Meet the Arts NC State Directors

Arts NC State is pleased to present the “Meet the Arts NC State Directors” series. This spotlight features Amy Sawyers-Williams, arts outreach and engagement manager with Arts NC State. Learn more about the person instrumental in stirring positive change through the arts on and off-campus!

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Amy Sawyer-Williams discovered the sweet spot. She brews spontaneous improv with relevant social justice topics creating woke audiences and change both off and on-campus. 

What is your name? Position and length of time at NC State? Other connections to NC State?

I’m Amy Sawyers-Williams and I’m the manager of outreach and engagement for Arts NC State. I’ve been at NC State since November 2013 and have loved watching the arts grow on campus and in the community since that time. When I started, we were just planning what the new Talley Student Union was going to look like and what art would be hanging on the walls. Now I look around Talley and Witherspoon and all of the student art adorning the walls and feel so proud to work at an institution with so much creative talent. 

Since 2013 I’ve worked on a ton of cool creative projects like growing the student art sale from a private purchase to a now virtual art sale that brings in over $12,000 to our student artists. I’ve grown our Curricular Connections program from a PDF handout to an interactive website. And I’ve created an internship program that has set students up for success for future careers in the arts. I’ve also been able to teach in-person and virtual improv workshops across campus which aligns with my personal artist work and passion. 

Fun fact: my husband, Gavin Williams, also works at NC State as the interim department head of chemistry, so we are an art-sci Wolfpack couple! We are excited to have a new baby boy as a tiny new member of the Wolfpack community.

Background/interest in the arts that led to today? 

When I was 16 years old growing up in Chicago, my mom took me to see the play One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest at Steppenwolf Theatre. Gary Sinese starred in it and It was set to Jimi Hendrix’s music. I sat in the theatre and my life changed by the power of that production. It was like experiencing real-life magic. I walked out of that theatre knowing that I needed to make art that could transport people to new worlds and that’s what I have dedicated my life to. 

Another great memory of growing up in Chicago is that my friends and I would wait in line for the free improv that came after the sketch shows at The Second City. I remember seeing and soaking in every moment of comedy from players like Cecily Strong and Jason Sudekis.

I started doing community theatre in Chicago and my first ever role was as Annelle in Steel Magnolias. Theatre offered me an outlet and a home away from home during some of the most challenging years of my life as I was figuring out who I was in the world. 

Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

I then went to college at Wisconsin for theatre and women’s studies and discovered that I loved to work at the intersection of arts and social justice. 

I remember organizing my first community-based arts event where we raised money for a local charity. I wrote and directed sketches, we had live dancers and musicians. It was my first time doing theatre and other arts in a community-based setting that was not the typical play or rehearsal process and it opened my eyes up to ways to create community-based arts. I still acted in community theatre plays that were amazing, like The Long Christmas Ride Home and many others. I found my passion for both traditional plays and social justice arts work. 

Sawyers-Williams puppeteering in A Long Christmas Ride Home with Mercury Players Theatre in Madison, WI.

Fast forward to 2011. I had moved to Raleigh with my partner (now husband) who had accepted a job at NC State. I was waiting tables and working at Whole Foods on Wade Ave and learned about a Master’s program in NYC in applied theatre, a field that uses theatre as a tool for education and social change. I applied and was accepted into City University New York, (CUNY’s) MA in applied theatre and moved to NYC from 2011-2013.

While attending CUNY, I learned how to create original interactive plays about social issues like the Arab Spring or bullying and performed the plays in NYC schools. I also worked at a theatre education office at the New Victory Theatre and witnessed firsthand the power of theatre as a tool for education.

Sawyers-Williams performing a theatre-in-education (TIE) play that she co-wrote called Books Got Talent, in which students take on role playing as part of the play and have to decide whether to eradicate all books in favor of e-books.

I also had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda to work with undergraduates at the Kigali Institute of Education who were studying to be theatre educators. While there, my classmates and I created original theatre with our Rwandan peers about issues ranging from orphan treatment to a retelling of Romeo and Juliet from a Rwandan perspective. 

When I was getting ready to return to Raleigh in 2013, I saw a position open at Arts NC State in arts outreach and arts education with the Arts Village, and I jumped on it. I was so excited to use my skills as an applied arts artist and administrator at NC State. And I haven’t looked back since. 

What are three words that you would use to describe outreach at Arts NC State? 

  • Accessible
  • Arts Integration
  • Creative

Accessible: It’s important that the arts outreach offices embody the heart of the arts at NC State: that the arts are for everyone. That means they should be accessible to students, staff, faculty and community members. I make sure to design and promote arts opportunities so that anyone can access them regardless of area of study or background. For example, our student art sale has artists from STEM and humanities majors. Our past Visual Art Award winners were all from STEM majors. This would not be the case at many other colleges with more exclusive art programs: they would only be open to the visual art majors. 

Arts Integration: I help weave the arts into non-arts disciplines to enrich learning. For example, I lead improv workshops for communication classes or career development classes. I run the Curricular Connections program that links classes on campus to art events that may connect to their courses. 

Creative: Arts outreach and engagement runs on the fuel of creativity. You’ll find it in everything we do: I believe in saying YES to imaginative ideas and problem-solving. I am constantly trying to make opportunities available to our campus and community to not only be creative, but to be paid and rewarded for it. 

What happenings were you excited about in 2021-2022 and look forward to during the remaining academic year for outreach and engagement at Arts NC State? 

Arts outreach shifted to an online platform with the pandemic, meaning one of our signature events, the Student Art Sale, moved from in-person to online. I’m so excited to work with students to learn how to create their own online art stores so they can sell more art in the spring 2022 sale.

Student artwork from the 2021 virtual student art sale.

I’m also excited about the play, dance and music pieces that won the Creative Artist Awards and are developed by University Theatre, Dance Program and Department of Music. It’s so impressive to see the entry submissions come to life on stage or in a recording that is shared with the public. 

Lastly, I’m pumped to be working with student interns on innovative projects they think of, like new student-designed Arts NC State stickers that were rolled out last fall (led by senior College of Humanities and Social Sciences student Parker Mitchell). 

From top: sticker designed by senior College of Design student Noah Weaver. Below: Sticker designed by senior College of Design student Lauren Malynowsky.

Sabrina Hurtado, a senior arts studies major and art outreach and engagement intern, is coordinating an incredible artist residency program, which will be offered January 24-28. Clarence Heyward, a painter and collagist, will work with students and community to create art that addresses social issues as well other conversations and activities.  

If you had to name one thing that you are most proud of so far in your career, what is it? 

I am proud of a lot, but what comes to mind is that I am really proud of growing our student internship program to a place where the arts interns are getting really in-depth experience with arts outreach, marketing, and administration that sets them up for success in their future careers. 

I also love working with students and mentoring them. Last year, graduate intern Courtney Ray created an anti-racism resource for the arts which you can find here. I am so proud of the work she put into this, and am glad I invested time and energy in growing this program so students like Courtney could pursue passion projects like this. 

This year our graduate intern, Tia Canada, is exploring how to take this resource further while also researching how our arts programs foster community on campus. 

I am also so proud of how much the Student Art Sale program and Visual Artist Awards keep growing year after year. It’s so great to see students becoming arts entrepreneurs and getting paid for their creative work. 

What energizes you outside of work?

Outside of work, I love improv comedy and perform on an all-women team called Cheryl! which has been rehearsing and doing shows on Zoom during the pandemic. I also founded an applied theatre company called See Saw Projects which has been making interactive works of theatre in the Triangle since 2017. I recently finished working on a project with Dementia Inclusive Durham and Timeslips leading storytelling sessions on Zoom with people with dementia. And most recently I worked with the Chapel Hill Parks and Rec to teach virtual theatre classes to folks with autism or developmental disabilities.

Sawyers-Williams teaching improv on Zoom.

What is one thing that you are learning right now, and why is it important?

I am on a constant learning journey about dismantling white privilege and my own position as a white cis woman working in the arts and learning how I can be an ally, accomplice, and agent of change for more equity in the arts and on campus. I am always learning from our students and my BIPOC colleagues and practicing stepping back, listening, and using my skills in the arts when called upon. 

What would we most likely find you doing on weekends?

On weekends you can find me walking with my husband and baby Leo at our local parks and trails, at the farmers market getting apples, or doing some Zoom improv!

Amy Sawyers-Williams with husband Gavin and dog Hamlin.