Songs for the Struggling Artist


Why I Shouldn’t Work in Schools Anymore
September 9, 2016, 11:16 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve written before about the changing landscape of Teaching Artistry. I’ve written about how arts education has changed in my years in the business. For the most part, I do most of my teaching outside of school environments these days but every so often, I’m brought back into the Arts in Education world. What the re-encounter highlights for me is how at odds my goals are with the goals of a lot of Arts Education.

At the heart of my goals for students sits a desire for them to make bold artistic choices and learn how to be good artists. This is not because I think they should become artists (I know what kind of a life that is) but because I think that thinking like an artist can lead to a liberation of self. Thinking like an artist can allow students to begin to question their assumptions and interrogate the givens. This is all well and good on paper for most schools but when the questioning begins and the classroom gets crazy or silly or loud, most people in schools start yelling and everyone gets into trouble. I value the trouble that art stirs up. Good art is disruptive and shakes up the status quo. This is rarely in line with the goals of a school – as most schools seek to enforce and create a status quo.

I have a revolutionary’s heart, I’ve discovered, and I like for students to get so involved in art making that they become willing to challenge the status quo. I like it when the art becomes theirs.

My favorite moment of my early teaching career was when I noticed a student missing from our 5th Grade Midsummer Night’s Dream class. I was told that he’d gotten in trouble in the cafeteria by quoting Shakespeare. I’m still delighted to think about a small 5th grade kid standing up at his cafeteria table and proclaiming loudly, with gestures, “Enough! Hold, or cut bow strings!”

I don’t remember much else about that residency but I cherish the way Shakespeare and I got this kid into trouble. I used to feel guilty about it – but not anymore. Art, when it’s good, can get you into trouble.

The more art becomes EDUCATION, the more it becomes a rubric and a set of skills to learn, the less likely it is to get you into trouble. And this is why working in education isn’t really my bag anymore. Bring me in to teach your students and I will encourage them to be bold, to take risks, to be silly, to be loud, to look for mischief, for the game, for the spirit. I trained in clown. I am inclined to make a mess. That’s probably why you don’t bring a clown into your classroom.

If you want order and quiet, I would suggest an educator instead of an artist. I fall firmly on the side of art and will always privilege the artistic choice over the orderly choice. Arts in Education these days seems to always privilege the orderly one. I want the work that young people create to be controversial, to be disruptive, to be volatile. In the past, I did a complicated balancing act of trying to keep things status quo for teachers and administrators and arts organizations’ education departments while still honoring my revolutionary impulse. But I think somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to compromise this way and can only express delight at the irreverence, at the art that might accidentally pry its way into a classroom and cause all kinds of trouble.


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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

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“Thank you for Your Smile”
May 16, 2016, 12:09 am
Filed under: dreams, education | Tags: , , , , ,

At the bakery, the clerk said, “Thank you for your smile. It’s refreshing.” And I thanked him for his because his was, too.

In my teens and 20s, I was thanked for my smile very often and just as often derided for it. As in, “What do you have to smile about?”

I hadn’t been smiling quite so much in the last ten years. I’m a smiler generally but I think the wattage of those smiles had been quite seriously diminished by the last decade. Having a full on smile exchange at the bakery made me realize how different those smiles had become. I had not been thanked for a smile in some time.

Something shifted back into place recently, something that allowed me to smile the way I used to – with all the shine behind it. I suspect that the catalyst for this was (weirdly) my college reunion.

In college, I was a pretty sunny kid. I strained against my super hip uber cool campus because I wanted to be around other sunny people and have some fun. Fun wasn’t really on the menu much where I went to school but I found ways to make fun and I was pretty confident that I could do anything I put my mind to, especially if I smiled while I did it.

But life can kick a person around. Particularly a person who chooses to go into the arts. Maybe especially if one goes into the arts in NYC. But it wasn’t NYC that kicked the smiling out of me. It was graduate school in Sunny California. Graduate school displaced my worldview, maimed my inner optimist and generally left me sadder and (maybe?) wiser. I was on fire in my undergrad years. Even when I was unhappy and struggling, I burned with optimism and ambition. Graduate school was like a big bucket of cold water.

I suspect that by returning to the place where I once felt unstoppable, I re-ignited my inner fire, which allowed me to smile again, which made everything better. The way that guy’s smile made me feel better, and the way my smile made his day better. It’s like I got some magic back – like I remembered what it felt like to burn bright.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.  https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Selfless Teacher Story
May 6, 2016, 9:42 pm
Filed under: class, education, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I watched a clip of the Ellen show in which they honored a kindergarten teacher for her dedication and generosity. On the surface, it was a touching story about a selfless dedicated classroom teacher, honored on TV and re-paid by a generous corporation. And maybe that’s all it was.

But it seemed to me that the real story was the systemic failures that we, as a country, are failing to address. The remarkable thing that this teacher does at the start of each school day is to make sure all her students have had breakfast and have clean clothes to wear – and if they don’t, she helps them get those things. That she does this on a teacher’s salary is even more remarkable. Target gave her 10K as a thank you for her service and 10k to her school. Which, I won’t deny, is very nice. But probably pales in comparison to what the school needs for its students.

Couldn’t we, as a society, pay our classroom teachers at least 10k more a year?

The salaries for teachers are vanishingly small and when they’re also supporting the impoverished students of their classrooms, it’s embarrassing for us as a first world nation.

Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10K more a year to schools that help develop the kinds of citizens we want to see in the world? Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10k more a year to fight poverty of the kind that sends millions of kids to school every day without breakfast?

I mean – it’s nice of Target to pony up 10k this one well-publicized time – and of course this teacher is remarkable and deserves to be honored – but it feels very much like a con game to me. It’s a snow job where we look at this generous woman and a generous corporation and feel good about ourselves for a bit instead of looking directly at the way we’ve structured our society. I don’t know my dystopian science fiction so well – but surely there’s a story wherein the culture sets up one person a year to help congratulate them and the whole culture rallies around them to celebrate – thereby dissipating the anger that might be brewing around the growing income disparity and poor children everywhere. Which story is that like?

Or maybe that’s just us.

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I searched for images of children in poverty and every single one of them was a child of color in a far away land. No poverty to see here in America, no sir! (ahem.)

 

Normally, at this point on the blog, I’d ask you for to contribute money to my blog by becoming a patron on Patreon. This time, though, I’d encourage you to donate any spare dollars you have to help fight poverty in America. I mean, 1 in 5 American kids are living in poverty. So – – –

There are tons of organizations that work for economic and hunger relief. Here’s an option: Fight Poverty in the USA

But, of course, poverty relief is a bandaid. Total reform would be nice. Maybe the National Center for Law and Economic Justice might be a better place to send your dollars. 

Meanwhile – we rely on Target and the Ellen show. 

 

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The End of the Show Experience
April 3, 2016, 8:59 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Imagine that you’ve just seen a show that moved you in some way. Let’s say you laughed really hard or felt like you were part of an energetic participating audience. Like a concert. Or a comedy show. Or a play. Let’s say you were at this show with a group of people you knew and all of you had an exciting experience at the theatre. You saw something you’d never seen before and your body is in a high state of excitement. Your heart is beating faster as you clap your hands at the end.

Then let’s say someone with authority over you – like a boss or something – comes out after your transformative experience at the theatre and tells you to be absolutely silent and not move a muscle. You are to stay in your seat and under no circumstances are you to discuss the performance. When you’re finally allowed to leave, you must file out in absolute silence .

This would probably would diminish your pleasure of the performance experience somewhat, I’d imagine. This is the experience the audience of one of our school performances had recently. During the show, they laughed and shouted. They were positively gleeful throughout. When it was over, we did our usual Q & A, which is also a little bit exciting, as the actors are un-masked in that moment and they get to see behind the curtain metaphorically.

But as soon as we’d waved them goodbye, the shouting from one of their teachers began. The students were stunned into silence, instructed to sit quietly in total stillness – for no other purpose than control, as far as I could tell. And it broke my heart a little bit.

It made me wonder what I could do as a theatre-maker to avoid that dissonance, at least while I’m there. I’ve worked as both a maker and a teacher of theatre and for the most part, those identities have been largely separate. I walked away from this experience wondering if I ought to be considering employing my educator tools in situations like this. There’s nothing I can do about a school that wants to yell at their students when I’m done with them – I know school culture and that’s not changing from one guest artist’s visit – but I want to build in some space for the students to have an experience like I have after a show that excites me. All my years in Arts in Education have shown me that there are great schools that will spend time after a performance unpacking it, enjoying it, discussing it. In schools that aren’t like that, perhaps I need to employ educational strategies when the show is over. My first thought was the “Turn and Talk” methodology – allowing students to actually talk to each other about the craziness we just showed them. And maybe I should do that before our Q & A. We might get interesting questions out of that strategy.

My ideas about how to handle this dismount sort of stop there, though. What would you do, my fellow educators? And for those of you who perform for schools, have you found ways to deal with this?  It’s a culture clash – the open door of art – followed by the yelling culture of some schools. Can we soften the harsh return to the yelling reality? Please send me your solutions.

Messenger Theater @ ps67 HR (7 of 60)

Like the blog? Become my patron on Patreon, for as little as a dollar a post, you can make a big difference in this artist’s life.

Also – this blog is also a podcast so if you’d like to listen to me read it to you, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



“You Should Do Stand-Up!”
February 29, 2016, 11:07 pm
Filed under: art, comedy, education | Tags: , , ,

A woman in my Feldenkrais class asked me where she should go to learn how to do comedy. She’d been told at various job conferences that she was funny and she said everyone told her, “You should do stand up!”

People SAY these things without realizing what they’re doing. People who say, “You should be a stand up comedian!” don’t actually go and see stand up. They have no real sense of what it is or what the life entails. I’m not a stand up comedian but I know what it takes and I can tell you that this woman should NOT be a stand up comedian. She doesn’t even like stand up comedy. But she was considering it anyway because so many people said it.

But people say things like this. If they see a kid who is cute and talented in a school play they say, “You should be on Broadway!” Which, again, is not something I have done but I do know what it takes and 999 out of one thousand kids should NOT be on Broadway.

I wish that people could be a little less ambitious for one another…that we could just let a funny person at a business conference be a funny person at her job or let a talented kid be a talented kid at his or her school. That’s enough most of the time.

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“Shakespeare Sucks”
December 16, 2015, 12:04 am
Filed under: education, Shakespeare | Tags: , ,

Every few months or so, my social media channels light up with outrage about the latest article or blog in which someone declares that s/he hates Shakespeare or thinks Shakespeare is over-rated or that they just don’t want to teach him anymore. The first of these that I read made a little angry, I confess. It was a pretty bone-headed look at work that is complex and intelligent. But the subsequent ones have barely registered with me. I had to check the dates on each new post. Was this the same one or some new one? They all sound the same.

I think sometimes with these sorts of essays, people feel like they’re saying something revolutionary and edgy when they declare their dis-allegiance with Shakespeare. Like when Ira Glass declared that Shakespeare sucks. To me it just seems silly. It‘s like someone writing a post every few months declaring that pizza is no good and we should not have to eat it anymore.

I feel about Shakespeare like I do about pizza. They’re both delicious, classic constructions full of infinite possibility. If you don’t like pizza, that’s fine. You don’t have to eat it. If you haven’t had it, though, you should try it. Try it maybe more than once. If you just have school pizza or frozen pizza, it’s probably not gonna be terrific. Get yourself to a high quality pizzeria that uses fresh ingredients and it will be hard not to find SOMETHING you like.

I realize that, in schools, people sometimes forcefeed folks their Shakespeare – that in that context, it’s a little like that cardboard stuff they call pizza in school cafeterias. Of course people don’t want to eat or teach that. . .but there are dozens of ways to approach teaching Shakespeare that don’t require swallowing it like medicine. (If you need help finding those ways, I know many organizations who could help, not to mention a Shakespeare Consultant who’d be glad to be of assistance – full disclosure – it’s me.)

There are a million pedagogical reasons to teach Shakespeare in schools. Working with Shakespeare can teach you such educationally valuable skills as close reading, text analysis, poetic devices, narrative structures, empathy, motifs, themes and so on. It is rigorous, complex and interesting text. Engaging with it can expand your view of the world. But for me, all of that is beside the point. I teach it because it tastes good to me. It’s the best pizza. And people have continued to teach it for centuries, not because it’s their medicine and they have to take it, but because it gives back when you engage with it.

I have, on occasion, started my residencies with students by asking them to tell me why they think people are still reading and performing these plays 450 years after the writer’s death. Their answers (once they get a taste for it) are never “because it’s part of the canon” or “because we have to.” They point to the richness of expression, the power of the words. Those things work across the centuries.

Are there other plays, other writers, other stories we could be and should be exploring? Absolutely. Explore them too. No one needs to eat ONLY pizza every day. But a world without pizza would be emptier – and less delicious.

I will say, though, that if pizza doesn’t float your boat, then maybe you don’t need to be the one to introduce it to people. Let someone who loves pizza take a newbie to their first pizzeria. And if you honestly hate Shakespeare, it’s fine with me if you don’t teach it. It’s probably better for everyone involved if you don’t have to force something you don’t like down the throats of your students.

But, if you’re an English teacher, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find something to love in it, too. Its basic ingredients include some of the most exciting uses of words in the language. If you love words and hate Shakespeare, it’s a little like loving dough, tomato sauce and cheese but hating pizza. But anything’s possible. If you were forced to eat pizza as a child or there’s just something about it that doesn’t suit you, there’s no need to feel like you have to have it. I’ll be happy to bring your students the Shakespeare. And we can all have pizza together.

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Boys Behaving Badly

The drama teacher I was working with had a concept for the scene he was directing. He wanted five couples – five boys and five girls.

On the first day of his rehearsal with them, six girls showed up and three boys. One of those boys clearly had no real interest in being there but had been talked into participating, probably by the offer of extra credit. Throughout the class, he acted out, ignored directions and eventually just disappeared. Everyone else soldiered through, eager to work – but often they were distracted and derailed by the disinterested one.

The next time I turned up for this class, there were five boys and instead of just one badly behaved boy, we had two. Their behavior was distracting but their gender made them necessary and they knew it. Because their teacher needed boys for his scene, he had to tolerate their disrespectful, uncommitted and generally flaky behavior. And so did everyone else.

This precedent, set here in high school is something that I continue to see as actors get older and start to make their way into the professional world. In directing my own work, I have, just as this teacher did, tolerated some grade A shitty flaky behavior from men, just because I needed them. For their gender. I needed a king. I needed a father. And that maleness was important for the story so I put up with it.

It’s not that women aren’t shitty and flaky sometimes. Believe me, they can be. But, it’s a lot easier to call them on it, partly because it’s a lot easier to replace them and most women know this.

Starting as young as middle school, or even in elementary school, boys learn that they are valuable and that they can get away with overly entitled behavior because they are indispensable. And girls learn the opposite. Girls learn that they are interchangeable, disposable and that no amount of good behavior on their part is as valuable as simply showing up male.

In the last year or so, I’ve been working on unscripted improvised work and one of the benefits of that is that it doesn’t matter what gender anybody is. One young man who wanted to work with us failed to respond to several emails and couldn’t be at the first rehearsals and seemed shocked that I wouldn’t bend over backwards to have him. I didn’t need that sort of headache, no matter how brilliant he was reported to be.

Just like I advised the teacher I worked with to do, I now try to work with who is showing up consistently, eagerly and ready to work and allowing those who are entitled and flaky to fall by the wayside.

I don’t know yet how I will handle the imbalance of behavior when I return to scripted work. Luckily for me, I write mostly for women so I don’t tend to need a lot of men. And there are, of course, many well-behaved men who are a delight to work with. I choose them whenever I can. But you bet your boots, that I’d rather have women read the men’s parts than a badly behaved boy. I’m done reinforcing that kind of behavior – from children on up.

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