Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: Arts Education, BAM, Shakespeare, teaching artist
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.
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