The independent news organization of Duke University


As sophomores search for summer jobs to fund Parisian semesters and juniors scramble for internships with banks and consulting firms, the concept of a few warm months spent pursuing unpaid work in the arts seems almost inconceivable. But hold onto your cameras, your paint or your pen; thanks to some money that you might not know existed, you may still be able to chase a spot in the louvre.

Our story's benefactor is Edward Hartley Benenson, Duke Class of 1934. Also a trustee emeritus of the University before his death in 2005, his annual gifts have funded the Benenson Awards in the Arts since the mid-'70s. The awards are given out annually as individual grants of up to $3,000 to Duke undergrads, with the hope that the money will enable students to pursue projects they might not be capable of undertaking on their own. The awards' tagline-"music drama dance creative writing film/video literature multidisciplinary"-is a surprisingly poetic, concise mission statement that illustrates the almost limitless artistic endeavors to which the grants can be applied.

And if any more illustration of the award's creative diversity is needed, look no further than our protagonists: the 16 undergraduates who received the awards in 2008 and the 15 in 2007. With projects ranging from documentaries to creative fiction to the visual arts, the winners are chosen by a committee comprising members of each of the academic departments catered to by the awards.

"The committee looks for a compelling relationship between applicants' proposals and their academic/experiential preparation, a thoughtfully prepared budget and persuasive faculty support," Melissa Malouf, chair of the selection committee and an associate professor of the practice of English, wrote in an e-mail.

In his congratulatory message in a Theater News bulletin last year, Professor of Theater Studies John Clum mentions the competitive marketplace for work as a theater director or actor. It is this abundance of quality in American art that makes the Benensons not only laudable, but essential for Duke students. Unlike in finance or the sciences, the traditional undergraduate education cannot provide all of the necessary training for those aspiring to careers in the arts.

The grant money makes it possible for junior Kana Hatakeyama to participate in a professional studio's summer conservatory program in New York City; it provides Maria Kuznetsova, Trinity '08, with airfare to Russia and class tuition as she conducts research for her Ukrainian-inflected fiction; and it allowed senior Bruna Zacka, a member of The Chronicle's independent Editorial Board, to spend two months in Montreal working on a project approaching dance from an engineering, new media perspective.

This training can take many forms. Like Hatakeyama, senior theater major Gretchen Wright went to the Big Apple for the summer. However, she worked at an unpaid internship under Duke alumnus Sarah Bagley, literary manager for Second Stage Theater, an off-Broadway theater company in Manhattan. Wright hopes to work as a theater director in the future, and she says the internship provided her the opportunity to read and conceptualize many contemporary scripts, several previously unpublished. Without the money the grant provided, Wright wouldn't have been able to afford the summer.

"I was helping [Bagley] read scripts that had been submitted by various playwrights. I helped weed out the bad ones and keep the good ones so that they could create next year's season," she recalls. "My long-term goal is to become a theater director, so getting the literary internship was good for me because with every play I read, I had to conceive in my head what was good and what was working."

Wright notes that the Duke theater program provides few opportunities to study contemporary plays, focusing more on classics. The internship allowed her to get familiar with modern work, which is essential for a director who must choose on his or her own what scripts to stage. Back at Duke, she is using what she learned last summer to complete her thesis: directing and conceiving all aspects of the production of "The Maids," written by French playwright Jean Genet.

William Noland, associate professor of the practice of visual arts, said the awards were valuable not only for the students but for their professors as well.

"It has become integral to what we do as teachers; we sort of depend on it," he states. "It's a way of continuing the education you get at Duke after the semester ends or outside of the classroom, so it has really become, in my opinion, one of the more important things an exceptional student can do."

Noland helped Marilyn Tycer, Trinity '08, receive her grant last year, which she used to fund a trip to Vietnam. There, she made a book with photographic and written components that documented the plight of the victims of Agent Orange, a chemical used by the United States during the Vietnam War. Part of the proceeds for each book sold go to an organization that helps the children affected by the chemical. Tycer said the grant enabled her to spend a summer there when, fresh out of Duke, such an undertaking would have been impossible to fund.

"There is a way that I can use the skills I have right now to do something and not wait until eight years down the road when I have more education and more experience," she says.

Highlighting the creativity characteristic of Benenson recipients, Daniel Riley, Trinity '08 and a former TV associate editor, figured out a different way to employ his grant money. He used the funds in 2007 to pay for living expenses in New York City while he worked an unpaid internship for Radar magazine. Unlike Wright, the internship was not the end goal of his Benenson. He spent the remainder of his time working on a collection of short stories that became his creative writing thesis. The grant money enabled him to support himself while writing in what is essentially the center of American fiction.

"My proposal was that I would 'work' on fiction and pay myself based on that and then I would get a huge head start on the project," Riley explains. "It was structured and there was some self-discipline there."

His thesis ended up receiving a number of awards and critical praise, and he received the Benenson again in 2008 to pay for submitting his 12 stories to literary journals. He once again lives in New York, near agents and other writers, and he managed to secure a job with GQ magazine after graduation in part thanks to his thesis.

The experience convinced Riley that the award is more than just a means to an end.

"I think that the [Benenson] committee subscribes to the idea that there's great value in making sure you can do these things that you might otherwise not be able to afford," he says. "The fact that the grant gives you the opportunity to be where you want to be is almost more valuable to you than the project you're working on specifically."

Tycer and Riley are examples of how the $3,000 grant can facilitate student undertakings, both career-oriented and philanthropic. Particularly in the current economic climate, capital is hard to come by-and for a first-time filmmaker, novelist or director, even harder so. The Benensons provide a way over this hurdle, and they are a commendable program regardless of stock market numbers.


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