Sarah Branch: Disciplines Living Together

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Sarah Branch is a Theater Major and Sociology/Anthropology and Educational Studies Special Major at Swarthmore College. She recently performed in the senior capstone production Revolt She Said. Revolt Again. directed by Alex Torra. In this interview we talk about her experiences as a theater student, her work for her sociology/anthropology thesis, and how she navigates the space between these three disciplines. This interview was conducted before the showing of the play and has been condensed for flow.

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Are you excited for [Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.]?

I’ve never been in a show that has felt so important to me personally. I’m really proud of the work we’ve put into it, and I love working with Alex. This is the second show I’ve done with him and I just think he’s brilliant. All of his direction and life advice, I’m just trying to absorb as much as I can, because I feel really grateful to have been able to work on something like this with him, and I’m at this point where it seems like this could be one of the last times I get to be involved in a production of this caliber with this sort of really capable and really professional team of people that care about theater in a similar way that I do. So it’s really exciting to put it on, but bittersweet. For now, I’m just trying to soak in as much as I can and just being excited to present something to the Swarthmore community that feels important and relevant. A lot of the rehearsal process has been talking about the Women’s March, which I went to in D.C., and coming back and processing what it was, and it wasn’t really what I thought it would be, and talking about that. And just the vocabulary that has been so much a part of the news recently surrounding women, and what it is to be a woman, and what that means, and feminism, and what’s true feminism and what’s white feminism, and all of that has filtered into this one show, which feels really special. I get to play a man in the show at one point, and I get to do a really emotional monologue, and just a lot of big acting challenges that I’m excited to have experienced and put out there.

Are you thinking of acting after Swat? What were your experiences acting before and at Swat?

So I’d love to act beyond Swarthmore, and I am thinking about getting my MFA in acting. We’ll see. But yeah, it’s interesting because in high school I did high school musicals and plays, and it was just taking a text and memorizing lines and putting it on and trying to be funny and dramatic. And at Swarthmore, it’s like leaps and bounds more than that. I think I was really resistant to that at first, because I was like, “You’re kind of taking the fun out of…” but then I started to find the fun in different things I didn’t even know about. I took lighting design and right now I’m taking a storytelling class that’s cross-listed in linguistics and interpretation theory. My understanding of theater has blown up while I’ve been here, which has been really exciting because I’ve learned about new aspects of theater that I was totally unaware of. I think the theater department here is just really amazing, and they do a great job of encouraging people of all different abilities and experience levels to just even try it out. And I think that’s exemplified in the sheer number of people who take Acting I and who have never acted before. So I’m really proud to be part of the theater department here. The thing about acting capstone is it’s actually technically for honors majors, and there are no theater honors majors in the Class of 2017, so Rex Chang and I, who are the two seniors in acting capstone, said “We’re just going to take it because we want to and because we want to work with Alex.”

I hear you’re also working on a Soc/Anth and Education special major thesis. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

My second major is a special major in Educational Studies and Sociology/Anthropology and will culminate in my thesis on art education for refugee children in the United States titled “Educators as Mediators: Supporting Refugee Children in the United States through the Arts.” My research included reaching out to existing programs in the United States that specifically use art to help mediate the transition refugee children face during their resettlement process and transition into the American public school system. I was able to interview curriculum developers, volunteers, teachers and administrators from programs around the country that engage in this type of work. Through these interviews I studied the different roles each individual plays in the process of creating resettlement support programs that prioritize art and artistic expression as a way to make connections with children that have not only faced trauma in displacement but continue to face trauma throughout the resettlement process. My thesis has been reshaped a lot recently as the Trump administration has shifted the already tumultuous process refugees face in the refugee vetting process. Now with the executive order a lot of these programs are thinking about how the needs are shifting and how that that should affect what they prioritize in their programs–maybe it’s not really about art-making right now, maybe it’s more about meeting immediate needs.

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How do you situate yourself in the very different work you’re doing?

At first I was considering just majoring in theater, and that felt not super promising in terms of moving beyond undergrad and getting a job that pays. And then I thought about just having an Ed Studies major for a while. So what I want to do is pretty specific–I want to be an education outreach coordinator for an arts nonprofit, which is like, a small little circle. And before I realized that that’s what I wanted to do, I had to realize that was a job. So that kinda was like how my major came about. My sophomore year, I met a whole bunch of people who had positions similar to that through internships and I was like, ok, that seems like something I would like to do. And then it came to be navigating what classes at Swarthmore could lead me to that position. For me, it ended up being like where are my credits living right now? And it happened to make the most sense for me to do Theater, Ed, and Soc/Anth. But it’s really hard to explain to people what I’m doing, because I think it’s hard for people to see the connection between the three disciplines–I think people are sometimes like I don’t see how the three connect. But for me it’s like, how can they not?

With that specific career in mind, I can totally see it. How did you find those internships that were so impactful?

Basically for me, after my sophomore year, I went to a conference called Artists as Citizens conference hosted by a nonprofit in New York called ASTEP: Artists Striving to End Poverty. It was a weeklong conference where it was just jampacked days; we lived at Juilliard, as it was hosted through Juilliard partially, talking about art and social change and poverty and how they all relate to one another. So the summer after my sophomore year was sort of the revving up of the BLM movement, so that had a huge part of those conversations. And it was a really monumental thing for me to experience, and I took a lot out of it. Right after I did that conference, I went abroad. I experienced a whole bunch of things that really matched up to what I had learned at that conference and things just started to feel like they were clicking. When I came back to Swat my junior spring, I started a junior chapter of ASTEP at Swarthmore–ASTEP Swarthmore. So some of these big concepts that I had learned at the conference and abroad, I was trying to localize them at Swarthmore, and try to figure how they fit in there, and that’s when I was like, “this is something I feel really strongly about and want to take beyond Swarthmore.” I also felt like I had really had this New York community, and the experiences in Copenhagen, and then Swarthmore, and they were all now feeling like they were matching up really well. So my junior spring was really exciting. I was like, “I know what I want to do,” which was super great.

This is so amazing for me to hear! I’m still at this place at Swarthmore where I “do” a lot of different things that feel important to me for various reasons, but I’m still trying to locate these disparate activities in a place where I can connect them to a career and possibly to social change.

And the cool thing is too, I feel like you definitely will. I’m thinking as you say you have dance, and things you have done in the performing arts, and also computer science Simon Bloch and Martina [Costigliola], they both have Computer Science and have figured it out. Martina’s an amazing graphic designer and has started to also do different things that toe the line of social change. Simon’s really into improv but also does computer science.

He’s also working on that Ed project through the Lang Center, right?

Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s also something that’s pretty magical about Swarthmore, that you’re able to find these through lines. As a freshman, I looked up to Seniors that were doing things that I was like, “How are you able to perform in these plays–and then also you’re a classics major?” You’re able to see people do these things that seem so far apart but be able to find a place where they live together. I think there are a good amount of people here that really encourage that and have, at least for me, made that an option when I wasn’t sure it was for a while.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. was shown from Friday, March 24th to Sunday, March 26th. Revolt was directed by Alex Torra with Sarah Branch ’17, Rex Chang ’17, Citlali Pizarro ’20, and Emily Uhlmann ’19.

Images courtesy of Swarthmore College.

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