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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“You are Such a Free Spirit!”
July 29, 2015, 10:31 pm
Filed under: clown | Tags: , , , ,

As I was leaving a dance class I’d attended, an observer of the class said to me, “You are such a Free Spirit!” This surprised me because I do not think of myself in this way at all. Maybe this is because the phrase “Free Spirit” conjures gypsy skirts and patchouli oil with maybe a crown of flowers over long flowing hair. The idea of a free spirit conjures flightiness, and a general disregard of others. So it’s hard to take being called a free spirit as a compliment. In fact, the tone of it made me a little angry. (Which is probably why I started writing this post. . .)

But – I suppose I do enjoy a certain amount of freedom. I recognize that I am rather freer than your average bear. I think what this observer was seeing was my ability to be uninhibited while dancing, to embrace the unexpected and to generally not be afraid to have a good time. All those thing are hard won, though, and have more to do with how I cultivate those qualities than any particular free spirit within me.

I am not so much a free spirit, as a clown. And there’s a bunch of training behind that. I learned how to enjoy myself wherever I can, how to take risks and generally not be afraid of making on an ass of myself. I really don’t mind being the first out on the dance floor. I will happily look like a fool. (Which, I think is really what this observer was implying with her comment. Subtext: “You look foolish!”)

And too, I think, by virtue of just having spent the last 20+ years choosing my own path as an artist, I am basically not afraid to be unconventional.

I see other dancers afraid to make any sound at all when we do the punching movements in this class (even though making the sound makes the movement easier and also feels good.) I see others trying so hard to do things right that they miss an opportunity to enjoy the moment.

Maybe being a free spirit is the same as being a clown, I don’t know. But a clown in a gypsy skirt is still a clown – and I guess I could really take being called a free spirit as a compliment. You won’t catch me wearing any patchouli, though.


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The Chance to Fail
November 12, 2012, 12:37 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , ,

That’s it. That’s all I want. All I want are multiple opportunities to fall on my face, to stumble into a wall, to trip over some obstacle and then keep going.
In my first clown class, my teacher, the incomparable Jane Nichols, taught us an exercise called Mr. Flop. In it, we’d enter with some big idea and then inevitably, sooner or later it would fail. We’d be stuck, onstage, squirming in front of the audience, dying to exit and leave our failure behind, but the point of Mr. Flop was the failure, to discover what we do when we fail – because often, the spirit of our clowns lived in that failure, in that human encounter with the flop.
Mr. Flop taught me a lot about clowning, that’s for sure, but it also taught me a lot about Art. I learned how to embrace failure, to seek out where I might not succeed – because that was where the gold was. When I play it safe, trying not to fail, I’m boring. My work is predictable and uninspired when I fail to flirt with failure. I think, when I court the possibility of failure actively, I make work that is infused with that sense of risk.
I had a one-off performance a while back and one internal voice said, “Use this as an opportunity to network, call “important people”, bring press packets and business cards, advance your career” and the other said “Use this as an opportunity to fail. Invite no one. There will be an audience but you won’t know them. Use them to help you fall on your face. Fuck it up.”
I went with Option 2 because I’ve done Option 1 too many times and not only has it never really paid off, it usually resulted in a stale overly careful performance. Option 2 felt like an opportunity to break free. And in the end, I didn’t fail, the performance went well, actually, but I think even if it had bombed, I would have been grateful for the opportunity to bomb. I would have learned as much, if not more, from bombing than I did from it going well.
In this theatre culture, there are very very few opportunities to screw up. Every performance requires so many funds raised, so much expensive rehearsal space, an expensive performance space, lots of dollars spent on marketing – all of which becomes such a heavy burden on a little piece of theatre that just wants to emerge and be seen. The extraordinary effort it takes to make anything here means we can never fail. And if we do it anyway, if we fail after having spent our donor’s $10,000 and no one liked it and no one came, the chances of us raising another $10,000 to put on another shoe-string show are slim to none. Fail once, pay forever.
There is no net. We are all just out here on the trapeze and sometimes we just swing back and forth on the same bar because we do not want to reach beyond our grasp and possibly crash to the ground.
I think this is why there is so much crappy theatre in this town. Everyone is trying so hard to never screw up, to never make an unpopular choice, to impress, to advance, to get that agent in or the critic or the publicity team or whomever it is, that the work is stultifying. In trying not to fail, we fail big time. Failing is the only way to get better – but to make just one show here requires so many resources, we never get to really attempt it. To become a great writer, you will likely have to write many terrible pages. To become a brilliant painter, you will need to make many terrible paintings. But this art form requires so many people, so many resources that we rarely get the chance to make many terrible shows that will lead us to greatness.

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