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Home / 2016 Fall Magazine / Features / Jeffrey Sichel: Artist as Cultural Changemaker

Naropa’s MFA in Theater Contemporary Performance presents SPILL, written and directed by guest artist Leigh Fondakowski. Photo by Jamie Kraus.

Jeffrey Sichel: Artist as Cultural Changemaker

by Lisa Birman

Jeffrey Sichel
It’s not easy to define Jeffrey Sichel; a bio note is likely to be outdated by the time it goes to print. Renowned international director, auteur, professor, activist, cultural ambassador, and champion of intercultural engagement and interdisciplinary arts, Sichel joined Naropa’s faculty as associate professor and chair of MFA Theater in summer 2015. 

Having spent much of the last fifteen years living and working abroad, Sichel brings a global perspective to the MFA Theater program. This year saw a strong increase in the number of applications. The 2016/17 cohort includes students from Japan, Canada, and the Czech Republic, as well as diversity across U.S. demographics and gender. International perspectives and diverse contemplative traditions are also reflected in the faculty, with guest artists from China, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa. 

Jeffrey SichelNaropa’s MFA in Theater Contemporary Performance presents SPILL, written and directed by guest artist Leigh Fondakowski. Photo by Jamie Kraus.

Sichel sees MFA Theater as a “jewel box of a program. While in the past it had really been very much a performance, meaning actors, program, now we’re looking at students who are coming in as writers, visual artists, dancers, musicians, designers, directors. We’re attracting students from multiple disciplines who want to be involved in the act of making performance. This is leading to an evolution in our curriculum, as well as the ways we honor our lineage traditions.”

As the establishing coordinator and vice president of the UNESCO-International Theatre Institute UNITWIN Network for Higher Education in the Performing Arts, Sichel is devoted to cultivating collaborative relationships and building sustainable models for creative exchange. Under his leadership, Naropa’s MFA in Theater is one of only two U.S. member schools. With its open network of exchange and concentration on social justice, he’s excited about the long-term ramifications of the relationship. “We’ll be investigating ongoing project-based work, institutional collaborations, student exchange, faculty exchange, things that we believe will impact the duration and longevity of Naropa itself. Systemically, MFA Theater aspires to become one of the most viable portals for global engagement within the university.”

Sichel and FarinSichel with guest artist Farin Zahedi, chair of the Drama and Film Department at Tehran University. Photo by Marc Piscotty.

Global engagement is woven into every fiber of Sichel’s career. While studying intellectual history, music, theater design, and direction at Skidmore College, he launched his long-standing relationship with New York City Opera as Beverly Sills’s assistant. Jeffrey has worked with platinum recording artist Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, directing stage shows, plays, and operas. With Phillip Glass, he directed the Premier of the Chamber Opera Version of Les Enfants Terribles, as inspired by the Jean Cocteau Film. After graduating, he worked with New York Theatre Workshop and En Garde Arts, founded and served as artistic director for several New York companies, and pursued his MFA at Columbia, where he also directed the undergraduate theater programs. He then went on to chair Bard’s Theater program, and was Head of MFA and Undergraduate Directing at Catholic University of America. These impressive U.S. appointments are only matched by his international experience. Involved in the founding of the first liberal arts colleges in Russia, China, and India, Sichel has spent the last fifteen years teaching, creating new works, and acting as cultural ambassador at many international residencies. He is the first and only English-speaking student to pursue a doctoral degree at The Shanghai Theatre Academy, where he has been involved as a guest artist and visiting professor since 2002. He also works closely with performance studies programs in Pune and New Delhi, India. 

In addition to his work as a faculty member, Sichel has performances running around the world. His production history includes more than one hundred works, ranging from major operas, plays, and films, to underground and independent performances. North Bank, Suzhou Creek, a multilingual site-specific work running since 2012 at The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, explores the Jewish community of Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation. As well as working in the Marathi and Bollywood film industries, he’s excited to be involved in the nascent independent film industry in India. His roles are as varied as you might expect, including direction, art direction, location, cinematography, and design.

At the Film and Television Institute of India, Sichel trains his students in the reimagining of American classics through imitation and variation. He notes a connection between these variations across languages, his work in opera, and his philosophy of performance. “My own evolution in life and art is about being a displaced person in language, culture, and grappling for different layers of understanding,” he explains. “Theater is a fundamental cultural necessity. It’s the forum, it’s the agora, it’s the place of discourse. My belief is that through physical languages, the gestural vocabularies, we want to transcend. On the one hand, I’m a writer and value language hugely, and on the other, if a performance is successful, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in. If a performance is executed well, I’m going to understand it.”

As a professional training program, we aim to empower future leaders as social and cultural entrepreneurs in the performing arts. Our graduates create opportunities for themselves and others while serving the local, regional, national, and global performing arts community.

This confluence of art and entrepreneurship is at the core of Sichel’s vision for MFA Theater and Naropa. “It’s a place open to invention and it’s a space where we can truly practice student-centered experiential teaching and learning. If we can do that successfully at the graduate and undergraduate level, then we are sending people out into the world who will really be change makers.”