Songs for the Struggling Artist

If I were in charge of Arts Education
August 22, 2011, 11:52 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , ,

Not long ago, I was brought into several 8th grade classrooms to give a talk about my career as a theatre artist. When I polled the students in the room, pretty much no one was even vaguely interested in theatre and an average of one or two per class were interested in any other arts. Music, visual arts, dance? None of it.
Here I was, brought in by a grant to bring more arts into the schools, talking with students about my work when they have zero interest or context with which to receive that sharing. Additionally, they’d already listened to two theatre artists talking about their careers prior to my visit there. This seems to me to be a terrible mis-use of arts resources – as is much of arts education. What if, instead of paying me and two other artists to come in and talk to the students about theatre, they’d paid us to come in and perform some theatre?
As a teaching artist, I spend the bulk of my time teaching students with little to no experience with my art form. I am almost constantly in the role of ambassador and missionary for my art. It is the supposition of Arts Education that the best way to expose students to art is to have them make it themselves, whether they want to or not. This is not an entirely crazy idea. It does work, to a degree. But I can tell you right now that whatever work I can do to engage students in the art is nothing next to the art itself. Some of the work I do with classes is connected with a production that the students see. Inevitably, it is the production that enthralls, inspires or sparks up the students.

So if I ran Arts Education – students would see much more theatre. Rather than paying artists to come in and teach, arts in education organizations would pay artists to come in and perform. Rather than attempting to integrate theatre into a science unit, they’d commission artists to create work based on the science unit.
If we want a more artistically literate society, we can’t teach them about the work anymore. They have to see it. And lots of it. In the classrooms I work in, if the students have seen one play, they’ve seen more than the average. Yet, we expect them to dive right into acting or playwriting despite having never really seen what they are.
In my ideal Arts Education, we teaching artists could still teach, too. But rather than teaching English classes who would really rather not stand up in a circle thank you very much, we’d teach students who want to learn more about the form. We would only teach students who had an interest.
One of my most successful residencies ever was at a school where they brought me in for the school’s mini-course in theatre. The students wanted to learn more Shakespeare so I helped them stage a short Romeo and Juliet. These were not privileged students, by the way or even students who had much experience with acting. I’m not proposing that arts education should only happen in environments where the students are already accomplished actors or musicians or whatever. I’m proposing that the pre-requisite to learning about an art from an artist be an interest in the art.
This career talk I had to give seemed to be designed to encourage students to consider careers in the arts before they even knew what arts are. This strikes me as terribly irresponsible. A life in the arts isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone in this country – especially not underprivileged middle school kids struggling to survive. What the arts have to recommend are not sexy careers. It’s the art itself that is significant. I WOULD recommend a life with the arts, a life of engaging in, seeing, participating in, enjoying the arts – but until this country supports its artists, it would be much more sensible program to encourage students to be teachers or doctors or entrepreneurs and develop a love for the arts in them, so that when they grow up, they’ll go to the theatre or the ballet or the museum and perhaps commission the teaching artists of tomorrow to create work to share with their children in tomorrow’s schools.


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