ASU Gammage Scholar and MFA student forges path to her future


Woman sits among ASU Gammage seats with chin on hand and notebook in lap

Photo by Ri Lindegren

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Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Theater was an escape and an outlet for Crestcencia Ortiz-Barnett as a young girl in Detroit.

“I learned to respect theater,” she said. “I learned to respect everyone who puts in the work, from the stage hand to the director, because together we tell these stories.”

Ortiz-Barnett certainly knows how to put in the work. While pursuing an MFA in theatre directing from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University, she also received a PhD in education (curriculum assessment and instruction) from the University of Arizona. 

But that’s not all. She also directed three plays (two that she produced on her own and one School of Music, Dance and Theatre main stage production), founded a student organization and hosted a community-wide block party. Her passion is sharing African American stories.

“I believe theatre is how we pass on information,” Ortiz-Barnett said. “Historically that’s how it’s been, especially in African American theater. To me that’s important.”

She directed the one-woman play called “NEAT” at ASU as well as “Pipeline” and “Detroit ‘67” — two stories from her hometown of Detroit. She also founded the ASU Black Theatre Organization.

Ortiz-Barnett took a non-traditional path to where she is now. She came to ASU with a bachelor’s degree in theatre studies and a master’s degree in theatre with a concentration in African American theatre. She had spent time away from theatre and wanted to refocus on directing, storytelling and theatre education. 

“I wasn’t confident at the beginning, because I’d been away from theatre for so long,” Ortiz-Barnett said. “But this is the degree I’ve always wanted, so I went for it.”

At ASU, Ortiz-Barnett was a recipient of the ASU Presidential Graduate Assistantship award for 2021–24 as well as an ASU Gammage Herberger Scholarship recipient for 2023–24. She also received talent scholarships from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. 

Her research focuses on the sense of belonging for students of color in higher education and the impact of student theatre organizations that center on the Black-lived experience and belonging. 

“When you build community, it shows on stage,” she said. “When you take the time to teach while doing it — if you have that respect — that connection comes to life on stage. That’s the best part for me.”

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I went through the University Resident Theatre Association for directing, looking for a program that wanted me. I had seven offers. It was a really hard decision. We’re a military family, so ASU made it convenient because of the Air Force base. I also looked for how much I could learn hands on, what kind of opportunities I would have in the local community, what kind of teaching opportunities I would get and what classes I would teach as a graduate student. The care that’s given in theater at ASU was huge to me because of traumatic situations that made me walk away before. I wanted to choose a school that would see me and support me. In my interview with Bill Partlan, I felt he was a reflection of the department and that I would be supported.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice would you give to those considering a graduate program?

A: In all of it, you have to do your research. Not every program is going to have what you need. Look at the classes that are being taught. Pay attention to the kind of environment they’re trying to create, even in the interview space. You need to be comfortable. My last interview was with Bill. He waited patiently and talked; it was so familial. It’s important to do your research. Know what it is and what you want before you go in. Take your time. You don’t have to force yourself into any situation. Don’t settle.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I learned that I had everything I needed before I got here. I felt like I needed an MFA. I’m a non-traditional theater learner. Coming into ASU, I realized I had more skills than I thought I did. I used this opportunity to build on them and build my confidence. That was the one thing I was missing, and that is what ASU helped me build. I realized I knew how to tell stories, I just needed to be given the opportunity to do so. I’ve gained a greater confidence in the work that I’m doing. All the things I’ve done have moved folks. That made me realize that I’m doing the right thing.

Q: What has the ASU Gammage Herberger Scholarship meant to you? 

A: There is a monetary scholarship of $2,000 a year. But the most valuable part has been the mentorship I’ve received from Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and Michael Reed. They’ve connected me to many people within the theater world — some in New York, some here in the Phoenix area. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with producers and directors in the field who support the work I’m doing. That’s been the most valuable experience from this program because I’m walking away with potential jobs and relationships that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Plus, I got to see the whole season of Gammage shows!

Q: Which professor(s) mentored you and supported you at ASU?

A: I’ve received help from many people, and I’ve learned about how support and care can help. This last year, I’ve leaned heavily on Rachel Finley. She’s always open when I need to talk about something. She’s taught me a lot about how to negotiate and the business side of things, but also as a woman of color in theatre. She has things she can share that others can’t. I’ve valued and appreciated her time. 

Bill Partlan has mentored me greatly on directing and seeing the nuance of things. I’ve gained a lot of information and guidance from him. With Dr. (Tamara) Underiner and Dr. (Lisa) Anderson, I learned from them on the research side and from them showing me how to become a faculty member.

I feel blessed to be Dr. (Cassandra) Aska’s intern. She stays on me and wants the best from me. She has thoroughly supported me in this. Having someone of her caliber to support me makes me feel seen. She tells me how important my work is and encourages me to continue.

I learned people don’t have to know me to support me and what I’m doing. It makes me emotional to be leaving ASU. I had a lot of struggles, but I had a lot of love. It was a community effort for those that supported me. I feel seen.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am not rushing into anything. I am working on two books. One is a performance-based assessment for theatre teachers. The other is “There’s an Imposter in the Theater,” a biography with what to look for when you’re looking at school. I also just published an interactive journal for students called, “Behind the Curtain: A Journal for Theatre Artists Confronting Imposter Syndrome.” And I’ve accepted a teaching faculty position with Southern New Hampshire University.

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