After what might have been a couple of the craziest years in her career, WNCC theater professor Francesca Mintowt-Czyz decided at the end of the spring semester she would be leaving her position to pursue another degree, this time in film performance.
She said the decision came partly because of what she and her students experienced through COVID, having to film performances and put them online versus performing in front of live audiences.
“Directing film is not something I’ve done before, and it’s not something I expected to do when I took this position, so I did the best I could,” she said. “I really wish I could have offered the students … a much more in-depth exploration of this medium, because what I had to offer them was really limited. I have done commercial work, and I’ve done some short films, but I haven’t been directed in a film, certainly not even at the length of the things that we did here. So, I found communicating with them as actors was fine, just different to navigate.”
Working with her students also re-sparked her love of learning and exploring.
“One of the most interesting things about being a teacher, especially in the arts, is that when a student asks you a question, and you go on a journey of discovery together, it reminds you of the joy you have for investigating your craft, and I want to do that in a capacity, which I haven’t before,” she said.
Between those two things, she made the tough decision to pursue a second degree in film performance at Savannah College of Art and Design.
“When I was looking at programs to go to, I settled on the program where I would be most uncomfortable, and that is in the area of film performance, because my background is in musical theater and physical theater,” she said.
Currently, she holds an associates degree in musical theater from Western Wyoming Community College, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater performance from University of Wyoming and a Master of Arts degree in physical theater and devising from Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
In between getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she spent some time doing theater gigs in London and across eastern Europe. Then as she completed her master’s degree, she found herself looking at everything through a teacher’s lens and began looking for jobs in higher education.
“I started perceiving everything from the teacher-student point of view, as opposed to myself as an actor responding to the work, and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so much more interested in how this works for other people,’” she said. “…I just liked the combination of teaching and collaborating and creating on a regular basis.”
She returned to the United States teaching various workshops and performing with the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre during the summer of 2018. It was then that she got a call from Patrick Newell, WNCC vocal instructor whom she met over a decade ago at a festival. He asked if she was still looking for a job in higher education.
“At this point, it’s about three weeks before classes start. So I was like, ‘I mean, I’m closing a show tomorrow night.’ And she (Jennifer Pedersen, Language and Fine Arts division chair) was like, ‘Great. Could you fly out Sunday?’ And I was like, ‘Yes?’ So, I flew out Sunday night, interviewed Monday morning, and then got the job offer Monday afternoon,” Mintowt-Czyz said. “…The following Monday, I was in Scottsbluff for orientation for faculty and staff. It was a whirlwind.”
Mintowt-Czyz said the next two years followed that whirlwind pattern, but she learned during her time at WNCC and said she was grateful to the college community and the greater Scottsbluff-Gering community for how welcoming it was to her.
“I think it’s very rare that you find yourself in a work environment where you feel very safe about asking for someone to hold your hand and guide you through something, and I’ve never felt embarrassed to do so,” she said. “I’ve just always been met with just open arms, so that’s been huge. Navigating teaching at the college level and what that community is like is not easy.”
Now, as she finishes her time in western Nebraska, Mintowt-Czyz gets to go out working alongside a few of her students as colleagues through Theatre West. She has been performing in “39 Steps” alongside her students Lemuel Grady and Garrett Doremus. Both had nothing but good things to say about her.
“Francesca has opened up the door for so many opportunities,” Grady said. “I’m going to be moving out to Lindenwood (this fall), and I’ll actually be studying under the teacher Francesca studied under, John O’Hagan, and finish out my last two years there.”
Doremus, who doesn’t even study performing arts at WNCC, said she’s one of the main reasons he decided to perform with Theatre West this summer.
“That was another big part of it, just being able to act with someone who taught me everything I know up until that point,” he said. “She’s just taught me all the ins and outs. She’s just so caring about all of her students, and she’s always looking out for what’s best in everyone she teaches. It was really a drawing factor in coming into the show.”
For Mintowt-Czyz, it was an interesting dynamic to go from a student/teacher relationship to fellow professionals, but she couldn’t have asked for a better final experience in the Panhandle.
“I just feel very privileged to work opposite two of my students, and to perform in this theater for the first time is really exciting,” she said. “I stand in awe of not just how far they’ve come in the two years that I’ve been privileged enough to work with them, but in how much they’ve grown in two weeks of intense rehearsal. … I can’t think of a better way to leave.”
While she is moving on to further her education and perfecting her craft in the performing arts, Mintowt-Czyz said she’ll miss the students and the community she has grown to love in western Nebraska, and will be forever thankful for all the learning and growing opportunities she has had out here.
“Everywhere you go in this community, and in this college and in the theater, it’s filled with potential,” she said. “My favorite thing is at the start and the end of each semester — after the stage has been painted black, after the last show, and all of the set and costumes have been put away, and the work lights are on, and it’s just this blank, black, empty stage. And you get to think, what next? … There’s so much potential here. There’s so much potential for growth. Again, specifically with the department, I think the students can run this theater. It’s theirs if they want it.”
You can catch Mintowt-Czyz in Theatre West’s “39 Steps” on June 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 per person.