the material used for the stage floors, backdrops and promotional banners? Jennifer Wheeler Kahn BFA ’04, a stage manager for 17 years on Broadway, off-Broadway and at top regional theatres, saw too often that this material landed in a dumpster. Or, it was warehoused for years waiting for a tour or sale that never happened – and then ended up in a dumpster.

She envisioned a more sustainable future. In 2017, she founded Scenery Bags, a company that turns theatrical leftovers into purses, totes and jewelry. “Take the Story With You” is the firm’s tagline, and its online sales platform ( lets customers know exactly what production supplied the raw materials, graciously crediting the show, scenic designer and even backdrop painters.

Want a ring in the shape of a coffin made from the laminate floor deck of Beetlejuice the Musical’s pre-Broadway run at The National Theatre in Washington, D.C. (scenic design by David Korins)? How about a zippered pouch from a fabric drop used in the Broadway production of Mamma Mia! (scenic design by Mark Thompson)?

Or, in her company’s first collegiate collaboration, you can now purchase an elegant clutch made from the blue velour curtain that hung in USC’s Bing Theatre from 2005 to 2018. The Sapphire Envelope Clutch has an inside pocket designed to hold a Playbill. And 10 percent of the proceeds are donated to SDA’s student scholarship fund.

This is in keeping with her company’s practice of donating a minimum of 10 percent of all proceeds to the Introduction to Theatre Program run by the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) in New York City that allows middle and high school students to experience Broadway and off-Broadway productions. Scenery Bags also supports TDF’s program to provide access to theatre productions for students who are blind, have low vision, are hard of hearing or deaf.

Kahn shared: “I accidentally created my dream job, because this is everything I care about: theatre, giving back in ethical style, and access to theatre for a new generation.”

Kahn started her company when she was home for the first time in years after giving birth to her first child. He was three months old when Scenery Bags was founded. He is now 5, and his younger brother is 3. Kahn began by reaching out to every theatre production manager and general manager she knew, asking if they had anything she could recycle. “Pretty much everyone said yes,” she recalled. “99.9 percent of the people I have contacted have been happy to contribute, rather than see their sets go to a landfill.”

As the theatre community rallied around what she was doing, it turned into a full-time job within months. Now, when she knows a show or tour is closing, she again makes calls to general managers and production managers. Although the items are given for free, there is a cost to her, as Scenery Bags pays all the shipping costs, which can be considerable. Drops are huge (40 feet by 20 feet, typically) and a heavy front curtain can cost as much as $1,000 to ship.

“If they want to donate elsewhere, I try to help facilitate things that still have a life to go somewhere where they can be re-used,” said Kahn. “If they’re going to throw it away, I’d much rather it come to us.”

Once it receives the goods, Scenery Bags stores, cleans, cuts and refashions the material into the retail items. There are five fabrication shops she uses across the country – two in Houston, where she now lives. (Her husband, Brandon Kahn, also a former Broadway stage manager, is the general manager of Houston’s Alley Theatre.)

Kahn feels strongly about listing the designers’ names on her website. “I know the blood, sweat and tears that go into the creation of these sets,” she said. In addition, she asks permission from a show’s scenic designer before using any material from a production.

“The theatre world’s too small and I want to make sure everyone is happy with what we are doing,” she explained. Kahn said many designers are “work for hire” employees with no say over what happens to their creative efforts when a show closes. “So I always reach out to the scenic designer and ask if they want one of whatever we’re making from their show. I’ve been able to send pieces of the show they said good-bye to that many years ago and now they have a bag made from it.”

Duncan Mahoney, professor of theatre practice and head of technical direction at USC, was happy to send the old Bing curtain, as well as some used black masking drapes, to Kahn. He had heard of past efforts to re-purpose painted canvas drops, and supports all efforts of recycling. “It’s a lot of material,” he observed, noting that each side of the Bing curtain has a fabric width of 50 feet and a height of 25 feet.

Kahn remembers Mahoney fondly, along with several other SDA faculty members: stage management professor Mary K. Klinger, who later became a professional colleague; Stephanie Shroyer, who directed Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Scene Dock Theatre when Kahn was the stage manager; Paul Backer and Jack Rowe, who were endlessly supportive. “I really loved all the faculty,” she said. “They were ready to get in the trenches with us at any time to make it work.”

Kahn came to USC to study stage management with the goal of being a producer and running her own theatre, and she thinks that in five or 10 years, she and her husband will probably be a producing team, as it is a dream they share.

Currently, she is happy that her brainchild to help theatre be more sustainable is successful while it helps introduce theatre to new audiences. Her products also create tangible memories for customers — a ripple effect she didn’t fully anticipate. “I didn’t think about how meaningful what we were doing would be to our customers,” she admitted. “I get emails all the time saying I now own a piece of the first Broadway show I was ever in, or ever saw, or the last show I saw with my mom.

“Especially for all of us who work in this very finite industry, these beautiful stories about what it means to hold a tangible piece of it are really special.”

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Study finds decade of insignificant change for women in popular music

For women in popular music, the song is still the same
MARCH 31, 2022 Communication and Marketing Staff Updated March 31, 2022 8:02 a.m.

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, results of a new research report reveal that for women in music, the last decade has been one of insignificant change in the recording studio.

The study, “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” is the fifth annual report on the music industry from Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The report, funded by Spotify, provides a comprehensive industry update on inclusion across the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Chart. Specifically, the study examines the artists, songwriters, and producers credited on each of the 1,000 songs on this popular chart from 2012 to 2021. The investigation also quantitatively analyzes the gender and race/ethnicity of every individual in those three roles. Additionally, the study assesses every Grammy nominee receiving recognition in the categories of Record the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist, and Producer of the Year for the same time frame.

In 2021, 23.3% of artists on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Chart were women. There has been little change over time for women artists — only 21.8% of artists across ten years and 1,000 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts were women. This is a far cry from the percentage of women in the U.S. population (51%).

In contrast to the lack of women artists, artists from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups represented over half of 2021’s artists (57.2%). Across the decade examined, people of color represented 47.8% of the more than 1,900 artists on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts. This overall percentage masks an over-time increase, however. While the percentage of underrepresented artists peaked in 2020 at 59%, 2021 is still 18.8 percentage points greater than the percentage of underrepresented artists in 2012 (38.4%).

“Despite industry activism and advocacy, there has been little change for women on the popular charts since 2012,” said Smith. “Although the data reveal an increase for women of color, these findings indicate that there is more work to be done.”

The study also explored the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity for artists. Notably, 55% of all women artists in 2021 were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, as were 58% of 2021’s men artists. For underrepresented women, 2021 reflects a 6 percentage-point increase from 2020 (49%), though is still below the high watermark of 73% for women artists of color which occurred in 2018. Overall, 10% of women artists across the 10 years examined were women of color.

Consistent with previous years, the report found that women songwriters and producers remain outnumbered. In 2021, 14.4% of songwriters were women. This figure has not changed over time. Women comprised only 12.7% of the songwriters evaluated across all 10 years studied, a ratio of 6.8 men to every 1 woman songwriter. More than half of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts from 2012 to 2021 did not include any women songwriters.

In 2021, more women of color than white women wrote songs that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Chart, reversing a drop observed in 2020. However, 2021 was still below the 10-year-high of 44 women of color witnessed in 2019.

For producers, women held only 3.9% of all producing positions across the songs on the 2021 Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts. The percentage of women producers in 2021 increased non-significantly from 2020 and 2012, but did not surpass the 7-year high point of 5% in 2019. Overall, across a total of 1,522 producing credits in the 10-year sample, 97.2% were men and 2.8% were women. This is a ratio of 35 men to every 1 woman producer. Only 10 producers across the decade-spanning sample were women of color. The ratio of men producers to underrepresented women producers is 148 to 1.

“For women songwriters and producers, the needle has not moved for the last decade,” said Smith. “In particular, women of color are virtually shut out of producing the most popular songs each year. We know there are talented women from all backgrounds who are not getting access, opportunity, or credit for their work in this arena.”

The study also investigates one solution that has been attempted to address the lack of women engineers and producers across popular songs. That solution, the Recording Academy’s Women in the Mix pledge, launched in 2019. Across the Hot 100 Year-End Songs in 2021, there were two women producers and engineers whose work could be potentially attributed to the Women in the Mix pledge. One, Ariana Grande, produced and engineered her own songs alongside two other pledge-takers. The second, Jenna Andrews, produced on a song that included a pledge-taker. Two other engineers, Heidi Wang and Gena Johnson, each worked with a pledge-taker in 2021.

Thus, only a handful of women who worked across the most popular songs in 2021 can be potentially attributed to the Women in the Mix pledge. Moreover, given that one woman produced and engineered her own songs, it is even more clear that the Women in the Mix pledge has not impacted the ranks of women producers and engineers on some of the most profitable songs in the industry.

“Industry solutions must do more than offer lip service to creating change,” said Smith. “They must take aim at the underlying reasons for exclusion and have robust evaluation and accountability metrics to ensure that they result in real progress.”

The report also updates last year’s analysis of 10 years of Grammy nominations across five categories. 14.2% of all nominees in 2022 in the five categories examined were women. In 2022, the percentage of women nominees decreased compared to 2021 (28.1%). This decrease occurred across 4 categories. As in 2021 and 8 of the previous 10 years, no women were nominated for Producer of the Year.

Overall, 13.6% of all nominees in these 5 categories over the last decade were women. Across the 10 years evaluated, women were more likely to be nominated for Best New Artist (44.4%) and Song of the Year (28.8%). On the other hand, they comprised the lowest percentage of nominees in the Album of the Year (9.7%) and Producer of the Year (1.9%) categories.

Furthermore, the study examines individual nominations by race/ethnicity for women. Of the 262 women nominated for a Grammy, 44.3% were underrepresented. The majority of white and underrepresented women were nominated only once across the 10 years studied.

“Uplifting women in music is crucial, as it allows women to grow in their careers and opens doors for younger women aspiring to work in this industry,” said Karla Hernandez, the study’s lead author. “This is especially true for women of color, who are often excluded from prestigious institutions and career recognition. We must see women’s work showcased and nominated, giving them space in writing rooms and studios. By actively working toward inclusion, we can bring forth a new wave of talent and creativity.”

The report also provides solutions for change to increase the number of women as artists, songwriters, and producers and sustain the growth for underrepresented artists.

“To rise to a challenge, the industry must first understand it. This is why the efforts of Stacy Smith, Karla Hernandez and the entire team behind the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative are critical,” said Dawn Ostroff, chief content and advertising officer for Spotify. “These results underscore the need for action. We are committed to continuing to support this important research, to elevating women who can, in turn, create opportunities for women, and to making meaningful progress to improve equity across the world of music.”

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and can be found online here.

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USC Thornton alumni and faculty win at 2022 Grammy Awards


USC Thornton artists, including both faculty and alumni, won in multiple categories for the 64th GRAMMY Awards, which took place on Sunday, April 3. After the ceremony was delayed as a result of the Omicron variant, the show moved to Las Vegas for the first time.

The winners

Thornton Jazz Studies Department faculty member Vince Mendoza won in the category of Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals for To The Edge Of Longing (Edit Version) with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Julia Bullock.

Alum Carlos Rafael Rivera (MM ’04, DMA ’10) was a co-winner in the category of Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for The Queen’s Gambit, along with the score for Soul.

Thornton Screen Scoring program faculty member Lolita Ritmanis won Best Classical Compendium for “Women Warriors – The Voices of Change,” which she produced with Mark Mattson and Amy Andersson.

Multiple alumni and faculty were included in the win for Best Choral Performance for Mahler: Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of A Thousand,” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Los Angeles Master Chorale, National Children’s Chorus and Pacific Chorale. A few of the many Thornton artists involved include Grant Gershon (BM ’85), artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Robert Istad (DMA ’06), director of the Pacific Chorale.

The United States Army Field Band, featuring many alumni of USC Thornton including J.G. Miller (DMA ’13), Kevin Pick (MM ’01) and Chris O’Brien (GCRT ’20), won for Best Immersive Audio Album for Soundtrack of the American Soldier. This award, part of the 63rd GRAMMY Awards, was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Non-degreed alum Taylor Eigsti won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for Tree Falls.

In addition to these wins, Thornton Music Industry program faculty member Andrae Alexander was one of the songwriters for Jon Batiste’s We Are, which won Album of The Year.

Celebrating the Nominees

Congratulations to alumni and faculty from across the school who were nominated.

Two recent alumni, Tehillah Alphonso (BM ’20) and Mak Grgi? (MM ’12, DMA ’16, GCRT ’20), received their first nominations. Alphonso, who graduated from the Thornton Popular Music program, was nominated for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals for “A Change Is Gonna Come,” performed by Tonality, the celebrated choral ensemble founded by alum Alexander Lloyd Blake (DMA ’19). Classical guitarist Grgi?, who earned three degrees at Thornton, was nominated for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for Mak|Bach.

Thornton’s Classical Guitar program was also included in a nomination for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, the award-winning ensemble founded at USC Thornton that features current Classical Guitar faculty members Bill Kanengiser and Scott Tennant as well as alumni John Dearman (MM ’83) and Matt Greif (MM ’92). The ensemble was nominated as part of Best Choral Performance for “The Singing Guitar,” conducted by Craig Hella Johnson.

A highlight of the many nominations for USC Thornton alumni and faculty also includes alum Michael Tilson Thomas (MM ’76), who was nominated for Best Classical Compendium for Berg: Violin Concerto; Seven Early Songs and Three Pieces for Orchestra.

Alum Gretchen Parlato (GCRT ’03) was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Flor. The Yellowjackets, the jazz supergroup featuring faculty members Bob Mintzer, Russell Ferrante and Will Kennedy, was nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for Jackets XL, featuring the WDR Big Band.

Screen scoring alum Ludwig G?ransson (GCRT ’08) was nominated for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for The Mandalorian: Season 2 – Vol. 2 (Chapters 13-16).

Jazz Studies faculty member Vince Mendoza received a second nomination for Best Instrumental Composition for Concerto for Orchestra: Finale with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, featuring Antonio S?nchez and Derrick Hodge.

Agave Baroque, the string chamber music group featuring Thornton alumni Kevin Cooper (DMA ’06) and William Skeen (MM ’01) in collaboration with countertenor Reginald Mobley, received a nomination for Best Classical Compendium for the album American Originals: A New World, A New Canon.

Music Industry alum Leon McQuay III (BS ’16) was one of the songwriters for H.E.R.’s Back of My Mind, which was nominated for Album of The Year.

Other Notable Nominations

Music Industry faculty represent two artists who were nominated. Faculty member Loren Medina, founder of Guerrera Marketing & PR Inc., represents client Kali Uchis, who earned a nomination for Best Musica Urbana Album, and faculty member Jonathan Azu, founder of management firm Culture Collective, represents client Cory Henry, who earned a nomination for Best Progressive R&B Album.

Other notable nominations include a Best New Artist nomination for Saweetie, or Diamont? Harper, who graduated from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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