MDOCS Storytellers' Institute

Courtney Surmanek

a virtual exhibit of work by the 2020 MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute Fellows


Theater Through Windows documentation

While quarantining in Blacksburg, VA, my partner Steven T. Licardi and I have been developing creative engagement opportunities with elders that honor the need for social distancing. What we lovingly call Theatre Through Windows consists of creative and playful interactions with elders at their bedroom windows or at large common area windows. Each session, we move through a combination of improv games ranging from the active and energetic to the quiet and reflective. We weave improv with spoken word poetry and call & response singalongs based on the day’s theme (some recent examples include belonging, magic, and ancestry). The songs are drawn from Appalachian ballads and other folk tunes accessible for any voice.

Steven and I both believe deeply, like many leading artists in the field of creative ageing, in the transformative impact improvisational theatre and the arts can have on older adults across the aging spectrum. Indeed, research shows that creative engagement can lead to improved quality of life. We believe that creativity is for everyone. Creativity helps us challenge our minds and increase our cognitive reserve, build our social network, reduce stress, and develop within ourselves a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Playing together is healing. Laughter is good for the soul.


Writing inspired by the project


Courtney Surmanek – Institute Fellow
(Court/they/them) is a queer, white, Ashkenazi Jewish cultural organizer, educator, and multidisciplinary artist (theatre-maker, visual artist, writer) committed to documentary art practices. They believe in the power of theatre, art making and creative play as tools for making policy and planning efforts more accessible and equitable; and as vital components of social health. They create and support the creation of theatre projects, poetic memoirs, and community-based initiatives that consider how we perform our identities in our personal lives and how we are asked to perform in our civic discourse. Their practice has included the co-development of organizations, programs, collectives, and theater projects which, at their core, explore these three essential questions: Who are we as people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered? 
Courtney is an M.F.A./Masters Candidate in Theatre: Directing & Public Dialogue and Urban & Regional Planning at Virginia Tech, Member of the 2019-2021 Observership Program with the Stage Directors & Choreographers Foundation and Member of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. In 2019, Courtney was a SU-CASA Artist-in-Residence with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Artist-in-Residence with ProjectArt, Fellow at The Performance Project at University Settlement, and EmergeNYC Fellow at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance & Politics. They hangout with Streaks of Lavender, a queer collective of artists building ourstory. A third-generation New Yorker, Courtney calls the occupied lands of the Matinecock and Maspeth (Queens, NY) home, and is a visitor on occupied Tutelo and Monacan lands (Blacksburg, VA). www.courtneysurmanek.com, IG: @surcourtney

Steven T. Licardi – Collaborator
is a social worker, spoken word poet, actor, and performance activist working at the intersections of art and social policy. He (usually) travels domestically and internationally using the power of spoken word to create empathic dialogue around, to confront the realities of, and to assist communities in dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. As a child, Steven was diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum, an experience that has deeply informed his professional work. Since 2016, his ever-evolving performance series #CoupDeMot has been confronting how mental illnesses manifest out of oppressive social pathologies by tracing the hidden history of mental health treatment and juxtaposing those truths to works appearing in his second collection of poetry, ‘a billion burning dreams’ (STL, 2018). Versions have appeared in Vigo, Spain in 2016; in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 2018; and Thessaloniki, Greece in 2019. www.thesvenbo.com 
IG/Twitter: @thesvenbo


Work of the Fellows * Work of the Institute * Exhibition Description

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