We’ve been struggling to get our baby to sleep consistently. For a while, she didn’t really nap. Unless she was in her car seat and then we would get nap time gold–but often at the wrong times of day. And sometimes she still seems to think that 10 PM is an acceptable bedtime, when in fact that is when her mommy starts to think about hitting the sack.

This isn’t novel stuff. Most new parents find their baby’s sleep patterns (or lack thereof) challenging. And while there are plenty of helpful resources available online, in books, and in friends and family members–the cornucopia of advice can be overwhelming.

I fell prey to the deluge very quickly. I wanted to tackle one baby sleep issue at a time. That seemed like the sane thing to do. But it turns out, every single issue we’ve been having with our baby’s sleep habits are supposedly connected.

According to several sources, if your baby isn’t napping well, that means they are getting overtired. If they are overtired they will have challenges going to bed at a reasonable hour. If they don’t go to bed at a reasonable hour, they will become even more overtired. So it’s really important that they nap well. But they might not nap well if they don’t know how to self soothe and put themselves to sleep. So you have to teach them how to self soothe. But that process might mean that they are crying more and sleeping less as they transition to falling asleep in a new way. And if they sleep less they will get overtired…

…has your heart rate gone up yet?

Instead of thoughtfully tackling one sleep issue at a time, I suddenly found myself trying to deal with everything at once.

That didn’t go well.

I started resenting my baby for not cooperating. Tension arose between my husband and me as we struggled to navigate the countless possible “methods” for getting her to sleep more regularly. I felt like a failure as a parent and as a wife. It seemed like I couldn’t think or talk about anything other than baby sleep stuff, so I wasn’t exactly a riveting conversationalist. Everything I said or did was tainted with anxiety. How could I blame my husband for retreating into his work and computer games?

Establishing baby sleep routines was meant to be healthy for all of us. She was meant to get more sleep, which she definitely needed. We were meant to get more time to ourselves in the evenings, which we definitely needed. It was a good plan.

It just wasn’t working.

And then one morning, after yet another rough night, I shifted my focus. Yes, my child’s sleep habits might not be the best. Yes, her sleep patterns could be frustratingly inconsistent. But so many things about her are consistent.

She is always overjoyed to see us when she wakes up in the morning. She always smiles and waves when we look out the window together. She will, without fail, find and play with my computer cord and the heating grates in the floor every single day. She will eat paper if she gets a hold of it. She will pull every single item out of any container she finds. She always lights up when her daddy comes home from work. She always grins when someone hands her a cracker. She always dances when music comes on. She always makes strangers smile when we’re out running errands. Her smile melts me every single time.

So there it was. Hidden in the inconsistency was a treasure trove of the consistency I so desperately craved. And that got me thinking more about how inconsistency and consistency go hand in hand.

One of the repeated tenants in all the baby sleep sources I’ve encountered is, coincidentally, to be consistent. Routine is key.

But there is an art to it.

We establish routines for comfort, for familiarity, for structure. These are all healthy things. But with great routines comes the need for great flexibility. As a wise woman told me recently, we need to honor the rhythms in our lives. We need to honor our children’s rhythms and accept that, no matter how stringently we try to implement a routine, sometimes the rhythm with change–not necessarily with any rhyme or reason. But it will change.

It’s up to us as parents–as teaching and learning artists who have created these dynamic, miniature human beings–to be willing to change our tunes even as we seek to fine tune the chaos that we have given birth to. Literally. We have to force ourselves to accept the process and constantly reconfigure the desired product. Because these little creations are unlike any other art we make. They keep creating themselves. We just get to guide them for a little while.

So instead of fighting the sequence of unexpected steps and missteps, maybe we can grab hold of both consistency and inconsistency. Together, they create the most complex and scintillating choreography. So let’s dance. Even if we fall flat on our faces. After all, the floor is a perfectly acceptable place to sneak in a much needed nap.

Unsolvable Mysteries

In the summer of 2014, I guided a group of children through a murder mystery experience at their public library. Some of the kiddos knew one another already and some were complete strangers. None of them had done anything like this before. And yet, within an hour and a half, they all managed to work together as a team of detectives, accomplishing creative tasks to unlock clues and they successfully solved the fairy tale-themed mystery. They were thrilled to have been so clever, but simply determining who did it, with what, and why was not enough. They still had questions.

“But Rumplestiltskin can turn straw into gold. Why did he need Cinderella’s glass slipper?”

“Why did he have to kill the ugly stepsister?”

“Why is the stepsister mean?”

“Would a pile of books really kill someone like that?”

I was surprised and delighted. Here they had answered the questions I had set out for them, but they were hungry for more. Not only did they have questions, they had brilliant answers.

“Maybe Cinderella’s slipper is magical! The Fairy Godmother made it and it might be powerful.”

“Or worth a lot more than gold!”

“I bet he killed the ugly stepsister because he thought she would tell the other sister about his plot.”

“The stepsister might be so ugly and mean because she doesn’t have a dad to love her like Cinderella did.”

“Maybe she’s mean because she doesn’t like how she looks. Or she might be under a spell.”

“I don’t know if a pile of regular books would do that, but maybe they were magic spell books. Or maybe they had some secret metal hidden inside.”

And the mysteries and possibilities just kept unfolding.

These young sleuths had solved the mystery–had accomplished every task I had set before them. But they wanted to keep exploring. Working with older students, I have sometimes found that just they want to do the bare minimum. They just want to find the right answer and be done. They struggle with “what if” and are only satisfied with “what is.” And that’s where teaching artists and those like them come in.

It is our job as teachers, as parents, as coaches, as adults to nurture this need to keep going. We need to be the voices saying, “Don’t stop now. You’ve just scratched the surface.” We don’t need all of the answers. We just need to welcome the questions and to let children young and old run around seeking the possibilities themselves. And to be okay with not knowing for sure.

How else will fairy tales survive?

Tableaux Vivant

In my church, it is a tradition to celebrate the Christmas season by presenting the Christmas story in tableaux vivant or “living pictures” as part of a special worship service.

I have performed in these tableaux almost every year since I was a young child. I’ve been a towns person going to Bethlehem to be registered. I’ve been an angel sharing the good news of the Lord’s birth with the shepherds. I’ve been a shepherd, trying not to weep while singing “Mary, Did You Know?” as the congregation filed up onto the chancel to get a closer look at a powerful, living representation of the nativity. And as newlyweds, my husband and I played Joseph and Mary, regular people who were chosen and also chose to be a part of the most beautiful story to take place in this weary world.

This weekend I played a new role in Christmas tableaux: director.

I spent the last month selecting passages from the Word, fiddling with staging, recruiting volunteers to perform, and selecting favorite hymns for transition music. We spent the last week rehearsing and tweaking lights and cues. Yesterday, it all came together successfully. People keep thanking me for directing. But it honestly didn’t feel like work. It was a gift.

We’ve lived in Toronto for nearly 6 months now. The people here are warm and welcoming. Our new house is a cozy and happy place to inhabit. There are lots of perks to living on the fringe of a bustling, culturally thriving city. We’re developing connections and routines–all of the things that make a place feel like home.

But of course, it’s still new and I still feel homesick for my small town in Pennsylvania. Things couldn’t be going better here, but I still ache for the familiarity and simplicity of the place I grew up in and the people who made it home. It’s been especially difficult with Christmas approaching and realizing with deep pangs that the traditions in my hometown are going on. Without me.

I needed tableaux this year more than ever. Not only did I get to be a part of tableaux, a tradition that has always helped me get into the Christmas spirit, but I got to implement my vision for the service. It was not my hometown version. It was not exactly like other tableaux services that have been done here in Toronto either. It was new. It was a combination of traditions from my old home and my new home. It was an opportunity to be more myself than I have been in a while. Because I have finally realized that I am a product of many places and people. Where I’ve been and where I am now. They are indistinguishable. They are me. And in a way, this tableaux service was me too.

And the outpouring of positive feedback I received after the service means more to me than I can adequately express. It was acceptance. It was validation. It was appreciation for my interests and creativity, making me feel as though I really have a use to serve here. So I will say again, that directing tableaux was not a chore. It was a gift.

Creatively combining my traditions into this special service was just what I needed to start feeling at home here. Not just in this place, but at this time. I may very well direct tableaux here again next year. But they will be different. Because I will be different. The people volunteering in them will be different. The sense of tradition will be different. Really, just about everything will be different.

And that’s the beauty of living pictures. They change. They breathe. And they remind us more than any two-dimensional snapshot that these timeless stories are a reflection of us and of our lives. The story line might not change. But the part we play in it can and always will.

Playbuilding: Director vs. Dictator

My husband said it freaked him out.

“It” is the cover of Playbuilding, a guide for group creation of plays with young people, by Errol Bray. The book was published in 1991 and yes, the cover is odd and somewhat disturbing. It features a photograph of a young boy wearing nothing but a garment reminiscent of a diaper. His image is blurry because he is falling through the air, arms spread wide. Two people hold onto his legs as he falls and a group of others hold the edges of a blanket, stretched below him. It appears as if the group is going to catch the boy in the blanket, but, as my husband pointed out, they don’t seem all that alert. Besides, the blanket looks flimsy. From the picture, we can tell that the boy is falling. But we’re left to wonder, how did he land?

It might not be a high quality image, but the photo on the cover of this book beautifully encapsulates the feeling a director often has in the middle of any production’s rehearsal process. Will this play stick the landing or fall flat on its face? This is even more the case with playbuilt shows.

Bray defines “playbuilding” as the “creative process of assembling a dramatic performance or presentation from the building blocks of drama and theatre, through improvisation, discussion, and rehearsal” (1). Essentially, it’s a group of people creating their own show. As a teaching artist, I have directed young people in several playbuilding projects. It’s rewarding work and it’s hard. Very hard. Even if the group is developing their piece from a specific prompt, such as “What is family?” the sky is virtually the limit. Knowing where to start can be daunting.

Bray urges playbuilders to first pick what type of play they want to create and use that as a guide for selecting which material will then fit into the show. He outlines four types of plays: theme plays (on a general topic), story plays (where the plot is the main thread), character plays (examines specific characters), and setting plays (explores a specific location) (5). I’ve worked with each of these play types, some more successfully than others. Upon reflection, I realize that the type of show we were trying to build wasn’t always completely clear. And when the type of show was fuzzy, that led to having an equally fuzzy end goal. Without a very clear goal, a goal that grows more defined and specific as the play takes shape, it’s difficult to determine which ideas the group will explore and which ones will be tossed. Soon everyone gets tangled in the thicket of ideas.

It’s the director’s job to help keep things on track.

The trick is not to be too controlling in the process. The final product must belong to the group of creators and not the director. Throughout the book, Bray continually reminds the director of playbuilt shows to establish boundaries and to protect the group from over-direction. In his chapter on structuring the playbuilt show, he outlines the development of the director’s relationship to the group in the following steps: initiator, leader, encourager, approver, expert, critic at all times, equal creator, teacher of skills, director, outsider. He says, “The ideal director structure is that of gradually rubbing yourself out of the project” (52).

Easier said than done. Looking back, I can see that the most frustrating rehearsals that I have been a part of felt stagnant or chaotic because of a lack of clarity. I often attributed the frustration to the group not being clear on what it was they really wanted to say or accomplish in their final piece. This was true to an extent, but really the problem was deeper than that. I wasn’t clear enough about my role as the director. Too often, ideas for the play would spin wildly out of control and suddenly, smack dab in the middle of the rehearsal process, I and any co-directors I was working with, would have to step in and exert some “I’m the expert” force to try to salvage a decent product out of the mess. And suddenly, no matter what I tried to say or do after that, the play became mine. Not the group’s.

I’ve come to realize that I had things backwards. I was so concerned about preserving the group’s creative freedom that I gave them too much leeway and not enough structured support at the critical beginning stages of the playbuilding process. I started out with too much emphasis on being an encourager and not enough on being a leader. By starting with too much freedom, I set my students up to fail or at least to flail.  If only I had been clearer about choosing the type of show, establishing goals, and outlining my role at the beginning, perhaps I could have avoided becoming any semblance of a dictator in the end. Although, to be fair, I occasionally worked with particularly obstinate groups of young people who, no matter how hands off I tried to be, thought that any guidance meant that I was threatening their creative control of the play. Even so, being clearer from the outset could have helped.

This is not to say that I have never successfully guided a group of young playmakers in creating their own show. I’ve helped many groups create something that they are proud of. I just see the opportunity to improve. I want to grow and deepen my understanding of what really works in the vulnerable beauty of the creative process. Reading this book has me itching to direct another playbuilt show. Maybe next time, I will be able to follow Bray’s steps for the director’s involvement. I probably won’t. At least not perfectly. But guiding young people in making a play of their own creation is an adventure worth stumbling through over and over again. I hope that, with every stumbling success story, I will get closer to achieving clarity in the process and in my ever-adapting role as a director. After all, even directors fall flat on their faces sometimes.

SOURCE MATERIAL: Bray, Errol. Playbuilding. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991. Print.
Bray Playbuilding


Shifting Gears

So I moved to Canada.

We moved to Toronto last month because of my husband’s job and that, on top of having a baby in April, is part of the reason why this blog was hibernating until two days ago. Now that we have mostly settled into our new home and my 3-month-old is passed out on the floor, I finally have the time, energy, and head space to tackle the “What now?” question.

In January, I proudly announced my plan to start a mystery party business. I still hope to build Merry Mystery Playmakers someday, but the tricky thing about moving to Canada is that I can’t work. Not for now anyway. This means that the business side of this blog and this teaching artist is temporarily on hold.

But I’m not going to let that stop me. Now that I’ve gotten over the initial “Ahhhhh!!!!” stage, I am looking at this chapter in my life as a wonderful opportunity to experiment. Professional development, here I come! Toronto is a thriving center of arts and culture. There are museums to explore, shows to see, arts organizations to join, and school programs that just might need the creative spicing up that only a teaching artist can bring.

Volunteering is a beautiful thing and a bonus is that it removes a lot of pressure and anxiety. If I’m not being paid, I feel a little more free to test some projects that aren’t necessarily tried and true. For someone who has a real problem with failing and letting people down, this might be just what I need to really develop my art making–new styles of mystery games, trying new art forms, making new connections, finally learning to play my ukulele and maybe even the piano that we inherited with our new house. I won’t allow my new working conditions to limit me. I choose to let them liberate me.

Furthermore, I’m not going to run out of things to write about here. For starters, I am going to seize this chance to finally dig into the incredible library of performing arts education books that now fill our new home office bookshelves. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have barely dented the collection of books that my dear college professor passed down to me before she died. Well, they won’t be gathering dust anymore.

Here’s my new phase of life resolution; I am going to read through my fountain of yet untapped resources. I am going to reflect on these books in writing, on this blog. I’m going to find ways to play with what I learn.

And there you have it. My new country, new mom, new life, new teaching artist resolution. You can hold me to it. Stay tuned.

Dramatic Tension: Improvising and Playing in Relationships

NOTE: I started this post in February and had a baby in early April, hence the ridiculously late publication.

On Valentine’s Day, my husband and I led a playshop at a local Marriage Conference. This conference has been held annually in our community for the last ten years and centers on celebrating and caring for marriage. We were thrilled to have the chance to partner up and lead a class together. After all, I usually teach solo or with another teaching artist and it was exciting to work with my favorite partner of all, doing something that I love.

For our workshop, we decided to play around with using improvisation techniques to navigate dramatic tension in relationships. While they’re not exactly the same, creating an improvised scene and communicating effectively in our relationships actually have some fun parallels. Drama doesn’t happen without conflict and relationships can have plenty of both. Improvisation only works when players adhere to a few rules to make sure that the scene doesn’t fall apart. The same could be said of communication in our relationships. If we all played by the same set of rules for communicating in everyday life, maybe we would be better able to work through conflict, without “making a scene.” In other words, we might be better able to save the drama for the stage.

So what are these “rules” of improvisation? There are countless theories about what makes improvisation work best, but for our workshop we focused on four simple tenets:

1. Yes, and…

“Yes, and…” is the single most important rule of successfully creating an improvised scene. The concept is very simple; accept what you have been offered and then build on it. As egocentric human beings, we often tend to lean towards more of a “no, but…” or “yes, but…” mentality, but this tactic doesn’t always work so well when trying to constructively communicate with someone. “But” automatically signals that you aren’t really listening to what the other person just said. You have your own ideas and your own plan to implement, regardless of what your partner has to offer. “Yes, and…” means that you respond positively to your partner’s ideas AND you get to layer in your own ideas as well. It’s teamwork at its best. No one takes the lead. Everyone takes turns. And eventually a truly shared scene or conversation develops.

2. Use your body creatively

Several improv games revolve around body language. Charades leaves players speechless as they try to use their bodies to get partners or audience members to guess who or what they are. In other games, players might get frozen in a funny position and somehow have to justify that pose within the context of the scene. We played a number of these types of games, not only because they are hilarious, but because they draw attention to the body and what it says.

I have noticed what a key role body language plays in my own marriage. If my husband and I are having an argument, I have trouble letting go of my anger if he is in a physical position that seems to say, “I’m not really invested in this conversation.” For example, when he’s frustrated, he sometimes lays down on the couch. To me, this says, “Whatever.” and it drives me crazy. It was healthy for me to identify that his body language is sometimes a barrier to reconciliation for me. I need to work on being less sensitive about it, but he also knows that sitting up and looking me in the eye helps me to feel like we’re on the same team. Sometimes he is surprised by what his body language “says” to me. It helps to be aware that something that might be obvious to me, isn’t so obvious to those around me. Similarly, playing charades can be a lot of fun in the right context, but in our relationships it’s often better to explain our postures rather than expect our partners to guess what they mean.

3. Build context

Speaking of context, it doesn’t work to begin an improved scene having no idea who the characters are, where they are and what’s going on. Players need to establish context. This is especially important in games where one player begins the scene and his or her partner has to follow along with whatever beginning material is given (yes, and…). If the player beginning the scene starts by asking an open-ended question, such as “Who are you?”, the poor partner has nothing to build on. The starting player has to provide a foundation for his or her partner to use. For example, the starting player might announce, “Honey, it’s too cold to buy ice cream.” Ah. Now we know that this is likely a parent/child relationship, that it’s cold out, and that the child wants ice cream. The first player has provided some basic building blocks for the partner to play with.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. I can’t tell you how often I have blindsided my husband or a friend by diving into a conversation without laying any groundwork work. If I’m feeling upset about something, I need to take the time to really outline what happened or what is happening before I let the emotions run wild. By providing context, I give my partner an opportunity to build on what I have to say. Context is an invitation. Without it, I am robbing my partner of the chance to effectively “yes, and…” and then it’s really my fault if in their floundering, we wind up hurting each other more.

4. Make your partner shine.

And that brings us to the fourth tenet; make your partner shine. Sometimes it is so tempting to oust teamwork and just take over. I remember being the goody two-shoes in school who would take over a group project because I was convinced I could do things better on my own. But this rarely works, never in improvised scenes and never in relationships. In a multiplayer scene, it’s awkward when a single player constantly outshines the rest. Improvisation is most impressive when the performers play off one another and if a single player is clearly making up all of the rules, then the scene ceases to be truly improvised. Collaboration is the best part.

Sometimes we might start out as part of a team, but then we see an opening–a delicious opportunity to get a good laugh from the crowd or to completely yank the rug out from under our partner’s side of the discussion. Too often, these openings result in derailing the scene. A colleague of mine referred to these tantalizing openings as “shiny pennies.” As players in any team setting, our job is to avoid these pennies. They might look pretty, and it might seem harmless to bend over for a moment to pick up the penny, but too often we wind up disrupting the flow of traffic with our sudden foray outside of the context of the moment. In relationships, these shiny pennies often take the form of insults. My husband and I might be in the middle of a tough conversation and then something he says gives me an opening to mention how he never turns the faucet off tightly enough. Is the faucet relevant in the discussion? No. Is mentioning it a satisfying dig at my husband? Yes. Will it keep the conversation flowing? No. Is it worth it? Absolutely not. It’s just a penny.

The easiest way to avoid these shiny pennies is to shift focus from ourselves to our partners. If everyone collaborating on a scene or conversation focuses on making their partners shine, the results are astounding. Everyone looks good. Everyone listens. Everyone is heard.

Practice Makes…Better

Of course following these tenets is easier said than done. Improvisation is about having the right tools to act and react off the cuff. These tools need sharpening and a practiced hand to wield them. But practice isn’t always fun and if you’re anything like me, I have a tough time doing things that I don’t enjoy. That’s why I was so excited to discover that something as silly as playing improvisation games gives me a chance to put these rules into practice in a playful way. And by doing that maybe, just maybe, it will get a little easier to implement these ideas when the situation isn’t so fun.


My husband and I playing together just a month after we started dating. Some things haven't changed.

My husband and I playing together just a month after we started dating. Some things haven’t changed.


I made a collage today.

The world was white with winter outside my window, while I dove headfirst into a colorful adventure of glossy pages and created something. Breezing through magazines felt somehow like going on a scavenger hunt. I was looking for myself in those pages. Each image I selected spoke to me in some way. Arranging the pictures together felt like uniting playful pieces of myself that I had forgotten about or never knew existed. I realized just how like collages we are, inside and out. Sometimes we don’t realize that all of our parts can co-exist. Even the fanciful daydreamy parts that we often hide can snuggle right up against the other more “realistic” images we may envision of ourselves.

I hope my collage always reminds me of this beautiful fact. It is a splash of life and color that now hangs proudly in my closet and it makes me smile every time it catches my eye. It didn’t cost anything and making it felt like a hugely productive use of my snowy Saturday.

Creating this collage left me feeling so warm and clear and I want to share the experience.  Consider this an invitation. As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently taking Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” course and it has given me a renewed sense of purpose and has colored my days with some vibrant dimensions that I had been missing. While I strongly recommend The Artist’s Way to anyone who wants to refresh and discover their inborn creativity (we all have it–lots of it), for now I just want to invite you to make something–whether it’s a collage, a batch of cookies, a set of curtains–anything that will light you up.

My collage was one of my Artist Way tasks for the week. In case making a collage excites you, here are the steps I followed to make it happen (based on a task listed in Week 7 of The Artist’s Way course book):

  • Turn on some favorite music.
  • Take a pile of magazines (at least 10–I collected them from generous friends and neighbors).
  • Set a timer for 20 minutes.
  • Go wild cutting or tearing out images that speak to you until your time is up.
  • Assemble your images however you want by gluing or taping them to a piece of newspaper, poster board, or just by attaching a few sheets of regular paper together to give yourself a play surface.
  • Hang your collage somewhere it will make you smile.
  • Revel in whatever your collage means to you or brought up for you. Soak up the fun.
2015-01-24 19.59.31

Introducing my newest happy thought. The flash washed out some of the spectacular color, but I just had to share my collage.