Songs for the Struggling Artist

Divorcing the Art
November 3, 2013, 7:58 pm
Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: , , ,

There’s been a divorce. It’s not as public as Catherine Zeta-Jones’ but for me it changes everything.
For the last 14 or so years, I’ve worked for a major arts institution as a teaching artist. I’ve seen managers come and go. I’ve seen programs bloom and fade but I have hung in there because I am a fan of the work that happens on the stage. Some of the best work in the world ends up there and the quality of that work was what kept me coming back there even when I’d been treated with disrespect.

I did the bulk of my work for them with the Shakespeare program. In it, students would see a world-class Shakespeare production on the theatre’s stage and we, the teaching artists, in collaboration with the classroom teachers, would teach that play, helping to provide context and depth for the work they’d see. This has meant that we’ve taught Comedy of Errors, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus in addition to the some of the more commonly taught plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. It meant that, every year, the students got a full-on engagement in a work of art (one they probably wouldn’t see otherwise) and then got to enact a bit of that play themselves. It has been a full on engagement with art. The most profound moments of insight and transformation for the students have happened in response to what they saw. I know because I saw it happen.

Now, I am told the institution is “divorcing” the program from the production. The students will study one of two plays, pre-selected and not see any live theatre. They’ll go see a Shakespeare film but no theatre, even though there is still a great deal to be seen on the stage. And I think it is a giant mistake.
Listen, I don’t run arts education, (see here what I’d do if I did) I know no one in the Big Chairs at these places gives a damn what I think. But when we start divorcing the actual art from young people’s arts education, we’re getting on a fast train to irrelevance.

One administrator I spoke to about my concerns told me that the same thing happened at another arts organization where she’d worked. She told me there was a lot of outcry and protest when this happened there but now the new program (the one divorced from the art) is super successful. And I can’t argue with that. Of course it all depends on what you mean by successful. I’m gonna guess that successful means lots of people signed up for these programs and they make money from them either from schools or funders and believe me I understand the value of those things.

But there is another kind of success and value to be had, one that is less predictable and that isn’t easily described on a grant application. This kind of success involves transforming experiences with a work of art, in engaging with something you see on stage and letting it move you. When education can enable that experience, I’m all for it. Divorced from that possibility it is simply Education Business As Usual. It’s something I (or any capable artist) could do in a classroom without an affiliation with a major arts institution. It’s something very good classroom teachers do everyday. I know. I’ve seen them at work. And I have trouble believing that funders aren’t interested in sharing a theatre’s work with students.
So since this institution has divorced the art from its arts education program, I am divorcing the program. That is, I quit. I spoke my piece (multiple times, believe me) and my voice was ignored and I quit.

I recognize, given my position as a cog in the works at a major institution, that my divorce made no difference to anyone but me (and possibly to my colleagues who were left to soldier on without me.) It’s a stand that has likely gone un-noticed by anyone with any authority to consider what is happening. I did it a few months ago and I haven’t heard a thing about it since.

Those that are my intermediaries between the Big chairs and the Medium size chairs tell me that they are simply responding to mandates coming from above. So let me just speak to those who are above for a moment (even though you’re surely not reading this): Take a second to THINK. You care about the work on your stages. That is why you do what you do. You care about your audience. And you likely care about your future audience. You will not cultivate future members of your audience by bringing them to see films they could watch at home or in their classrooms. You will not spark an interest or enthusiasm or future patron by sending artists into classrooms to teach stuff they could get anywhere. I can name at least ten other arts organizations who already do that and those are just the ones I’ve worked for. If you’re interested in giving students a unique and significant experience in your theatre, you have to re-marry your artistic work with your education program.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe actually seeing art is something no one cares about anymore (Please, please, don’t let this be the case!) Maybe all anyone wants is to fit more easily into the Department of Education’s structures, to have lesson plans align with the Common Core and have an easier time writing those funding applications.

Me? I’m an artist because I care about the ART. And I’m a teaching artist because I care about giving young people an opportunity to engage with art.

I’ve taught in over 300 schools over the years and the majority of the students in those schools had never seen a play before someone brought them to see something. It breaks my heart to consider that instead of giving students that magical first experience, this institution will now just give them some education stuff. It’s like telling someone what it’s like to see the ocean instead of letting them swim in it.
No, no, it’s like teaching someone to swim in the desert. You can take them through the motions and they could learn all of the moves but it will be irrelevant until they see the water. I don’t think I’m naïve in assuming that the best way to teach someone to swim is in the water and the best way to teach someone about theatre is in the theatre. But what do I know? I just swim in the water every day.


3 Comments so far
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Your point of view means much more than you may think, thanks to this forum, and your brave voice. A while ago, sure, you were a cog in a Small Chair and no one had to listen to you. Now, you are a writer on the Internet, whose ability to string words together with passion and credibility has already spread change in unexpected ways.

I hear a voice arguing with you as you write, and you interrupt yourself to try to rebut it. “No one cares what I think!” “The powerful people won’t take me seriously!”

I’d like to escort that voice out of the room and let you just write your truth.

Because that voice is mistaken. Those people in Big Chairs are just schmos like you and me. They hold no magical knowledge and are not protected by a moat from your ideas. Especially now that you don’t need them to keep you on the payroll, you have a new relationship with them. You run your own arts organization–Artist’s Struggle Inc.–and you sit in the Big Chair.

Remember Patsy Rodenberg. Your voice is extremely powerful. Tell them what you know. Walk right up to them. Heck, call them up and ask them to explain their decision. Quote them. Ask them to write a guest post defending their point of view. Then take the last word.

Comment by Colin Stokes

You know, I think that voice you’re hearing is actually the voice of experience and has very little to do with my own confidence. I think they won’t read this or hear what I have to say because in 14 years, they have never read anything I’ve written or heard a thing that I’ve had to say. They don’t know my name or what I do. That’s just the facts.
The leader of this institution, who I have only seen in person twice in my 14 years, once came in to an orientation (for which they’d decided not to pay us) and told us “I don’t want you to feel like we don’t think your work is important or that we don’t value your work here.” Which was hilarious, because we knew that our work was important and telling us what he didn’t want us to think made explicit what he thought. And being required to work when you’re not getting paid is the ultimate expression of that lack of value.
Like most major arts institutions in this country, this one is built with high walls around the people in charge. There is no walking up to them. There is not even a way to call them. There is literally a gate with bars between the hall and the administrative offices. Even if one made it through the gate, one would have to negotiate the phalanx of administrative assistants whose sole purpose is to keep people out of them.
So while my voice may be powerful, it actually doesn’t matter unless it’s amplified in someway. And maybe the internet will amplify it, maybe it won’t. Mostly it doesn’t. This post, thus far, has generated 84 views, which, granted is a lot more than usual, but really is not enough noise to get anyone to pay attention.
Sure, I could raise a ruckus and force someone to sit down to read this but this is just my sign off. I’m out. I’ve done my time trying to change the place. I’m done wrestling with the demons of bureaucracy. I’m really not interested. And I’ve got other fights to fight.
I appreciate your faith and hope in my voice as an agent of change. As you said, I am a writer on the internet. I recognize that my voice is powerful for those people who already know me and like to hear what I have to say. So I’m really writing for you. And I’m grateful that it has an impact. Even if it’s a small one.

Comment by erainbowd

[…] of trying to make nice. It has meant quitting jobs that were my bread and butter (and really “not that bad”.) It has meant a lot more writing and creating and a lot less stuff I do just to make a living. […]

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