Make Believe

Kindergarten is a magical place. For the past month, I have been assisting the pre-k/kindergarten teacher at the school where my husband currently works. Every school day, I get to watch this little group of four and five-year-olds learn. And you know what? Kindergarten is hard! The “basics” aren’t so basic when you’re a little person who’s new to school–memorizing numbers, figuring out how to force your fidgety fingers to hold to a pencil, and sitting still. Quietly! But here’s one of the biggest challenges-learning to play courteously with others.

Sometimes I think these kiddos learn the most from their play time. Not only do they develop fine motor skills by building marble tracks and stacking blocks, but they learn how to interact with other human beings in an unstructured environment. Every day is a new series of lessons in sharing, problem solving, and self-advocating. Watching and guiding them as they grapple with these lessons is exhausting, but the rewards are simply scrumptious. At least I’m not the one figuring it all out. It’s a wonder that these kids make it through each learning-stuffed day without collapsing.

Not only is it challenging to cooperate with others, but cooperating with yourself is another huge obstacle for these young people. I have witnessed many cases of “I can’t do it” disorder bubbling to the surface in the classroom. I hate that it sets in so early, but it does. Whether it’s drawing people (proportions are tough), coloring in a picture, or building a marble track, I often hear kids complaining that they can’t do the task set before them. Sometimes the mental block is so ominous that these little ones dissolve in tears. Frustration is one thing, but believing you can’t do something when you really truly can, is just heartbreaking.

One of the many things that I love about the kindergarten teacher is that she simply won’t stand for it.

She never “does” anything for the kids. Instead, she talks them through the nasty voices in their heads telling them that they’re not good enough and even if they insist that they are incapable of accomplishing the task, she makes sure that every single student finishes their projects. She is strict, but she never withholds praise. She wants every child to shine and be uninhibitedly creative.

It’s a privilege to learn from these students and their dedicated teacher, who by the way is most definitely a teaching artist. I wonder if these kids will ever appreciate how lucky they are to have a teacher who so deeply wants them to believe in themselves. She cuts out wooden farm animals and has the kids paint them because she wants them to feel that they “made” a wooden animal. It’s doesn’t matter that they didn’t cut out the animals themselves. Just the decorating gives them a sense of ownership and accomplishment. It really is about believing that they can do things and being okay if they don’t turn out the way they expected. Now that, my friends, is one of the most essential “basics” that kids can and should learn.

 

Farewell to the Fellowship

Here we are at the beginning of the Fellowship. Seems like an age ago!

Here we are at the beginning of the Fellowship. Seems like an age ago!

Today is my last official day as a Greenfield Teaching Artist Fellow. The last two years have hummed, hemmed and hawed past in a flurry of lesson plans, meetings, and performances and now it’s time to say goodbye to my two year ride as a Fellow.

I sincerely hope that this Fellowship continues and that many programs like it arise and thrive. I have plenty of reservations about the way education is being handled in this country and would like to put in a good word for learning by doing. Throughout this entire Fellowship, I have been teaching. First, with a mentor and then on my own, but always with a network of support from my fellow teaching artists. As a recovering perfectionist, I needed to throw myself into a trial and error environment. And there was plenty of error. But now I’m better at what I do and I have a sense of just how hard I will have to work to keep improving. I’m far from a seasoned veteran, but I now have a healthy collection of tried and true versus tried and tripped methods of igniting creativity in my students. After all, teaching artists are all about learning by doing. It’s not just how we learn, it’s how we teach. We don’t show students how to do theatre, we help them do it. We encourage mistakes because fearing them cripples creativity.  Just do it and learn.

It wouldn’t have made sense for me to enter this field any other way. I have the Fellowship and the education staff at the Philadelphia Theatre Company to thank for so much of my personal growth in the past two years. Because of my teaching artist family, I know that I am not and never will be alone in my endeavors.

Earlier this month, the five Greenfield Fellows reflected on our experiences over the past two years by writing and performing a modest play for a group of our summer camp students. It was a difficult project. Juggling five artists’ schedules is no picnic and it’s a miracle that we wound up with a cohesive product. Besides, most of us had focused on teaching together during the Fellowship and this was the first time we were collaborating on the playmaking side of things. You can’t be a teaching artist if you don’t embrace the art and boy did we have a time wrangling our reflections into something performable. But we did it. We used our art form to express what we had learned over the past two years, from our students, from our mentors, and from each other. For me, it was the final stepping stone of the Fellowship. The five of us took a bow together and now we will go our separate ways.

But I will always carry the final refrain of that performance piece with me. In the last movement of the show, one fellow spoke passionately and rhythmically about how far she has come in the past two years and about how much she has learned from her students. Really, she was speaking for all of us. Sure, we consider ourselves teachers, but it’s really us who do the most learning. And the lesson that our students teach us is the same lesson that we strive to impart to them: “Speak up.”

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again. Teaching artists empower others to speak up through art making. I want to thank my students and my fellow Fellows for empowering me to do the same. I’m not sure what opportunities will come next, but I won’t miss them by being silent.

(P.S. If you want to watch something kind of adorable and awkward, check out this video of the Fellows from the very beginning of our journey. We’ve come so far!)

The Community Dragon

Dragon in Process 1My church celebrates its birthday on June 19th. Every year we have a huge community picnic and a pageant depicting some of the vibrant stories from the book of Revelation in the Bible. This year, the pageant was particularly exciting because it featured a brand new great red dragon. The mammoth puppet was built by members of the community, with the guidance and creative expertise of Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles from “Processional Arts Workshop,” based in New York. In a nutshell, here is what these two exemplary teaching artists do:

PAW creates community-based site-specific pageants and processions, that involve residents at every stage of the creative process. We work within existing events and festivals, as well as initiating new pageant events in response to local culture, physical environment, oral history, and current sociopolitical concerns. We build processional artworks from scratch… Afterwards we leave these elements in the communities where they were conceived, laying the roots for an annual procession to grow and evolve.

Wow. What a tremendous gift to have these artists impart their knowledge and skills to a group of average folks who knew nothing about puppet-making. People of all ages worked together in the local theatre’s scene shop, painting scales, cutting PVC pipe, gluing, and piecing together a truly magnificent and formidable looking 30-foot long dragon. Having the opportunity to be a part of the creative design and building process was gift enough, but this community will have this incredible creature for years and years to come. This is what true teaching artists do; they share their artistic skill set with others in a way that empowers people who may or may not identify as artists to create art on their own. Teaching artists are about cultivating art and not just performing it or showing it off. The couple that worked with us so clearly had that goal in mind. Every person who assisted in building the dragon felt that their personal stamp was on the puppet. Every scale, horn, eye, and tooth was unique, because many hands worked together to fashion them. This workshop was about so much more than building a puppet. It was about celebrating community through art-making and establishing an artistic centerpiece for continued community development in the future.

I was fortunate enough to help with the beginning stages of building the dragon, but I also had the distinct honor and pleasure to be one of ten puppeteers to operate the dragon in its debut pageant performance. It took one team of people to build the puppet and it took a new kind of team to bring it to life. With only a few hours of rehearsal, ten people had to work as a single unit, coordinating the movement of this seven-headed beast. It’s amazing how complicated a simple directive like, “move forward,” can be, especially when it’s ten people trying to achieve the movement and they’re all holding onto bamboo poles attached to a giant monster. Oh yeah, and we were wearing black veils attached to baseball caps to keep the attention on the puppet and not the sweating puppeteers teetering beneath it, which was great, but sure made it harder to see. It was a puzzle–attaching the heads to the necks, figuring out when to keep the pole in the pouch around our waists and when to take it out, when and how to most effectively open the mouths, moving forward without putting too much strain on the dragon necks or our backs, lunging at the angels that battle the dragon, moving backward without tripping, and all the while keeping the whole dragon active so that it never stopped looking alive.

But we did it. The seven puppeteers each operating a dragon head, bonded with their part of the beast and learned how to communicate with their serpentine neighbors. The brave folks bearing the weight of the huge body, figured out how to distribute the load and how to move as if they weren’t carrying a massive creature on skinny sticks. The tail puppeteer added to the hulking majesty by sweeping the tail as if it could indeed strike down a third of the stars. We were a small community of ten novice puppeteers and we acted together as a single, ominous creature. Judging by the unprecedented round of applause at the end of the pageant, I’d say that we, along with the rest of the cast, accomplished something remarkable.

Most dragons scare people to scattering. This one brought us together.

 

Pageant Dragon 2

Bard in the Borough

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Performing my new Renaissance character, Dorothy Dotes, who is Shakespeare’s most avid stalker.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time professing the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s works. I’m not going to do that here, although I am inclined to agree with those people, at least to an extent. I am, however, going to profess the magical magnetism of Shakespeare.

A few weeks ago, my community theatre organization presented “Bard in the Borough,” eighteen Shakespeare-inspired performance pieces that were independently directed and rehearsed before being cobbled together into a cohesive play one week before opening. We had sonnets, songs, scenes, spoofs, and skits all stuffed into one show and the beautiful thing is that it worked. It worked to call on community members to come forward with any Shakespeare-related piece they wanted to try. We were afraid that no one would step into to the spotlight, but Shakespeare has a way of drawing people out of the shadows. And older gentleman with a passion for Shakespeare’s sonnets shocked us with his accessible and powerful interpretation.  A first time director, decided to seize this opportunity to grapple with the complex and riveting “To be or not to be” speech and subsequent “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. A busy mother of five could finally participate in a production because of the flexibility of the schedule and even though she didn’t particularly like Shakespeare, she had always found his insults amusing and created her own skit centered around a war of wit.

The list of opportunities to share and connect through Shakespeare continues: patrons stepping onto a mini stage in the lobby to deliver one of Shakespeare’s famous lines; students from the high school across the street performing their scene from “Much Ado About Nothing” because they had just learned it for English class; young people speaking the unfamiliar and poetic language of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with such enthusiasm that even the adults understood what was going on.

I guess all I’m trying to say here is that something magical happened that weekend. We took a bunch of pieces and put them all together into a single show and the only through-line was Shakespeare. Some might say his works are tired, overdone, or even not that great, but as a community theatre maker, I must say that I am grateful for the material he left us. His works are accessible, malleable, varied, and serve as a perfect playground for performers. Happy 450th Mr. Shakespeare! And thank you for being such an amazing vehicle for celebrating community.

Playing Portia in a scene from "Julius Caesar," with David Howell.

Playing Portia in a scene from “Julius Caesar,” with David Howell.

 

“Things are always becoming.”

This past weekend I attended the NYU Steinhardt School’s Forum on the Teaching Artist with a few of my favorite colleagues. We went to plenary panels on navigating, innovating, and sustaining teaching artistry. We shared stories, advice, and strategies in workshops led by some of the brightest teaching artists in the field. We were simply steeped in a supportive environment of people who are traversing this crazy thing we call teaching artistry.

One of my favorite moments was when renowned educational philosopher, Dr. Maxine Greene, told us that art does not open automatically. It is our job as teaching artists to access art (by practicing it ourselves) and to make it accessible to others. As she put it, “Things are always becoming.” In other words, things are never finished. Depending on how much you buy into existentialism, you may or may not buy into this line of thinking, but I love how it can apply to how we make and see art. We can look at the same piece of art hundreds of times before realizing that it is never really the same piece of art more than once. Perspectives change, people change, objects change. A paper plate becomes a mask made by a five-year-old and then it becomes a decoration on the refrigerator, then it gets put in a storage bin, and eventually a trash bin and then it decomposes and maybe, just maybe a flower grows out of it and who knows what might happen next. That’s not to say that anything at all can be art–I’m not looking to open that can of worms–but I am saying that something that wasn’t considered art at one point suddenly can become art.

I’m not just talking about random objects suddenly being deemed art-worthy. Sometimes universally accepted modes of art-making are not so accepted by individuals. Take music, for example. “Heavy metal is just noise.” “Opera is stupid–it’s just people belting pretentiously.” “I don’t get rap. It’s just talking and it’s so fast I don’t understand it.” We all have our personal opinions about what “good” music is, but I’ve noticed that those opinions can shift. I didn’t appreciate classical music all that much, but then my husband shared his love of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with me and told me about some of the background of the piece and suddenly I found it pretty moving. It’s funny what a little information can do. Similarly, once I translate the lyrics to an opera and look up the synopsis, I have an easier time relating to the emotion behind the voice. It’s not just belting–it’s a character expressing herself powerfully in a given situation.

What’s fun about being a teaching artist is that we don’t just provide background information so that students appreciate works of art more. We actually have them do the art. Some of my students have never seen a play before. Until I come into their school and lead them in an acting workshop, these students think that actors only perform on screens. They don’t realize that they have the tools to be actors themselves. Whether they are on the playground, at home, with friends, alone–they can perform whenever, wherever, and however they want. It’s my job to help them glimpse that potential. Whether they fall in love with acting or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they get to try it.

911 Memorial NYC April 2014

 

Rant

One of my teaching artist mentors introduced me to the magical power of “The Soapbox.” This activity gives participants the chance to stand on a box and rant about any topic they want for a full minute. No one will interrupt them. The floor is theirs for that minute and, in the words of Sara Bareilles, they get to “say what they want to say and let the words fall out.” This activity can lay the groundwork for writing compelling personal monologues, but it it can also simply be a cleansing opportunity to release something that we might otherwise suppress. It is a chance to be heard.

There are positive and negative rants. What would happen if, instead of shushing a child (or adult) who wants to rant about how much they love the movie Frozen, we let them pour their hearts out and belt “Let It Go” without eye rolling for a window of time? What if we let them get it all out of their system? Sure, it wouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t want to rant again some other time, but what a gift it would be if we could just shut up and let someone else radiate their love for something as loudly as they want.

As for the negative rants–sure we don’t want to get bogged down by other peoples’ pet peeves and hobby horses, but what if we gave them the gift of an uninterrupted moment to let out the frustration and poison that they’ve felt compelled to hold in? It isn’t celebrating negativity to let someone just talk about it. And it’s more than letting them talk. You are listening. And that matters.

The magic often comes from the listeners. They don’t interrupt, but they do laugh. They clap. They cry. They “hmmm mmm” and “YES!” and nod their heads vigorously. They listen passionately as the speaker rants passionately and for a precious minute–everyone is in it–whatever it is–together. Even if all of the listeners don’t agree with what the speaker says, they still listen and that is almost more powerful. With all of that listening and all of that release, the speakers shine.

To be clear, ranting is not something we should just do whenever we want. There is a time and a place for releasing what we bottle up inside. That is why this activity works. It creates a constructive environment for the participants to speak and listen. There is safety and comfort in the time limit, in the fact that it’s just a flow of consciousness and not a carefully rehearsed speech, and the benefit of ranting to a group of people is that they will respond only to parts of the rant that resonate with them. Audiences are honest. Speakers can sense from their audience whether or not what they are saying hits home. The parts that don’t land, that don’t seem to light up the listeners, might need to be examined more closely. This activity isn’t just about catharsis. It’s about speaking, listening, and really examining what we care about and why.

Sometimes, it’s tough to give voice to what matters most to us. I have used this Soapbox Activity several times and every time the students are reluctant to rant at first. I don’t have anything to rant about. Do I have to do this? I don’t get it. What’s the point? A whole minute?! Then they speak. They listen. And before you know it, they’re whistling a different tune. Can I go again? Is the session really over? Can we do this more often? And I hope that they do choose to do it again sometime–even without me there to oversee the process.

 

Stars in Your Pocket

I started a new residency in Philadelphia on Wednesday with an energetic group of K-4th graders. After warming up our bodies and voices, we started to stretch our imaginations by going on a make believe journey together.

We traveled through a desert, feeling the heat beating down on our weary limbs and then hopped from rock to rock across a cool stream before tiptoeing through the chilly shallows to finally reach the opposite bank. We nearly got our feet stuck in the stickiest, ickiest swamp and then stuffed our bellies to aching with candy from a magical castle. A kind horse gave us a lift until our stomachs recovered and then ran so fast that we flew off the creature’s back and up high into the sky. We could see houses and treetops below and then only clouds and then only an infinity of stars.

The stars were so brilliant and bright that we decided to catch as many as we could and tuck them into our pockets. As we all set about collecting stars, one student looked up at me and asked, “Do we get to keep the stars?”

I sure hope so.