Southeast announces new hires for Higher Ground community performance project

Published 10:50 am Tuesday, February 11, 2020

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CUMBERLAND — Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC) is pleased to announce that Kate Handzlik, Brandon Jent, and Ryland Pope have been hired to serve as faculty and to provide creative leadership for the Higher Ground community performance project.

Support for the three positions comes from SKCTC and a gift from Brook Smith. Smith’s gift supports Handzlik’s position for three academic years and Pope and Jent’s positions for one academic year.

Handzlik is a theater artist, photographer, educator, and social activist who brings popular education and social work practices to the process of creating art with communities. Handzlik grew up in Chalfont, PA and did her undergraduate work at Milligan College and East Tennessee State University. Handzlik worked as an intern at Higher Ground in the fall of 2019 where she stage managed Higher Ground 8: Perfect Buckets. Kate is finishing up her Masters of Fine Arts in Theatre Arts at Virginia Tech. Handzlik says she is “thrilled to return to Eastern Kentucky with her partner, photographer Will Major, and to the family of fierce artists she has gained through Higher Ground.”

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Handzlik’s duties will include teaching and production coordination for new Higher Ground theater work and coordination of training programs like the Hurricane Gap Community Theater Institute.

Pope is a native of Harlan, Kentucky, holding a Bachelor’s Degree of Music from Georgetown College and a Master of Music Degree from the University of Tennessee. For two years, he has served SKCTC as an adjunct Music professor, the choral director of the Southeast Community Choir, and music director for Higher Ground 8: Perfect Buckets. Pope, a professional opera singer, has also performed with the Knoxville Opera, Highland Light Opera, Maskrafters, Pleasant Mt. Performing Arts and Artists’ Association, The Staunton Music Festival, Lexington Singers, UT Opera Theater, and Lyric Theater Society. Pope has teaching experience with several colleges

and high schools in Kentucky and brings a passion for helping to foster and educate youth in the discipline of music, operating and managing two music studios, which provide different music services and programs throughout the state of Kentucky. Pope is looking forward to being a part of the Higher Ground creative team.

Pope’s duties will include teaching and serving as Higher Ground music director.

Jent is a near-lifelong resident of Letcher County. He is currently finishing a master’s degree in Linguistic Theory and Typology at the University of Kentucky, where he focuses on Appalachian dialects of English. He has instructed undergraduates at UK in multiple disciplines. For the past five years Jent has remained deeply embedded in community work in Eastern Kentucky, with experience spanning documentary filmmaking, community radio, community theatre, storytelling, traditional Appalachian music, youth engagement, popular education and Spanish translation. A proud member of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project, Jent is committed to the network’s mission of creating, advocating for and participating in communities we can and want to STAY in – in Appalachia and beyond.

Jent’s duties will include teaching, production coordination and community organizing on behalf of Higher Ground.

Handzlik, Pope, and Jent are scheduled to begin work June 1, 2020.

Higher Ground is a project of the SKCTC Appalachian Program. Since 2005, Higher Ground has produced eight original community performance pieces, which are works of original storytelling musical theater based in oral history and musical traditions in Harlan County, Kentucky performed by community members with the support of professional theater artists. Higher Ground has hosted national theater convenings, coordinated regional skill sharings and training events with community groups and theater artists, produced works on commission, and presented work at home and throughout the region. Much of this work has taken place through community college classes, including the collection of the oral histories that have provided the basis for Higher Ground scripts.

For more information, contact Robert Gipe, SKCTC Appalachian Program, at or 606-589-3130.