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Under The Spotlight

India Nicole Burton, 2018

National New Play Producer in Residence, Cleveland Public Theatre


Burton says "Always strive to be the best at whatever you do and be true to yourselfFollow your own instinct - its usually right!"

We're so happy for our Akron Alumn and her new residency role at The Cleveland Public Theatre! Read all about her successes and her time in the UA Theatre program in this interview!

What was your theatre background before coming to The University of Akron?

I didn’t have much of a theatre background before I came to The University of Akron. As a child I’d always act out plays with my brother and create stories in my head. It didn’t occur to me that I was actually acting. It was just something I loved to do. When I went to high school we would do a spring play every year. I was involved in every one of them.  I was also in the Drama Club my freshman year of High school.

Why did you choose UA's theatre Program to advance your undergraduate career?

I chose The University of Akron because I originally had a scholarship to Walsh University to play basketball. However, after a summer trip to Walsh, the coach said to me that “If I didn’t wake up, go to bed and dream about basketball” then it’s something that I should not pursue at a collegial level. So I began to ask myself, “What did I wake up, go to bed and dream about?’ It was acting and creating. So I remembered in high school, a teacher of my brother’s had spoken to him about reading a book by Grotowski, a theatre pioneer, called Towards a Poor Theatre. The teacher then suggested that my brother take classes with James Slowiak, theatre professor at the university. She spoke very highly of Jim and said that he had changed her life as a performer. So I said, why not? I then enrolled in my first two classes: Voice/ Diction and Movement, which were both taught by James Slowiak.

Tell us about what you’re currently doing in the field. Any recent/upcoming performances or projects, and/or any major accomplishments we should know about?

Upon graduating from The University of Akron I started a theatre company with my brother, John Dayo-Alia, and a great colleague of ours, Thurayya Umbamake. The theatre was an African American based company that focused on telling stories from the urban African Americans viewpoint and of the African Diaspora; Ma ’Sue Productions. The company was named after my grandmother to honor my brothers and root’s after she passed away in 2011. I stepped down from the company in 2015. However, I am most proud of the fact that it is still running successfully and has received numerous grants and awards, thanks to John Dayo-Alia and Vince Tyree.

I have recently received a national residency from the National New Play Network to produce at Cleveland Public Theatre. This is a prestigious award that is only awarded to 5 individual theatre artists across the nation. During this residency, I will be working closely with Raymond Bobgan,  Executive Artistic Director of Cleveland Public Theatre, and Beth Wood, The Associate Artistic Director and the Director of Production, to produce and create new work.  So far, at CPT I have successfully created, directed, produced and co-wrote the beginning stages of Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation ( Working title). I gathered a group of 12 African American women together, including 7 actors, 1 Choreographer, 2 Co-writers and 2 stage managers, to create the piece. Panther Women’s trajectory is to highlight the life and times of some of history’s most prominent women of the Black Panther movement and the civil rights movement.  On November 17th and 18th,  CPT presented an open rehearsal of Panther Women.

CPT has also been teaching me how to produce a show at the professional level. Which includes: contract writing, database entry and other duties of producers. I am currently co-directing and line producing Fire on the Water, a series of scenes collected from Cleveland artists and theatres about the burning of the Cuyahoga River, which will be running from February 9thto March 2ndat Cleveland Public Theatre. I am also the Drama Director at Dike School of the Arts, in Cleveland, Ohio, where my students have been some of the biggest inspirations!

What was your favorite memory while in UA's theatre Program?

I have a lot of great memories of my time in Guzzetta Hall! I’d have to say my favorite memory is doing Three Sisters, when I was a sophomore. This was my Aha moment as an actress. I started putting the pieces together of what it truly meant to Live in the world of a play. I loved the cast and James Slowiak’s direction. Another fond memory of mine was directing my first play ever, For Colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.  That play gave me so much confidence. The play spoke to me. I felt like Ntozake Shange wrote that play for me (May she rest in peace). I have to give a lot of credit to the professors there: Susan Speers, James Slowiak, Adel Migid, Chris Hariasz, and Stephen Skiles. I was lucky to have professors who believed in me!

What advice can you give to our current UA theatre majors?

Do not let the circumstances from which you came limit you! Always strive to be the best at whatever you do and be true to yourself. Follow your own instinct, it’s - usually right!

Read more about India Nicole Burton’s NNPN Producer in residence at Cleveland Public Theatre.


Megan Elk, 2017

Booking Manager and Producer for Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret

megan elk

Elk says "It is all very exciting. Writing a musical that honors the heroic, romantic possibility of everybody is a mission of the utmost importance to me."


Megan Elk (pictured on the left) is the booking manager and producer for Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret- the oldest and most well-known destination for cabaret performance in Chicago. There, she books performers, curates both performance series and individual cabarets, writes, directs, produces sings in the Saturday late night shows, and occasionally even pours the drinks and plays piano (though not at the same time)! Elk has the incredible privilege of getting to work with Grammy and Tony award winners, programming their performances on the same stage as up-and-coming local performers in an intimate, 80 seat cabaret space. 

When asked about her current projects and collaborations, Elk said "I am the Music Director and Vocal Coach for the world-premier of a new Theatre for Young Audiences musical at Lifeline Theatre, called Montauciel Takes Flight. It's a charming story about the first hot air balloon flight, "manned" only by a sheep, a duck, and a rooster!"

She is also knee-deep in the collaborative development process of writing a new musical. The project began when she was commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago to compose the music for a one-act musical with Tellin' Tales Theatre. Tellin' Tales is a company who aims to tell the stories of people with disabilities and their allies living in the city of Chicago. After the one-act (then titled FREEDOM: OUT OF ORDER) premiered the previous year, the entire artistic team felt that a two-act great American Musical written for, by, and about people with disabilities needed to come into existence. She, among others, have spent the last year continuing to develop the piece via a series of ensemble devising sessions, and currently writing loads of grants, and talking with possible presenting partners.

Pictured on the right with her is Ms. Karen Ziemba, a Dance alumni from UA. One evening, Ziemba was performing in a benefit that Elk helped produce. When introducing each other, both came to the realization that came went to the same school- The University of Akron! Megan Elk said: "By happenstance, Ms. Ziemba returned to the club the next evening for a performance/party celebrating the release of local theatre historian June Skinner Sawyer's new book Cabaret FAQ, in which I was performing some of the work of one of my favorite cabaret composers, Kurt Weill. We were both pleasantly surprised to see each other again! She complimented my performance of Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera, and we spoke a bit about Weill's work. It was incredibly heartening to meet and be encouraged by someone as accomplished as Ms. Ziemba!"

After graduating from the University of Akron, a Tony-award winning Dance alum Karen Ziemba took her talent for dance, singing and acting to New York City where her first major job was on the stage of Radio City Music Hall. Her first Broadway role was in A Chorus Line. Want to know more about Karen Ziemba? Click the link below!

About Karen Ziemba


Wendy Duke, 2010

Co-founder of Center for Applied Drama and Autism

Wendy Dukes - Theatre Alumni - 2010

Wendy Duke is the co-founder of Center for Applied Drama and Autism. She graduated from The University of Akron in 1973 with a B.A. in Theatre Arts and returned 28 years later to earn her M.A. in Theatre Arts. Wendy credits The University of Akron’s Theatre program for encouraging and providing a supportive and nurturing space in which to create. She states that the U.A. theater program empowers students to take leadership initiatives, that encouragement has led many alumni to create their own theatre companies.

Wendy Duke is one of twenty-seven winners of the initial Knight Foundation Akron Arts Challenge grant

After 22 years of teaching theatre at Miller South, she is now working full time on Center for Applied Drama and Autism, which recently moved to a studio in Downtown Akron in the Evans Building at 333 S. Main Street and anticipates being open for their spring sessions by April 9, 2016. Wendy Duke and co- founder Laura Valendza were recently recognized by the Autism Society of Greater Akron as Autism Ambassadors. Center for Applied Drama and Autism works with students 8 and up who are on the autism spectrum.

Visit Center for Applied Drama and Autism

Through applied Drama, Wendy and Laura have designed programming that builds social skills through collaboration and theatre skills. Wendy has begun working on a new pilot program for the Bridges program at Ardmore teaching a weekly theatre class with disabled adults. The organization continues to grow as it gains support from the autism and theatre community for its amazing work and contributions to the field of autism theatre, and our community as a whole.

Benjamin Rexroad, 2011

Co-founder of Wandering Aesthetics Theatre

university of akron alumni benjamin rexroad

Benjamin Rexroad and his husband, Kyle Jozsa, founded Wandering Aesthetics (WA) in 2011, an Akron based theatre company. True to the company’s namesake, WA is committed to developing and presenting local and nationally recognized theatre with grit that takes place on the road – at theatres, dining rooms, camp fires, festivals, and community arts walks. 

Winner of the 2011 Akron Arts Alive Award
Rising Young Star/Leadership

Perhaps most unique in his creative work, Benjamin is deeply interested in translating real-life adventures into intimate theatrical experiences. Currently, WA is creating a new solo performance based on their 2,185.9 mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, which will be touring in Northeast Ohio throughout Summer 2015. This play, entitled Boogers, Witches, and Haints, is the first in a series of a three-play collection called The Mountain Cycle (to be completed by 2020).

"You only need the actors and the audience to create theater," says Rexroad. "When everything else is superfluous, you use what you have at your disposal at any given moment. We have Akron."
- AkronLife Magazine

A needed alternative to over-produced theatre, Benjamin provides the community with two unique theatre experiences through Wandering Aesthetics: Akron’s Boiling Point, a monthly alternative play reading series where attendees can read roles, observe, and take part in activities and an interactive discussion; and The Electric Pressure Cooker, an “anything goes” open-mic cabaret.     

Wandering Aesthetics on Facebook


An explorer at heart, Benjamin finds an artistic home in Akron and plans to continue growing WA through local opportunities, as well as expanding partnership with other artists and developing performance tours beyond Ohio.

Yulia Gray, 2012

In the word of a playwright and scenic artist

"Prior to my graduation with a B.A. in Theatre Arts, I studied painting and drawing and art history, earning a B.F.A. and a B.A. from The University of Akron. In 2013, I graduated from Hollins University with a M.F.A. in Playwriting. In the spring of 2014, I had a staged reading of my thesis play Parish Chronicles at First Grace UCC in Akron.

Between 2012 and 2014, I have written 10-minute plays for festivals and events: Protective Covering for Red Eye 10s Play Festival (Hollins University MFA Playwriting Festival); Waiting for Fresh From the Oven (Theatre Guild); "The Transplant" for Overnight Sensations (Hollins University/Mill Mountain Theatre); "A Mo(u)rning at the Office" for 24-Hour Plays (New River Stage); "Ride" and "The Cat's Pajamas" for The Manhattan Project-Cleveland Lab. My scenic work includes set design and construction/painting for "Jitney" by August Wilson at The University of Akron, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" by Ntozake Shange at Kent State University, as well as scenic work for Truth Be Told Theatrical Company, Ma'Sue, New World Performance Laboratory, and, more recently, Karamu House."

Yulia Gray on Facebook

Yulia Gray University of Akron  

More Outstanding Theatre Arts Alumni

Kim Woodworth - B.A. in Theatre Arts, 2008

Kim Woodworth has worked with myriad theatre and film companies in Northeast Ohio. Some of her favorite roles include Queen Gertrude in Hamlet: The Musical! with Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Tupolski in The Pillowman and Judas in Corpus Christi with Heads Up Productions, and the drunk Woman in New World Performance Lab's production of A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians.

Most recently, Kim stage managed Disney's Aladdin Jr. at HYT and played the Narrator in a staged reading of Cut It Out as part of Cleveland Public Theatre's Springboard series. You can see her next year at CPT in a Big Box presentation of Cut It Out, playing the Other Woman. Be sure to check out the trailer for one of her latest project's, A Child Called Myracle: year, you may see her on the big screen in With This Ring, Criminal Activities and Bloodlines!

Ann Cell - B.A. Theatre Arts, 1995

After completing my UA Theatre degree, I earned my Master's of Education from Ohio University. Currently, I teach English and Drama at Federal Hocking High School, where I run the theatre department and am the department chair. I also teach courses in progressive teacher education at OU.

My husband and I raised our two children, Sierra and Jessica, here in Athens. They are currently 16 and 21 years old; both of them love the arts! One of my favorite annual projects is the Nelsonville Music Festival. The fine arts clubs at our high school run the children's area each year at the festival, which has hosted acts such as The Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Junior.

Tiffany Roemer - B.A. Theatre Arts, 1992 

I moved to the Twin Cities right after graduation in 1992 and I am married to Stephen. We have one child, Max, who is as much of a ham as his mom and dad. I've been at the University of Minnesota Foundation for 11 years, heading up our 15-person events department and producing over 200 events each year. Truly, I am so grateful for my the theater training I received at The University of Akron from Lyle Dye, Jim Slowiak, Susan Speers, Paul Daum and Wallace Sterling--I wouldn't be where I am today without them!

Anthony Johnson - M.A. in Acting/Directing, 2009

I am currently a teacher and Production Manager for the Performing Arts Department at Brentwood School, a private K-12 school on the Westside of Los Angeles.  I am also the Cheer Coach! On occasion, I reach outside and work on plays at the Ruskin Theatre or the Edgemar Center for the Arts. Both are located in Santa Monica.

I am married to Candace, and we have two amazing children Augustus (Augie) and Blythe. They are 4 and 1 respectively. My favorite memory at The University of Akron was performing in the Circular Play by Gertrude Stein and directed by James Sloviak. It was my first stage kiss!

Mark A. Zimmerman - M.A. in Acting/Directing, 1995

Mark A. Zimmerman is a director and award-winning lighting designer who has served as the theatre director at the Akron School for the Arts since 1995 and has been the guiding force for the educational theatre program that was recently named an “Outstanding School” by the Educational Theatre Association (2013).

He has been among the first area directors to present many musical productions including Ghost the Musical (2015), Mary Poppins (2014), Monty Python’s Spamalot (2013), The Color Purple (2012), Legally Blonde (2012), Hairspray (2011), The Producers (2009), Side Show (2008) and Urinetown (2007). Mark has many local directing credits including those for his work on the All-City Musical at the Akron Civic Theatre (Shrek, Bye Bye Birdie, Ragtime, Hairspray).

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