“What are you doing?”

“What are you doing?”

It’s a simple question—one that is prompted by an action. A person does something and another person wants to understand what that something is. We ask this when we’re looking for connection, for understanding or insight into someone else’s activity.

Sometimes when people ask me what I’m doing, I respond defensively—as if by asking that question they must suspect me of doing something that I shouldn’t. For example, my husband might peer over my shoulder as I watch a favorite sitcom on Netflix. Instead of just telling him what I’m watching, I often spit out something like: I’m taking a break from lesson planning and don’t feel like doing the dishes yet and this afternoon’s commute was a pain so I’m just being brainless for a precious twenty minutes in the hope that I’ll get inspired, thank you very much.

Ouch.

So essentially I waste a lot of breath and excuses telling him what I’m not doing.

There is a popular theatre game called “What Are You Doing?” that challenges the players to do just that: tell us what they are not doing.  In the game, everyone stands in a circle. One person (Person A) steps into the center of the circle and begins performing an action. For example, Person A might swing her arms as if she is chopping wood. Once she has established her action, Person B (anyone in the circle) steps in and asks Person A, “What are you doing?” Person A then responds by saying that she is doing anything but what it actually looks like she’s doing. For example, Person A might look like she is chopping wood, but will tell Person B that she is “mopping the floor.” Person A will then rej0in the circle and Person B will remain in the center, acting as if he is mopping the floor. Person C will then ask Person B “What are you doing?” and Person B might say that he is “flying a kite” and then Person C begins acts out flying a kite. The pattern continues around the circle.

This exercise is a favorite of mine. It’s fast-paced and gets students using their bodies, while introducing basic improvisation. It also inspires them to ask that fundamental question: “What are you doing?” While the game centers around not actually answering the question in an expected way, it does require the players to answer in a way that invites the questioner to participate. The questioner is rewarded with a surprise action to perform. That’s another reason why we ask “What are you doing?” isn’t it? Sometimes we ask because we might want to join in.

Maybe the defense mechanism that kicks in when I’m asked about my actions has something to do with the fact that I want to be left alone or that I don’t feel like examining what it is that I’m doing. Not considering my actions is completely contrary to what an artist, particularly a teaching artist, does. We don’t just “do” art, we educate others (tell them what we’re doing) and then step back and say, “You’re doing it!” It doesn’t matter if the other person is exactly on board with what you’re doing or how you’re doing it. It’s their participation that counts.

Last week I started a new residency at a school up in Allentown and I had a little boy in my group who spoke almost no English. I hadn’t really dealt with a language barrier before in one of my workshops, but I plowed ahead with my lesson plan, making a particular effort to slow down a bit when explaining things. It came time to play, “What Are You Doing?”. You know what he did when his turn arrived? With a grin on his face, he approached the person performing the action in the middle of the circle and asked, “What are you doing?” I felt so silly for expecting him to do anything else. He had observed the pattern of the game and knew what part he had to play. The person in the center responded to his question, in English, and showed him the action of eating an ice cream cone. The boy copied the action and the game continued on seamlessly. His classmates showed him what to do. He didn’t need to be told. He just observed, asked to be invited to participate and he did it.

And the cherry on top? The next time his turn came around, his classmate approached him with a smile and asked, “¿Qué estás haciendo?”

I guess this has brought me one step closer to identifying my deliciously indefinable job title.  Teaching artistry: an invitation.

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