How the Young Alumni Commissioning Project Supports Al Refai and Wahls' Visionary Projects


Welcoming our alumni back to George Mason University is even more exciting when they return to share work and projects that are deeply meaningful to them. Preparing to do just that are the latest recipients of the Young Alumni Commissioning Project (YACP), Jumana Al Refai and Rebecca Wahls.

Despite pursuing different degrees within the College of Visual and Performing Arts, each of these alumni found transformative connections during their Mason experience, impacting their outlook on the world as well as their creative futures.

What was most memorable about your time at Mason? Were there particularly eye-opening moments or experiences during your time as a student? How have those experiences impacted your work, potentially including this project that the YACP will support?

Al Refai: Going to Mason was something major. I already graduated and held a bachelor's degree, but it was a big deal because I was actually pursuing a dream of mine and going to Mason was the first step. I was there for a total of three years. The first two years were a struggle because everything was new to me. Everything from the approach to dance, the structure of technique, understanding music, learning different movement approaches, it was all very new to me. I came from a movement background where dance meant simply responding to what I heard. Improvisation was something I was extremely comfortable with. At Mason I learned how to interpret what I heard. How music works, how movement works, and how my body works in response to that. I gained the tools to truly understand why we as humans respond to things physically. Why we use our bodies to express what we hear, what we think, and what we feel. By the time I entered my final year at Mason, I felt like I had truly understood these tools and was able to confidently start applying them. I applied this in my final choreographic piece at Mason which was the third piece that I had choreographed. That experience was an “aha” moment where I understood the power of choreography. I felt empowered because not only did I gain the tools to structure my thoughts and creative process, but now I was able to convey the messages I want to show the world. It made me understand the power of movement and how sometimes words simply are not enough to convey a message.

Wahls: As the director and producer of Him, a feature film, I needed to have a working understanding of all elements of production. While my Mason degree is in Theater, it trained me to always be learning about what those around me do. For kinesthetic learners, learning is doing, so I am a better artist for having spent hours in a lift hanging lights for a production I wasn't otherwise involved in. You have to understand how processes other than your own work - especially if you aspire to leadership positions.

After moving on from Mason, Al Refai expanded her educational and professional experiences at The Ailey School, the official school of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The School at Jacob's Pillow, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, and Akram Khan Company Intensive in London. These experiences “[refined] my choreographic voice… I was ready to take on the world of movement confidently. It prepared me to not be afraid to try things and to constantly explore my movement voice.”

A native of Kuwait, Al Refai returned there in 2018, where she founded the Haraka Center for Movement Arts (HCMA). The center is a beacon for women and girls, offering a supportive environment to explore dance. HCMA's philosophy emphasizes movement as a universal form of communication, encouraging students to embrace their individuality and push artistic boundaries.

Wahls similarly continued her educational exploration after leaving Mason, completing her MFA in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was a John Wells Fellow from 2020-23. In 2017, she founded the nonprofit theatre Who What Where Productions, where she produced and directed several world premiere plays including Spills by Ruthie Rado, which has gone on to successful runs in NYC and London. Rebecca has worked as Artistic Associate for Acting for Young People since 2012, and her current focus with the company is on private coaching and corporate improv events. In April 2022, Wahls spoke at TEDxCMU, delivering her presentation titled “Yes, And: The Power of Improv in EveryDay Life."

Both women are excited to bring their unique projects home to Mason, with the support of their awards from the Young Alumni Commissioning Project.

The Haraka Project, an extension of Al Refai’s vision, seeks to elevate dance awareness in the Gulf region through performances that draw on Middle Eastern art, music, and landscapes. This initiative not only showcases Jumana's choreographic talents but also fosters collaboration with local artists, contributing to a vibrant cultural dialogue. Reflecting on her path, Jumana credits her time at Mason with preparing her for the challenges and opportunities of the dance world. Her journey underscores the importance of curiosity, risk-taking, and adaptability—qualities she encourages in current and prospective Mason students. When Al Refai returns to campus, she will present Tashkeel تْشِكيل, a short film featuring four dancers from Kuwait and abroad as well as Al Refai as dancer and choreographer.

Building on the expansive skill set she developed at Mason and beyond, Wahls will present Him, a feature-length ensemble comedy film. Wahls directed, co-wrote, and co-produced Him, alongside actor and writer Tess Higgins. Wahls is excited to showcase her work to the Mason community which helped to foster her personal and professional growth with the film, which is now an official selection of the Sedona International Film Festival.

What advice or insights would you offer to current or prospective Mason students as they consider pursuing their own artistic practice and professional careers?

Al Refai: Take risks. Ask Questions. Be the odd one out. Try new things. You will only regret the chances you didn’t take so seize every opportunity that comes your way. Whatever plan you have set for yourself, adapt. Adapt to the changes that come your way and learn from these experiences, and see what you can learn from it. Whether you are a prospective or current student at Mason, stay hungry for knowledge and invest in yourself as an artist.

Wahls: Instead of "networking," focus on building community. Many people I met at Mason remain allies to my artistic practice. Him features the work of fellow alums Kira Omans on screen, and of Noah Peterson and Keenan Gibson behind the scenes. Our VFX Supervisor, Eric Stenmark, is someone I didn't know at Mason, but was connected to because of my strong network within the Mason alumni community. I'm writing a new musical with another alum, Maggie Marie Rodgers. Faculty members Mary Lechter, Kevin Murray, and Rick Davis have all been instrumental in my professional journey. Your community is everything, and right now, you should be fostering your Mason community so that it transcends your undergraduate experience.

You can follow the creative journeys of each of these talented artists on social media, with Al Refai via @jumanaalrefai and, and Wahls via @rebeccawahls.

Stay tuned for more news and announcements about these talented alumni and to help us welcome them back to campus for their events during the 2024-25 academic year!