As a writer, performer and director, Andrea Assaf’s life has always revolved around the arts.
But it was after the September 11 attacks that her work took on a new focus. “A lot of my work since 2001 has had to do with war and power, and looking at issues of war and power from different perspectives,” she said.
Today, she’s artistic director of Art2Action, an organization she founded in 2010, and much of her arts advocacy involves military veterans and the arts.
Assaf hosts a Veterans Open Mic at the Bunker in Ybor City on the first Sunday of each month. This is in addition to the free Veteran Arts Workshops held every Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the University of South Florida’s Marshall Student Center. She also leads these workshops at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital recovery center in Tampa.
Often, she’ll bring in guest artists to collaborate on these workshops. Most recently, the Combat Hippies, a Miami-based group of male combat veterans of color, joined Art2Action for workshops and a performance at the monthly open mic.
These therapeutic workshops vary in medium – from theater to poetry to the visual arts. Sometimes she doesn’t even tell the veterans attending what the theme or artistic medium will be ahead of time. “We like to surprise them sometimes,” Assaf said. “This is part of their recovery process. So we use all different types of art forms. We like to let them discover what they’re inspired by and want to explore more.”
In addition to the monthly open mics and weekly workshops, she wants people to keep another upcoming event in mind – Digital Storytelling for Veterans. Set for Oct. 16-30, this five-day workshop is presented by The Carpetbag Theatre, based in Knoxville, Tennessee.
These workshops serve as “safe spaces” for veterans using the arts as a means of self-expression, she said. They draw a diverse group of veterans as well – all sexual orientations, genders, races and backgrounds are represented. “It’s a place where people can completely be themselves.”
She’s excited about the organization’s momentum, and expects its reach to area veterans to continue to grow. In recent months, she met St. Petersburg-based visual artist and Army veteran Saori Murphy at a conference. The two connected, and Murphy joined Art2Action as its veteran coordinator.
Art2Action also received the funding it needed to ramp up its work with veterans and the arts, Assaf said. “So this fall, our work with veterans is our primary focus.”
Through a partnership with the Veterans Affairs Department and the University of South Florida’s department of Psychology, Art2Action has launched a pilot study “on the impact of arts for veterans,” she said. “We finally got some funding and are able to put together a real research team. So we’re trying to really encouraged student-veterans [at USF] and those in the community to come out.”
While this program is a big focus for Assaf, who has a master’s degree in performance studies and a bachelor of fine arts in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she is also slowly working on her next play. “It’s kind of a slow, quiet process until I finish the script,” she said. “Most likely, it will be produced in a year or two. I don’t mind working on it slowly.”
She’s still tours with some of her previous work, though, and is often invited by other theaters and organizations to perform solo material. Her full-length productions include “Eleven Reflections on September,” “Outside the Circle,” “Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders with Mujeres en Ritual” and “Globalcities.”
Her relationship with USF extends beyond the veterans arts program as well. She’s guest faculty at the USF School of Theatre and Dance, where she teaches the Building Bridges Devised Theatre course and is the lead artist/curator of “THIS Bridge: Arab, Middle Eastern & Muslim Artists” series. She’s also teaching a community-based theater course with USF associate professor Dora Arreola.
Between all of these different projects, Assaf’s calendar is full as her life is immersed in the arts. She wouldn’t have it any other way, though. “It’s the life of an artistic director,” she said.
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