UMass Boston professor uses empathy to help his students ‘meet the bar’

UMass Boston theatre professor Rafael Jaen

UMass Boston theatre professor Rafael Jaen, shown with one of his classes (above), won a 2017 Manning Prize for Excellence in Teaching, a peer-selected award that includes a $10,000 honorarium. UMass Boston photo.

Rafael Jaen, a professor of theatre at UMass Boston, was one of five faculty members across all of the University of Massachusetts system to win a 2017 Manning Prize for Excellence in Teaching, an award that earned him a $10,000 honorarium and further recognition as a teacher who raises the standard for academic excellence within his classroom.

Award winners were chosen by faculty members and students at their respective campuses.

While being recognized for his ability to creatively teach his students the ins and outs of costume design, Jaen has at the same time learned some valuable lessons from them. He says he had to change his teaching style, becoming slightly more flexible and being willing to meet his students half way.

“I’ve been teaching for a long time and I’ve seen so many students,” said Jaen, a native of Venezuela who moved to Boston in 1985. “Teaching has changed with the generations, but at UMass, the students have taught me to be more empathetic, because the dynamics that they bring to the classroom are unpredictable and different.”

When he first moved to Boston, Jaen struck out on his own as a tailor and bridal gown designer, eventually moving to consulting and making costumes for some small theaters. He began to teach in 1990, and eventually earned a master’s degree in Theater Education.

Today, he is a practicing costume designer and a union member (USA 829), having worked at various theaters in and around Boston, including Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the Huntington Theatre Company, and the American Repertory Theater.

He brings all of that experience to the classroom.

“You have to be really present in the classroom; staying in the moment with absolute empathy, but without losing focus of your targets and the goal, which is hard, but I would say that 99 percent of the time UMass students meet the bar unless something works against them. And I’m happy to work with them.”

Jaen tries to impart an understanding and appreciation for the human body and skin because people who are training to be costume, makeup, and set designers need to see the human body as their first canvas. His students study how clothes should adorn actors’ physical shape and which shades of makeup, costume colors, and lighting best capture the essence of their characters.

Using his own experience, Jaen explains the importance of using actors’ body as a starting point for design, “working with a cast that is very diverse, it’s important to know how to work with different skin tones using a color palette that enhances the production, makes the actor look good, and makes them all shine the same way under the light.”

These design techniques are also taught in compliance with equity guidelines, which require that garments and dressing rooms are safe for the actors. Jaen says that training with these guidelines prepares his students to make a smoother transition into working for professional theater sets backstage.

However, design and wardrobe techniques aren’t the only lessons he aims to teach: he is known for demanding professionalism from his students. It is important for them to always be on time when attending his classes so that they have enough time to complete in-class assignments. He stresses the importance of working within a certain time because professional designers and production teams are always working with a deadline, so his students must be able to perform under pressure and with time constraints.

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