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Teaching Artist, Councilwoman Steps Onto Statewide Legislative Stage

Lucy Gellman | December 10th, 2021

Teaching Artist, Councilwoman Steps Onto Statewide Legislative Stage

Culture & Community  |  Politics  |  Arts & Culture  |  West Haven  |  State Legislature  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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Top: Christine Belbusti and Treneé McGee. Bottom: McGee with students in her studio. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Lights up. Curtains open. It’s 1 p.m. on Terrace Avenue, and Treneé McGee hasn’t eaten anything all day. An egg sandwich and iced coffee sit untouched on the sidewalk. Houses stretch back down the street, the New Haven skyline in the distance. Christmas lights blink beside a large tinsel Santa Claus. A few lawn signs for McGee peek out down the block. 

At center stage, McGee—a 27-year-old artist, acting coach, and West Haven City Council member—is almost done with the longest public service audition of her life.

McGee is the Democratic candidate for Connecticut’s ​​116th House seat, a position that opened unexpectedly when Democratic state Rep. Michael DiMassa was arrested and later resigned on federal charges of wire fraud earlier this year. On Dec. 14, she faces Republican Richard DePalma and Independent Portia Bias in a three-way race to replace him. If elected next week, she will be the only full-time working artist in the Connecticut General Assembly. She’ll join State Rep. John-Michael Parker, who runs Arts for Learning CT and is full-time arts administrator.

For months, her focus on the arts and public service has lived side-by-side as she canvasses during the day, and then teaches young artists by night. More on that below.

"Arts and advocacy, policy, legislation, they really run adjacent,” she said Tuesday, making her way up Terrace Avenue on foot. “They really do. And if the world could be more empathetic and open and understanding, I think as artists, we would just be different.”

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"Arts and advocacy, policy, legislation, they really run adjacent."

Born and raised in West Haven, McGee has fused activism, politics and the performing arts for years, including at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, Marymount Manhattan College, Long Wharf Theatre and on the West Haven Town Green. To support her work as an artist and activist, she has cobbled together part time work in classrooms, retail shops, and for a time with UPS. She first stepped onto the political stage in 2019, when she ran for and won a seat representing West Haven’s seventh district on City Council.

Since then, she has been a fierce advocate for racial justice, from youth programming to the city’s declaration of racism as a public health crisis last winter. In October of this year, she opened TDM Acting Studio to young actors on West Haven’s Campbell Avenue. Her roles in the studio and in politics aren’t so different, she said: both demand empathy, listening, and mentorship. Both ask her to pivot on a daily basis. She leads with the cardinal rule of improvisation: to keep her ears open and respond with a “yes and.”

That approach came to life on Tuesday—one week out from the special election—as she pulled onto Terrace Avenue in the front seat of a white pickup truck. Elinor Slomba, a member of the West Haven Democratic Town Committee and champion of the arts who is also a member of McGee’s campaign’s street team, hopped out of the driver’s side cradling blue-and-yellow door knockers. McGee, who always uses the buddy system, pulled her coat around a sunshine-yellow sweater and headed toward the first door.

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McGee and Slomba hit Terrace Avenue. The two have worked together on expanding the arts in West Haven since they met two years ago. 

The two met in 2019, during City Wide Open Studios’ alternative space weekend in West Haven. Like McGee, Slomba is embedded in the city’s arts ecosystem, a fact over which the two became fast friends and colleagues. Just months into the pandemic last summer, they held a devised theater project around the question “Who Deserves A Monument?” on the West Haven Green. They went on to present the same project in Milford, and later brought Juneteenth to the West Haven Green for the first time this year. When McGee announced she was running in the special election, Slomba was there to help.

As they crossed over to the first address on McGee’s list, they talked about the 116th House district, which wraps around a portion of West Haven’s fourth and all of its fifth, sixth and seventh city districts and a sliver of New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. One of McGee’s favorite things about campaigning has been discovering West Haven’s diversity, she said. The city includes thriving immigrant families, a growing Latino and Afghan population, and young voters who often don’t get out to the polls.

It’s one of the reasons she pounds the pavement, she said. She tries to knock 100 doors every time she heads out to campaign. It’s not so different from the open ears with which her lifelong role model, the playwright August Wilson, greeted the world when he was writing his American Century cycle of plays.

"I think social media or mailers, they do their job,” she said. “But when people talk to you face to face, you learn who they are, their stories. Like, I feel like I could write an entire play on people that I've been inspired by in the neighborhood."

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Ebert Jaramillo and McGee. “I hope that one day, you get to vote," she told him before heading to the next house.

She stepped up to a door and gave it a knock. Even on a doorstep, McGee holds herself like she is waiting in the wings, ready to run onstage and into the spotlight when the cue comes. She breathes in and arches her back. She watches for the smallest sign of movement. She doesn’t spend time scrolling on her phone or looking down at her feet.  

She cocked her head to the right, listening for footsteps inside the house. When nothing stirred, she left her information and headed to the next address on her list.

At another house, she headed toward the backyard after not getting an answer at the front door. Working on the roof, contractor Ebert Jaramillo took a moment to meet McGee, shaking his head when she asked him if he would be voting in the special election. He’d like to, he said—but he’s a Hamdenite and not yet a citizen. He can’t vote despite years of working in the country. Before she left, she put a flier by the door, hoping that it would get read.

“I hope that one day, you get to vote,” McGee said as she walked back down the driveway and waved goodbye.

As she approached one house on the right side of the street, West Havener Christine Belbusti rolled down her car window and poked her head out.

“Don’t bother them!” she yelled toward the house. “She’s about to leave and her husband’s asleep!”

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McGee stopped short of ringing the bell. She slipped a flier into the screen door and jogged over to the car to introduce herself before Belbusti could leave. Leaning in, she took a look at Belbusti’s Green Bay Packers gear and struck up a conversation about the team. Her allegiances may lay with the Philadelphia Eagles, she later said, but she's also interested in who her voters are.

The two jumped from football to politics, Belbusti laughing as she accepted a flyer with McGee’s information. She later said that taxes, which she feels are too high, remain her first priority when she heads to the polls. Now that she’s met McGee and gotten a sense of her hustle, “I’ll vote for her for sure,” she said. 

Energized by the conversation, McGee headed down the sidewalk, walked up a driveway, and approached another house. When the door swung open within seconds, the voter seemed apologetic. She held her keys in one hand as she locked up and turned toward McGee. She was excited to see her on her street, she said. But she couldn’t talk because she had to get to work and was already running late.

“But I’m voting for you!” she shouted as she made a beeline for the car. McGee burst into a smile. In a town where “some people still don’t realize the power of voting,” she said, those sorts of interactions make her days brighter.

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Elinor Slomba, who is a champion of both the arts in West Haven and of McGee.

McGee pointed to the house across the street, where her name appeared in big, yellow block letters on twin lawn signs. The house belongs to Christopher Suggs, a longtime mentor of hers who now serves as West Haven’s police commissioner. She said that the entire family has been incredibly supportive of her run.

“It’s clear that there’s a need for more interaction,” she said as she continued her way up the hilly avenue, pointing to cracks in the sidewalk and overgrown trees and bushes. She stopped at the corner of Edna Street—“one of my favorite streets”—to survey the overgrowth.

“Oh no, they’ve gotta fix this,” she said.

As she walked, McGee rattled off some of her legislative priorities, which place accessible, publicly-funded arts education beside maternal-infant healthcare, anti-racist policy making, and stronger state laws around nondiscrimination in the workplace (she is a fierce advocate of the CROWN Act, a bill barring hair discrimination that passed earlier this year).

She said that she’d like to see more funding go towards both arts education in schools and small, education-based arts organizations that are often boxed out of state funding. Currently, the Connecticut Office of the Arts uses a directed line item funding formula that prioritizes economic impact over a given organization’s focus on equity or education (read more about that here, here and here). It means that large organizations that can prove ticket sales pull in hundreds of thousands of state dollars, and small ones are left out in the fiscal cold.

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"We respect sports, but anytime anything needs to go, arts is first,” she said as she headed back down the street, waiting for drivers who refused to slow down. As a teaching artist, she’s seen firsthand how theater can double as a tool for conflict resolution, communication, and stress relief. When she’s checked in with students at her studio, many have suggested that the rise in city- and statewide violence, including in their schools, has come from the trauma, stress, and isolation of quarantine. At school, the specter of the pandemic is still everywhere and they don’t know how to cope with it, she said.

“I swear,” she added in a conversation Wednesday. “When you support an artist, you’re supporting a livelihood.”

Her focus on young people is part of a platform grounded in racial and social justice, she said. McGee describes herself as "whole life," including improving a crisis in maternal health that disproportionately affects Black, Latina, and Indigenous women. She is opposed to abortion but in favor of reproductive literacy, free or heavily subsidized access to breast pumps, diapers, and formula, and more robustly funded headstart and early childhood education programs. She wants to see more education around maternal health and family planning, from birth control, sex education and conception to pre- and post-natal care.

That includes not just moms, she said, but also healthcare professionals, whose inherent bias makes them less likely to listen to Black and Brown women in medical distress. She pointed to Serena Williams, who nearly died of a pulmonary embolism after her daughter was born in 2018 and nurses hesitated to give her the treatment she requested. It's a timely concern: just days before the election, three of Connecticut's rural healthcare providers announced that they are shutting down their labor and delivery services

"Just supplying the needs,” McGee said. “I think more than anything, people resort to desperate places when they are in desperate situations, when they don't have mental health resources, therapy. All sorts of therapy! Arts therapy, drama therapy, dance therapy ... those things are very important." 

"Coming in as a freshman [legislator] of course, I just want to listen, learn, and take in," she added.

In The Studio

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McGee with her students Wednesday. She asked that both not be photographed from the front.

Wednesday night, she employed that listening with her own students, trading the campaign trail for the acting classroom. Since moving into TDM Acting Studio earlier this year, she has ripped up the carpet, refinished the wood floors, and painted the walls pink and yellow. While she officially signed a lease and opened in October, she’s been renovating the space for much longer. She lives at her parents’ home in West Haven in an effort to put all of her earnings into the space.

Wedged between a new-age shop and corner cafe, the studio is bright and warm despite the dropping temperatures outside. On one wall, a sign reads “Spread love/Not germs.” On the other, blue, green and yellow lights glow beneath the image of a lightbulb and the words Develop-Evolve-Illuminate. Wednesday, an extra pair of sneakers sat on the desk, as if they were waiting for just the right moment to do an impromptu dance routine. 

“It was either get a house or get my own business and be surrounded by my community of supportive people,” she said. “It has been awesome. I get to do what I love and I get to empower young people.”

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McGee had just gotten off a call with West Haven’s Young Democrats—"they are amazing,” she said—when the front door clicked open. A black curtain parted to reveal Chyle, a student at Hamden Middle School who began acting with McGee earlier this fall. McGee’s focus found its center. The two sat together, waiting for a second student, and started a weekly check-in.

“I know there’s a lot going on in Hamden right now,” McGee said. “One thing for sure, I’m glad that you’re okay.”

They jumped from the recent threats at Hamden High and Middle Schools to the school’s upcoming production of Annie, Jr. Despite her interest in acting, Chyle said she didn’t want to be in the play. She later said that McGee’s classes are helping bring her out of her shell.

“It makes me a little less shy,” she said. “I can do stuff that I wouldn’t normally do outside of school.” 

The door swung open again: it was McGee’s second student of the night, a bubbly aspiring director named Andrew. McGee had students stand and start stretching. They relaxed their necks, rolled their shoulders, stretched out their arms. They reached down towards the floor and up towards the ceiling. When they had finished, she released a long, quick string of p sounds.

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“I wanna hear it pop!”

“I wanna hear it pop!” she said, beaming. The rolled on to T and G sounds, jumping into tongue-twisters before she grabbed a marbled pink-and-white ball from the desk.

“This is a ball of emotions,” she said. “You’re gonna hold it and say, ‘Dad, why?’” She threw it to Chyle with the command for anger. “Dad, WHY?” Chyle ventured. McGee nodded and threw it to Andrew, asking him to try exasperation. “Dad whyyyyyyy?” Andrew said, getting a few laughs.

Paired with acting vocabulary, those warmups are part of the process, she said. To learn about spatial relationships, she challenged students to explore the room as if they were not themselves at all but a range of different characters, from toddlers in candy shops to lions hunting their prey.

When Andrew sprang up and came down on an imaginary zebra, she clapped at the level of commitment. 

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“Take a second. Open your eyes. I want to see sensitivity. I want to see empathy.”

“Okay,” she said. It was time for scenes. “You both are friends. You got into a fight with each other, and now you see each other five years later. You don’t have the slightest idea what you argued about.”

The two watched each other, not speaking a word. Andrew threw his hands in his pockets and stormed away. Chyle watched with big eyes, seeing if he would turn around. When he didn’t, she walked off. Watching from the corner, McGee called the scene and reset. She pointed to the way actors can communicate with their faces alone. 

This time, she said, students were employees at a chicken farm, both going for the same interview slot. Only one of them could get it. She retreated back to the side of the room and gave them a beat to think. 

“Actors neutral,” she said. “Take a second. Open your eyes. I want to see sensitivity. I want to see empathy.”

Their eyes opened. They breathed in, and began the scene again.

West Haven's election is Dec. 14. If you live in the 116th House District, find out more about where and how to vote here