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That theatrical touch

Xin Yi Bao sets her sights on higher education after receiving the Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award. (Photo/Courtesy of Xin Yi Bao)

When Xin Yi Bao ’12, a graduate of the USC School of Theatre, Skyped her mother in Hangzhou, China, at the end of May to tell her she had been awarded a highly competitive Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award, her mother was so excited she couldn’t sleep for an entire night.

Good for as much as $50,000 per year for graduate study in the arts for up to three years, the award is given to only 15 students nationwide. This is the second year the awards have been given out, and Bao is the first USC student to receive one.

Bao said her mother, a professor and artist, raised her single-handedly. To save money, Bao took heavy course loads at USC and graduated in three years. Having the financial burden lifted for graduate school is “life-changing,” she said.

Bao and her mother weren’t the only ones who were emotional about the announcement. Meiling Cheng, director of critical studies at the School of Theatre and Bao’s teacher in her “Theatre on the Edge” course, said “I was so happy for her that I cried!”

Cheng, originally from Taipei, Taiwan, said she feels especially close to Bao because the graduate was the first Chinese student she taught at USC. Cheng had urged Bao to apply for grants, and Bao received an Undergraduate Research Grant funded by the School of Theatre in 2011 for a project on a site-specific theatre on campus.

The Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award, named for the late owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings and Washington Redskins who was knowledgeable in fine arts and music, as well as sports, is given to students with outstanding artistic merit, academic achievement and the will to succeed. The accolade is focused in particular on individuals with significant financial need.

Gene Bickers, USC vice provost for undergraduate programs, said he believes it is the largest award for graduate study in the arts.

The USC panel that recommended Bao was impressed by her “planned interdisciplinary focus, which is inspired by avant-garde theatre and performance art,” according to the nomination papers. Her portfolio incorporated drawings, a ceramic bust, conceptual pieces and projection displays in the style of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer.

The panel remarked on Bao’s potential to develop “a unique style that fuses her Chinese cultural heritage and Western influences while spanning multiple media,” and noted that she “has worked hard to master English structure and idiom.” It also applauded her decision to major in theatre, “a discipline that depends so heavily on nuances of language.”

Bao, who is spending the summer working on applications to graduate school, said she is deeply grateful for the academic and personal guidance she received from many professors in the School of Theatre, beginning with Cheng, whom she credited with introducing her to a new art form, a combination of performance and installation art called “performative installation.”

Bao also said she learned valuable skills and received support from faculty members Tom Ontiveros, who taught her lighting; Christina Haatainen-Jones, who taught her drawing and rendering for the theatre; and Paula Cizmar, who taught her playwriting.

These academic explorations led Bao to believe that her talents might be best expressed through interdisciplinary artistic subjects. To that end, she plans to apply to art programs and film schools at New York University, the California Institute of the Arts, Columbia University and — her first choice — the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

“I came to theatre at USC because I wanted to explore storytelling,” Bao said. “Theatre is a book that has almost everything about what people of different cultural backgrounds say, do and think. I did that exploration and was also able to find spaces to do my own work and use my visual talents.”

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