A Tahlequah native recently returned home after participating in a theater program in Cape Town, South Africa, and her enthusiasm is contagious.
Candice Byrd, 28, is Quapaw/Osage/Cherokee, and a 2007 graduate of Tahlequah High School. The daughter of two teachers, she is a self-proclaimed bookworm who played flute in the THS band.
"Mr. [Michael] Peters [THS drama teacher] inspired me and gave me courage to pursue what I do. He told us to find what we love to do and make a living from it," she said.
A storyteller inspired by Robert Lewis, her grandmother and others, Byrd earned her bachelor's in drama, film, and TV from Oral Roberts University. One of her takeaways from ORU is that theater can be healing and powerful.
She then attended Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., finishing a Master's of Fine Arts in Performing Arts in 2015, with her thesis in Native American storytelling and the application of formal acting techniques.
Last year, one of Byrd's former ORU professors emailed multiple students information about the Next Generation Programme for international artists ages 36 or younger, and the possibility of attending the Cradle of Creativity in South Africa.
The Next Generation Programme is part of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People - or ASSITEJ based on the name in French. Hosted by ASSITEJ, which is in over 100 countries, Cradle of Creativity was made up of a festival of over 200 performances with more than 450 artists, a conference with more than 100 workshops, and a world congress with 1,340 delegates.
"I didn't think I'd get it because there were well over 200 applicants and they were going to choose 30 people," she said.
For the application process, Byrd had to write a biography, tell about the type of theater she was interested in learning about, and write to essays: what she hoped to learn from the Cradle of Creativity, and how she uses theater in her field of work.
Byrd wrote about her time at the Cherokee Heritage Center and doing outreach to small schools for Cherokee Cultural Days. During those, she would play the Native flute, sing traditional songs, and tell stories.
In 2016, she led a drama program for high school students attending Camp Cherokee.
"We did exercises - I called them games, but they were acting techniques I had learned - and did ensemble building," said Byrd. "High school students are a little harder to get to because they are becoming adults and they have separated into cliques. At ORU, diva-ness was discouraged, so I wanted to create that atmosphere."
She received her letter of invitation to the Cradle of Creativity in late 2016, and knew she had to go. The room and board was paid for, she just had to pay for travel. The trip was 14 days, with the festival being 11 of those.
This was to be her first time outside the U.S. since high school. Through a THS band program, she had traveled to Europe.
"I had some initial apprehensions about going. I felt weary even living in Savannah. But I was very excited. I was excited about the possibilities and the potential collaborations," she said.
With only three U.S. citizens attending through the program, she did not know anyone else going. The organizers sent out photos and biographies of the participants, so she did get to learn about people before and corresponded with one attendee from Nashville, Tenn., before the trip.
Upon arrival in Cape Town, S. Africa, Byrd said she had a case of first-night jitters.
"I relaxed and prayed. I thought I might as well enjoy the people and the beautiful location. All of the Next Generation people were so welcoming and so eager to share and learn. There was really wonderful mutual respect. It really bonded us."
Some of the attendees were emerging artists and some already had established dance and theater companies.
Next Generation had a schedule for the participants, but the individuals were encouraged to adapt it to attend seminars and workshops relevant to their area of theater. They were given time to share their work - mainly through speeches or slideshows - with one another.
Some areas she learned about were inclusiveness in theater, how to make theater more accessible to special needs individuals, the use of social media and technology in relation to censorship, and how to talk about theater and the issues being addressed in productions.
Byrd said after being exposed to text-heavy, traditional or standard theater over the years, she was awakened to the possibilities of performance art.
One such example was a South African production of an Australian nonverbal puppet show that, although it was about Alzheimer's, was whimsical.
"It was very visual. They used technology to the best advantage. It was a wider exposure to different types of theater and different countries' voices and how they approach theater," she said. "I saw very challenging, daring theater that I don't get to see often."
The overall experience has inspired Byrd to work on a nonverbal piece and to challenge herself as an actor. She has begun work on a performance piece that is a response to a poem she read.
"If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but I have to try it. I'll never figure it out if I don't try it," she said.
Outside of the workshops, there were numerous shows and performances to watch, and the environment to explore. The Next Generation group hiked Lion's Head Mountain, and Byrd said that was one way the program group bonded.
"They called it a hike, but it was a climb. I thought I couldn't do it physically. It was exhilarating and humbling. Everyone was was really encouraging, even those hiking past," she said. "The pace and rhythm of the city feels like Chicago. It's the Southern Hemisphere, so it was fall. Their fall feels like our spring, though. It was warm."
Byrd said she was cautious of the food and water at first, and stuck to cooked foods and carbonated water. That did not set well, as her body is use to regular water and fresh fruits and vegetables, so she branched out.
"I'm an adventurous foodie, so that helped," she said.
For those who wonder if they should take a chance on a program such as Next Generation, Byrd says, "Yes."
"Don't think you're less than anyone else. I had thoughts like that before I went. I applied, I went, don't regret it. That's how you get better, how you build your portfolio. It's about making connections," she said. "I took a chance. I'm very grateful. I'm so blessed."
One benefit of the program experience was meeting people from all over the world. Her roommate was from Russia, and other participants were from Canada, New Zealand, Africa, India, and more. She has since been invited to travel to learn different types of theater or to work on pieces dealing with international or worldly themes.
She said she did gain some of the things she had wanted.
"I hoped to gain more networking. I love being in Tahlequah; this is my home, but I wanted to expand and see the possibilities of performance. I wanted to be exposed to more theater forms, and I got it," she said "I hope to grow and learn as any artist does."