GoAbroad Interview

Reynolds Whalen - Founder

Reynolds Whalen - PAA Founder

Reynolds was born in southern Georgia, USA, where as a small child he would crash his grandparents’ Bible studies by escaping from his bed, and bursting into the room in a onesie furiously beating a toy drum. Not much has changed. Reynolds has never stopped marching to the beat of his own drum, as evidenced by double majoring in Acting and African Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, prompting the predictable response from his parents’ friends “what are you going to do with that?”

A person filming a documentary in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya.

Following undergrad, Reynolds lived in Rwanda as a filmmaker for development organizations, then moved to NYC to teach for two years in the South Bronx with Teach for America. He completed a Masters in Education at Hunter College, then received a second graduate degree in African Studies from Indiana University. He now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Julia (a professional costume designer) and their adorable dog Captain, who is the mascot of the PAA office.

Armed with a passion for performing arts and a desire to provide opportunities for artists to explore cultural traditions and art from all over the world, Reynolds continues to “march to the beat of his own drum” and maintain programs that help individuals explore the performing arts on an global scale through study, volunteer, and internship opportunities abroad.

Envisioning the future of PAA from the back of an elephant in Thailand.
Envisioning the future of PAA from the back of an elephant in Thailand.

What was the mindset behind starting an organization focused on music, dance, theater and film?

I love this question because there are so many reasons for an organization like this to exist! First of all, as the world becomes more and more connected, it is important for performing artists to be aware of other performing traditions and techniques that can inform their craft. Like any other education abroad organization, we want our participants and those they meet to be transformed...but for us it doesn’t stop there. We want their art to be transformed as well. We believe that every performing artist should have an experience abroad, and that they will return from this experience producing art that is more interesting, beautiful, relevant, and exciting.

Secondly, it is HARD for performing artists to go abroad without losing precious time fulfilling a long list of required classes and performing sequences. It’s really unfair, actually. I wanted to start a company offering courses abroad that are rigorous and aligned with the demanding sequences required to complete a performing arts degree.

Thirdly, the performing arts are being cut out of school curricula throughout the world.  This is so so sad. We believe that every young person should have an education in the performing arts that will make them more confident in themselves, and give them constructive ways to express themselves. I wanted to start an organization that would send volunteers into schools as guest artists to bring the performing arts back into the classroom, and that is exactly what we are doing in places like the Galapagos, Costa Rica, Kenya, and more!

A person overlooking a view of a sea.

Charting the course for PAA's future.

The last reason is purely practical. This is a tough field, man. The performing arts is arguably the most cutthroat industry you could enter. Having that international experience on your resume not only gives you a range of experiences and skills that will make you better at any job, it gives you a leg up over the hundreds of other people out there going for the same position you are and makes you more attractive to an employer. 

A theater group in Kenya

Hanging out with Haba na Haba, a theatre group that uses the arts for social change in Kenya.

You won the Forum on Education Abroad’s Undergraduate Research Award for your documentary on performance art and social change in Kenya, what inspired you to create this piece? 

As an undergraduate, I studied abroad at the Globe Theatre in London over the summer, then went straight to Kenya for a semester program. At the Globe, we learned about Shakespeare being a revolutionary in his time for taking traveling theatre onto the stage, and then in Kenya I was working with Theatre for Development groups who were taking theatre off the stage and back on the streets and into communities. These people were literally saving hundreds of lives through the incredible power of theatre to educate communities on important social issues like HIV/AIDS, child abuse, prostitution, drug abuse, child labor, and crime. That was a story I felt needed to be told.

A group of people in costumes

Impersonating the Queen of England for an office July 4th party in the Philippines! Costume by Reynolds' talented wife, Julia.

As both an actor and singer, how have you been able to still incorporate your performance interests into your life as Founder and Director of PAA?

Great question! Everyone who works for PAA has a performing arts background and I encourage every person to continue pursuing his or her creative endeavors with gusto! Until I moved recently, I was singing, playing guitar, tambourine, bongos, shaker, cowbell, and other creative percussion for a marvelous band called the 123s in Bloomington, Indiana. It was a total blast and if I could have moved the band here to Northampton, Massachusetts where we are currently located, I would have done it in a heartbeat! I’m also hoping to begin auditioning for some of the local theatres here once I get a bit more settled.

You're working on a second graduate degree and continue to pursue your passions while running PAA. Do you have any advice for others in the performing arts arena to be able to support themselves while still pursuing their dreams?

Actually, I’ve finished up that degree (minus submitting the final thesis), thank God!  My biggest piece of advice is to never let go of the things which bring you the most joy and energy. You can do a million things at once really well if you hold on to that life-giving passion (for me, it’s playing in a band, acting, or singing karaoke). On the flip side, you can fail miserably doing one easy task if you’re not tapping into your creative passions. The minute I stop being creative is the minute I fail at everything I do.

Performing Arts Abroad runs study, internship, and volunteer abroad programs. Which of your programs is particularly innovative in its inclusion of arts related education? 

Every one of them! And let me take this opportunity to announce that we are soon adding a fourth program type called “Training / Intensives” (or something like that).  These programs will be mostly short-term programs where you are training in your instrument, dance style, or performance style with masters in that discipline. For the most part, they will not carry an academic transcript because they will not be hosted by universities. Instead, these will be professional dance studios, conservatories, theatres, and music studios. We already have several awesome programs like this such as our West End Musical Theatre Training Program, our RADA Acting Intensive, and our Ghana Winter Break Music/Dance programs.

But to answer the question, our study abroad programs are innovative because we offer the opportunity to take at least 75 percent of your course in your discipline, and usually that’s 100 percent. Our internships are unique because they are opportunities to get real-world experience in a profession where that is sometimes super hard to nail down, especially while you’re in school. Our volunteer programs are employing groundbreaking tactics for using music, dance, theater, and film for education, social change, and development. I just finished an 80-page thesis about why the performing arts are uniquely situated to bring about huge positive changes in society, especially in poverty-stricken condensed urban communities. Trust me, this stuff is changing lives all over the world every day. Talk about innovative!

A theatre group in St. Louis

Reynolds with Haba na Haba in St. Louis during an exchange program with Washington University.

You served with Teach for America in the South Bronx, New York for two years. Did this experience influence the creation of any of PAA’s programs?

In the Bronx, I used a drum to teach the alphabet to first graders every day. We told stories, chanted, sang, and danced our way through those years of education, and those kids were some of the smartest kids in the building. Every one of our volunteer programs has a little piece of inspiration from David, Sincere, Emmanuela, Kevin, Prince, Tirzah, Makeda, and all of my students from those two years.

Your programs focus on cultivating a greater understanding of diversity through the arts, how do you go about incorporating theater, music, dance, and film performance into your program structure?

An artist with kids in Rwanda.

Chicken goggles in Rwanda!

Every single culture has its own way of using performance to capture what it means to be human. I believe that the performing arts are the perfect window into other societies, and that there is no better way to understand diversity than to go right to the core of the human experience by acting it, singing it, dancing it, and capturing it on film for others to experience. Art is at the center of everything we do at PAA and our programs are all structured around the simple idea that performance has the capacity to transform both our participants and the people they meet and collaborate with abroad.

The majority of your time overseas has been spent in a variety of African nations, if you were to head overseas tomorrow, where would you visit first?

I’ve traveled on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, so I’d love a trip to Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand that ends with a ship to Antarctica.