Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Arts Save the Children

We had a hopeful politician come to our door, campaigning, and so we asked her about what she’d do for the arts. She said she understood the value of the arts, that they kept kids out of trouble, the way sports had for her as a kid so she supports them. It’s a sweet story, really.

I enjoyed that story and I like this politician a lot but I hate this reasoning. First, supporting arts programs for kids is not supporting the Arts. It’s great and I spent many years in those trenches but Arts Education is not the entirely of The Arts. This is a common conflation, though – and artists do it as much as anyone, usually when they’re trying to raise money for an arts program.

The other part of it I hate is the way it sets up art as just a method of keeping kids busy. It’s like an after-school job or a club or something. This framing also tends to travel hand in hand with setting art up as a savior for troubled children. I’m particularly sensitive to this one because I used to believe it. I used to be in classrooms trying to SAVE THE CHILDREN with Shakespeare or music or whatever. In some cases, the people who sent me into these classrooms also wanted me to SAVE THE CHILDREN with my theatrical magic.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

I’m not saying it’s not possible for a child to discover an art and find their way to a new future that might be seen as saving them. That sort of thing DOES happen. I have seen it happen myself. But it does not happen often. And it can’t be planned for.

But it’s also not unique to the Arts. Anything could save a wayward child. It could be sports. It could be cooking. It could be knitting. It could be watching Wheel of Fortune. Basically, anything that lights a person up and gets them going can “save” a person. The arts are perhaps more likely than Wheel of Fortune to engage a child but it’s all really up to chance.

Why should we support the arts if not to save wayward children? What are they good for besides keeping kids out of trouble?

The arts are good for our souls, okay? Maybe we’re not supposed to use words like that when it comes to finding funds and government support – but that is fundamentally what is at stake. When the going gets tough, people turn to the arts. During this last year of trauma and lockdown – when so much became inaccessible – many people turned to music, turned to stories in multiple formats. It’s not a hug from your mom but it’ll do you good.

A culture is judged by its arts and a culture that doesn’t support its artists is going to lose them. They’ll emigrate or cease to be artists or their wells will dry up and the faucet that pours out stories and meaning might not deliver like it needs to at some point.

What do we need to say to our politicians so they understand? How do we help them see artists as more than an after-school program? For years, our arts leaders have been attempting to make the economic argument about how much the arts contribute to the economy and if, after this year of artistic devastation and all the economic devastation that surrounds that, they still don’t get it, I don’t know that they ever will. I think we have to just talk about the source. That arts are good for our culture, our souls and our social identity. The politician who came to our door was elected while the more Arts forward candidate lost – so now the task becomes how to help her do more than just say she supports the arts. Now we have to help her learn how to actually support them.

The Arts can do a lot but I don’t think they’ll save these boys from those bees!

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4,500 Teaching Artists (Predictably) Fall Through the Cracks
January 8, 2021, 8:02 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , , , ,

In the comments on the Gothamist article about 4,500 Teaching Artists losing work, someone said “Do you mean Art Teachers?” Here was a major publication addressing what was once my profession perhaps for the first time and the comments all suggested a complete and total lack of awareness of what the job was. One comment suggested all these out of work artists go join the army. Nice. Nice. And also hilarious. Can you imagine the guy at the recruitment office if 4,500 visual artists, musicians, actors, composers, directors, writers, filmmakers, puppeteers, dancers, cartoonists, choreographers, clowns and more (who can all teach killer workshops) showed up to join the army? That recruiter would not know what hit him. Believe me, 4,500 artists would not be a benefit to an organization that values obedience. If the organization was in the mood to shake things up, re-evaluate, maybe use their resources differently than, say, shooting people, then 4,500 artists might not be a bad idea. If you want an army of creativity instead of an army of soldiers, it’s genius – otherwise? Total disaster.

Anyway – I used to talk about teaching artist stuff quite a lot here on the blog, back before I quit doing it. I had a lot of worries about where the field was going and what was going to happen to the veterans of it as well as the new ones joining the ranks. I was worried about the professionalization of a profession that had no security. I was worried about people investing a lot of resources into programs to certify them that would never give them secure jobs or a safety net.

And here we are. I mean. Everyone is in crisis. Teaching Artists are not the only ones. A lot of Arts Administrators who had secure jobs don’t have them anymore, so it’s not just Teaching Artists in the Arts and Arts Education who are now in dire trouble.

But – most Teaching Artists I know were generally living right on the edge, picking up work when it was available, piecing together a living out of a class here and a workshop there. There is no net for most of them. They probably have no savings account nor a house they bought.

The thing I keep thinking about is how Teaching Artists were invented as a stop gap measure when the arts were cut in the 70s, here in NYC. With no actual arts classes in schools anymore, arts organizations stepped in to supply the one thing there is always an abundance of: artists – to teach at least a little bit of art in little chunks of time. It was not a solution. But decades later, it was what everyone was still doing and the stop gap measure grew and grew and no one complained because schools were getting world class artists for cheap, artists were getting flexible work that utilized their art making skills and organizations were raking in grant money. The job got more and more formalized and yet never more secure, with no benefits or guarantees of work, depending on the whims of a (rapidly) rotating cast of administrators. And the arts did not return to the public schools in a meaningful way. There wasn’t, say, recruitment from the Teaching Artist ranks to join the faculty at a school and be the drama teacher, the art teacher, the music teacher or run an arts program in-house.

Now the arts budget that brought Teaching Artists in and sent students to Broadway shows or to see the symphony or a museum have been reduced to almost nothing. There is almost no reason to bring a Teaching Artist into your Zoom classroom. The stop gap is now just a gap. The gap reveals all the ways this was all just built on sand. The degrees and certifications that people went into debt for to do this job, the job itself, the investment arts organizations made in these programs. It’s all just – gone. A part of me just wants to shout, “I told you so, I told you so!” But that would be a real jerk move given that everyone involved has probably lost their entire livelihood.

The thing is – if, instead of building these haphazard arts programs – the city had rebuilt its arts programming in schools, things would be a whole lot less precarious. It’s easy to let 4,500 artists fall through the cracks because they never really existed for the schools or even a lot of arts organizations. Not in a meaningful way. When I was doing this work, I had to consistently explain to multiple people who I was and what I was doing there just to get a key to be able to use the bathroom. That’s both in the schools and at some arts organizations I worked for. But what if, instead of a teaching artist doing a 12 day residency once a year, the school had a drama teacher? That person is a lot harder to get rid of. The people in the school would know their name and would at least throw them a party if they got fired. And the union would certainly have something to say about it, if it were a public school. I’m not saying I would have liked to have been a drama teacher. I 100% would not. Popping in once a week was exactly the right speed for me. But I know a lot of Teaching Artists who would have loved to be invited to teach in more secure circumstances, who would have appreciated the opportunity to get health insurance, a pension, etc.

I imagine there’s around 4,500 of them who would especially appreciate that now.

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Who Is This Arts Education Experience For?

Having spent a couple of decades in arts education, in a multitude of schools through a dozen or so arts organizations, I’ve had occasion to wonder who it’s all for. Maybe it seems obvious. It’s for the kids, of course! It’s for the students! Except when it’s really not.

I’ll give you some examples. This first one happened recently to a musician I know. A group of kids came in for a musical theatre workshop and their chaperones pulled out some high-end cameras and microphones and began weaving in and out of the students who were trying to learn a song. The musician suggested to the grown-ups that having a safe, camera-free space to make mistakes would be beneficial to the learning process. The chaperone said, “No, but I’m trying to get some footage of their growth so this is great for me” and kept filming. Who was this workshop really for?

Or this one: Let’s say you’re putting on a play. And you cast little Jimmy to play the lead. But Jimmy is very quiet. You can’t hear Jimmy when he says his lines. When you tell Jimmy to speak up, the “problem” does not improve. And Jimmy’s not the only one you can’t hear. So you get a sound system and a bunch of mics. Jimmy has his very own lavalier. And Jimmy, because he has a mic now, gets quieter – so the sound guy has to pump the system up all the way just so people can hear Jimmy. But then the kids can’t hear the band so they miss most of their cues. Who is this for? What has Jimmy learned? He certainly hasn’t learned to project his voice. Or even how to use a microphone.

The audience, sure, has a better chance of hearing Jimmy now, however out of sync with the band he is. And the administration can rest easier knowing they’ve invested some money in making the students heard. But none of that was for Jimmy’s education.

Over and over, I’ve watched adults twist themselves into knots trying to put on a good show. They invest their own artistic aspirations into the students’ work and do whatever it takes to get something polished onstage. This is never going to happen. Your students aren’t that good. They’re not going to put on a Broadway quality show no matter how much you yell at them. I’m sorry to break it to you but your students are probably not good. Yet.

And once you realize that student work is not there to be good, you can start to tune in to what it IS there to do. It’s there to give the students an opportunity to learn. They will learn something in the process of putting on a show – no matter how it happens. But if what they’re primarily learning is how to please their director, they are not having the richest possible learning experience.

Putting on a school play is valuable for so many reasons. The opportunities for learning and discovery are endless, really. But for me, to me, privileging the production over the students’ learning is getting in the way of the best opportunities. One of those opportunities is failing at it. If you, for example, don’t learn your lines as well you’re supposed to and then you go out onstage and forget them, that is an excellent lesson you just learned. For me, the most potent part of every theatrical experience in education is when the students unpack all the things they wish they’d done better. That’s learning in action.

But…in my experience, most people who put on plays in schools are much more concerned with how the play looks than how the students are learning in it. They are worried about how it will look or sound to administrators, to parents or to funders. School plays (and concerts and presentations and so on) are 9 times out of 10 – not really for the people putting them on but some authority that their teacher/director wants to impress.

And the reality is, you’re probably not going to be able to change that. But it can be helpful to name it as it’s happening – to be clear that you’re getting a sound system for the principal because she gets so cranky when she can’t hear students or to be clear with your students that you’re spending time on light cues that you could have spent rehearsing because the school board decides the funding based on these shows and they need all the bells and whistles. That’s who the show is for, then. It’s an audition for the school board budgetary committee, not a learning experience. And knowing that can sometimes make engaging in those parts a little easier. You can yell at the students to be louder for the principal and do some character exercises for their growth. Personally, I’d prefer a theatre program that allows for discovery and failure and learning but most programs aren’t built that way. Which is, frankly, one of the reasons why I moved away from arts education.

But before I go completely, I want to share a chapter of a book on Teaching Shakespeare that I’ve been working on. It speaks to this question of who it’s for and what exactly you’re doing when you work on Shakespeare through performance. It’s something I clarified while teaching graduate students in education and as far as I know it’s a distinction that no one’s making and a distinction I think is crucial at this point in the field’s development Shakespeare education.

The text is here on my Shakespeare website and there is a direct line between this post and that chapter. If this topic speaks to you, particularly if you are an arts educator, click on over. But meanwhile even if you are not an educator, this perspective on learning might be useful when you go and see student work. Parents, for example, can be important advocates for more student-centered work. Or, at the very least, you can avoid complaining about not being able to hear little Jimmy. Remember, the show is for Jimmy’s learning, not for you.

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Announcing My New Podcast (You know – for kids!)

Introducing Reading the Library Book – a podcast in which I read my novel for young people one chapter at a time. Part audio book and part writing workshop, the podcast invites young people to be a part of the writing and editing process of novel writing.


I wanted to find a way to get feedback from young people about my novel. As a playwright, I am accustomed to being able to watch and sense my audience. This helps me work out what bits are really working and which might be expendable. Due to a novel’s length, it is very tricky to utilize similar barometers for this new project. I can only read so much aloud at a time and to so many people at once. The podcast will allow me to share my work in progress with friends around the world and to (hopefully) receive some thoughts about what young people are responding to when they listen to it.

The podcast will also serve as a commitment device for me. The trickiest part of this novel writing process has been finding the time and the will to do the major editing – if I have a group of young people waiting for me to read them another chapter, I cannot drag my feet.

This process blends a few separate strands of my creative life and practice. While this is my first novel, I’m finding many parts of my identity weaving together in this new venture. Certainly, my experience of podcasting and blogging helped support the speedy launch of this new one and my experience as an arts educator gives me some ways to set up an open, supportive space in a new venue. My theatre practice has given me many ways to listen to feedback and ways to be specific about asking for it. And I even made myself a quick theme song for the whole affair.

If you know a young person who likes books, please share this with them. I’m not entirely sure of the age range yet. (That’s part of the reason I’m doing this podcast. I want to find out!) I imagine it’s somewhere in the 8 – 12 range. But my first listener was six. Basically if you’re reading Harry Potter or The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, you should be fine. It’s not nearly as scary as those books either.
Thank you!

This is the current blurb:

Leandra spends most of her time in her local library. When the library’s books and librarians vanish, Leandra sets off on a quest to find them. Following a mysterious trail of red leaves through a leaf-pile, she discovers Akita, the fantastical Global Library, where libraries come in all shapes and sizes. With her new friend, Ammon, the Wandering Librarian and his library (a camel,) Leandra investigates the disturbing trend of all kinds of books and libraries disappearing. Are those her books paved into the ballroom floor? And what are those strange books wrapped in burlap and twine that seem to send people to inhospitable places as soon as they open them? Who is behind the cryptic messages and illustrations that keep appearing in her library book? Is it The Chair? Or reclusive author, Dorothea Crane? The fate of them all rests in one young girl’s book-loving hands.

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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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The Perilous Economic Intersection of Arts and Education

The week before the teaching gig was due to start, I was told that I was going to be paid $200 less than I did last year for doing exactly the same job. This program, I was told, was too expensive – so they had to reduce everyone’s fees. In the end, I negotiated my payment back to where it was meant to be but it took a great deal of effort just to get paid what I was meant to be paid in the first place. Being underpaid is one thing, being paid less than underpaid is quite another.

This is par for the course in two arenas: the Arts and Education. The fact that I work on the intersection of both of them puts me in a double whammy of reduced status. The people making decisions about fee reductions have very real limitations. They work in a field that doesn’t make money. (So do I!) They have to figure out a way to keep the programs going without enough income. (also a problem I’m familiar with.) I’m sure they look at the budgets and the only thing they can see to cut is the rate of the artists, educators and scholars.

But I can’t help but notice that the people who make these decisions also have salaries (something I don’t have) and those salaries are never on the cutting block in these situations. I’ve never seen someone in this scenario looking at an underfunded program and saying, “Oh, I’ll just make $200 less that week to make up for it.” And of course, they shouldn’t. That’s absurd. But so is cutting the one really meaningful resource in a teaching program, which is the teachers. I’m worried about what this trend portends.

Reading Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier has made me think a lot about all of the jobs that are vanishing as we shift our world into the digital age. Lanier warns us that the artists are the canaries in the coal mines of our current moment. It might be something like: “First the digital economy came for the artists and we didn’t worry because we weren’t artists. Then it came for the journalists but we didn’t worry because we weren’t journalists. Then it came for the educators and what did we care? We weren’t educators.”

And so it goes through all sorts of surprising middle class jobs. Law. Medicine. There are very few things in the future that are safe from the changing landscape. Bit by bit, the current economic climate chips away at the arts and education – and I’m standing here at the intersection watching it fall apart.

I am deeply worried that so many of the things I love most are losing their value. That is, people still like those things, they still think art and education are great, they’re just not willing to pay for them anymore. And that means while I managed to keep my $200 payment this time, who knows how much less it will be next time. If there is a next time.


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Where Teaching Artistry is going
April 9, 2014, 7:51 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Ladies and Gentlemen of the blog, I have quit my last remaining Teaching Artist gig. I was hanging on to it – because I like eating and paying rent and things but not long ago, I finally cut the chord. And it feels fantastic. After spending the weekend teaching a group of future Teaching Artists (and Theatre Teachers) I found I couldn’t go back to being treated as if I didn’t matter – eating and paying rent be damned.

In addition to a profound sense of liberation, I have a new perspective on something I’ve written about before. You may recall that I was a little incredulous about the new theatre education programs and certification of Teaching Artists. In the Systemization of Art, I went on at some length. I stand by what I said before but all of it has new flavor. Having now taught within one of these programs, having seen what goes on there and who they have in the room, I am even more concerned for their future than I was when I was worried about them in the abstract. Now that I’ve seen what they’re capable of, I want a more sensible system for them to go into.

It seems to me that there is a tremendous divide between what happens in the Arts Organizations who have work to give and the people in these programs who have so much to offer. I saw extraordinary creativity, thoughtfulness and pedagogical skill in my students. They understand a lot and are able to enthusiastically engage in theatrical and educational practices in sometimes thrilling ways. And yet none of these skills are particularly in demand at most of the Arts Organizations that I’ve worked for over the years. What seems to be valued in the actual dollar-giving field is an agreeability, a fulfillment of grant-mandated goals and filling out a great deal of paperwork. The people in charge of these program are rarely educators and rarely have any sense of the operating pedagogy you might be using. My theatre programs have been managed by drummer, a producer, a literary agent, a classroom teacher, a handful of actors and so on. (No disrespect to any of those people, some of them were great, regardless of their background.)

So I look at my brilliant students, breathlessly learning new methodologies for blending their artistic practices with their pedagogical ones and I cannot imagine where they will get an opportunity to exercise that muscle again. My own muscles have gotten fatigued with the constant straining against disrespect and voicelessness in the institutions in which I have worked. Part of the pleasure of teaching these future teaching artists is that my creative/pedagogical muscles got their first real exercise in years. And now I have a protective desire to re-make the world for them. I don’t want them to endure the disrespect that I have have been straining against.

The field needs to take a good hard look at itself and start to figure out how to make the best use of everyone. To bring in these new teachers just to execute institutional lesson plans would be a total waste of them. Like it has been a waste of us. The artists and teachers have a great deal to offer Arts Institutions, just as Arts Institutions have a great deal to offer artists and teachers. It’s just that right now, no one is getting the best out of anyone, as far as I can tell. We mostly sort of bump into each other awkwardly – like middle schoolers at a dance. It’s like the Arts Institutions feel like, since they’re holding the purse-strings, that they know what’s best for education and the artists/teachers may actually know a whole lot more than we’re ever allowed to express.

I’ll confess, the last time I wrote about this, I was (underneath it all) a little worried about the new kids taking my jobs. Now that I’ve quit and I understand what the new kids are up to, I see that we are actually more alike – that they will be frustrated for the same reasons I am. If my experience is anything to go by, the skills they have will remain essentially invisible. All the potential will go unrecognized. They will be asked for only a fraction of what they are capable of and criticized for the results, while their extraordinary process remains unseen. And all those ideas I heard in their grad school classroom will stay in the Ivory Tower and never make it to the young people of NYC.

“A passion for this work”
January 6, 2014, 1:05 am
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At a panel discussion I attended recently, an arts education guy said, “We want teaching artists who have a passion for this work. We don’t want people who are just looking for another gig.”

I’ve heard this sort of thing in Arts Education so many times, it’s a little like the refrain of a song. (“Oh, that old line again! Love, love, love, they’re always looking for love!”) But I heard this idea in a new way this time. It occurred to me that the subtext was, “Don’t ask us about how much it pays. Don’t ask us about working conditions. Don’t think about this as a job.” This sensibility is very common in this field and one of the reasons we, as teaching artists, are so under-supported.

We are meant to love our jobs so much that we’d do it for nothing, yes, we would! Sometimes this idea is explicit –  like the time I went to a Professional Development workshop and in the first exercise of the day, we were asked to step forward if we “loved teaching.”  There was an assumption that we’d all have that in common. I have to tell you that in that moment I’ve never hated teaching more and I’m no longer in a place where I can lie about how I feel. I am extremely capable at many varieties of teaching and when I am doing the Work, most people assume that it is my passion and will say so. I hear varieties of “You seem to love it so much!” all the time. At which I smile mysteriously. I feel like it’s nobody’s business how I feel about it if I am getting the job done. It’s not my business if a pilot loves flying planes, I just want my plane to take-off and land safely and get me where I’m going.
There is a strange emotional currency that runs through education and arts teaching especially. Somehow the field demands not only what you do but how you feel about it. I think this adds to the devaluation of professionals in education. You know who’s the most passionate about teaching the arts? Those who have never done it before. And when arts organizations privilege passion over experience, when they hire people who “love it so much!”, they’re devaluing the skill that it takes to hold a room, create curriculum, translate an art experience to a classroom, etc. My own preference is that if I work for you, you get to tell me when and where you’d like me to teach but you don’t get to dictate how I feel about that experience.
I think there’s some confusion about the job here. There’s an assumption that if I can’t convince an education director that I love this so much that I’d just do it for free, I somehow won’t be able to convey the magic of the art to a room full of students. And the ramifications of that assumption radiate outward where we, as teaching artists, don’t feel like we can ask for what we need because we’ve agreed that we do this for love and not for money, right at the outset.
It’s a devil’s bargain and it’s partly why most Teaching Artists last about three years before moving on to something else. This then means that the dominant pool of Teaching Artists are young, very passionate and extremely inexperienced. Those of us who carry with us years experience are the ones making noise about things and we become the nuisance to an organization that wants to believe it’s doing it all for love, despite the fact that almost everyone else in it is making a living wage. Everyone but the ones doing the teaching.

There are many things I do love. Teaching is what I do for money. And I believe in it. I care about it. I am actually very passionate about the work, I will concede. But probably not in the way that guy at that panel discussion meant. I passionately hate it, fight for it, rail against and for it. But I can’t say I love it. Not when I’m supposed to.

It’s like those cash registers at my local grocery store that remind the cashier to smile at the customer. Those messages don’t work. The cashiers smile even less than they do at other grocery stores I frequent. You know what might make the cashiers smile at the customer? A living wage. Health Insurance. A sense of being able to control their experience. An ability to contribute to the greater culture of the business. Funny – those things might actually help me love teaching again, too.

Dasani and the Arts
December 20, 2013, 9:06 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , ,

When I saw the New York Times article about “The Invisible Child” go through my Facebook feed, I thought, “That kid could be one of my former students.” I didn’t read it, though, not at first. Given that I’ve taught thousands of young people in the last 15 years, I figured every kid looks like a former student. It wasn’t until I’d seen the article go through my feed for the fifth or sixth time that I finally clicked on the link and read it.

Turns out, the child at the heart of the piece IS, in fact, a student I taught. While she’d grown up a bit since I last saw her, it was clearly the same Dasani that I’d worked with at PS 67 in Brooklyn a couple years ago.

Like many of my friends, I found the article moving and fiercely compelling. (I stayed up well past 2am one night reading it.) It’s a remarkable piece of journalism and I felt some bittersweetness in having some experience with its subject and her narrative. But I think there’s another narrative that is hiding within this one, one about the Arts and how Dasani became the self-reliant, articulate kid that she is.

We don’t see Dasani before she goes to the Arts school in Brooklyn. We don’t see her fall in love with dance. We don’t see how she came to be the kind of kid who would figure out how to get to Harlem from Brooklyn on her own for a rehearsal. I don’t know what the links in that narrative chain are but I do know what some of the conditions were at Dasani’s elementary school that allowed those things to happen.

1) Her school, unlike MOST public schools in NYC, had a dance studio in it and Dasani had a dance teacher and a regular dance class. Additionally, her classroom teachers expressed a great deal of interest in what their students did there. They were great supporters of dance and tried to integrate their movement work into their class work.
2) Similarly, her school had a music teacher and a music room and a music class. And the students’ work there was featured in their classroom teachers’ presentations.
3) Despite the article’s suggestion that PS 67 had no resources, her school did, in fact, have a computer room and her class had regular access to it.
4) Dasani not only had a theatre residency with me, she had teachers who would take what the class learned in theatre and then integrate it into their studies. Before the grant ran out, the school had an ambition to make sure students got exposure to theatre in every grade.
5) She had teachers who gave her, and her fellow students, writing and public speaking skills, which they practiced regularly. The students also often wrote creatively and practiced articulating their feelings and analyzing them. I saw it in action.

The Arts were a major part of Dasani’s childhood and they have clearly continued to play a large role, in that she’s gone on to study dance.

Dasani is a remarkable kid. But I will say, she was in the company of dozens of remarkable kids at a remarkable elementary school. And yes, I worry about her. You couldn’t read that article and not worry about her. But I actually worry less about her than I do about all of the students in her position who didn’t have the elementary education that she did. You can probably tell from the article that Dasani has a remarkable store of self-reliance, resilience and charisma. There’s something about her that makes me feel like she’ll somehow land on her feet.

But – what about the students who never found a reason to fight to go to school, who don’t have loving relationships with teachers and administrators, whose experience of poverty doesn’t have the bright spots that Dasani encounters?

It’s funny to think of a kid living under the conditions that Dasani has endured as having some advantages but that’s weirdly how I see her. And the major advantage that she’s had, in my mind, is an arts-based education. I think Dasani’s experience of the arts probably helped her to become the sort of kid a New York Times reporter wants to write about. It helped her become a spokes-kid for others in her situation.

If you’ve ever tried to teach a kid how to think metaphorically, you know how tricky it can be. Throughout the article, Dasani uses metaphor and expressive language like a total pro. And I believe that it was her exposure to the Arts that gave her that skill. I just wish we could give that gift to more of her peers.

Sometimes in Arts Education, there is a sense that the Arts can save kids in terrible situations. I think it’s important to recognize that the Arts aren’t going to get Dasani a home or solve her family’s difficulties. But what the Arts can do is give a kid skills to look at the world creatively, to find a reason to go to school, to develop valuable passionate discipline. And The Arts can’t do that in a piecemeal sort of way. It doesn’t happen with an occasional residency with a teaching artist. It doesn’t happen with a single visit to a museum. It comes from a sustained and integrated commitment to the Arts. It comes from having dance AND music AND visual art AND theatre AND having them on a regular basis. I want that for every kid in New York City and I want it for Dasani, all the way through the rest of her education.

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.

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