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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A Tale of Three Teaching Artists
July 21, 2014, 10:51 pm
Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: , ,

Once upon a time there were three teaching artists. These three were the entire teaching staff of a Shakespeare program. Between the three of them, they had a lifetime of experience teaching Shakespeare to young people. They inspired each other and complemented one another’s styles. Where one was weak another was strong and they made a circle of knowledge that benefited both the institution within which they worked and the young people they worked with.

They cared deeply about this program that they had all spent a considerable amount of time and effort in helping to craft. They went to meetings about how to improve the work. They saw managers come and go and changes go along with them.

They had a lot of collective strength but found themselves increasingly at odds with a changing institutional culture, and the sacrifices they’d made to keep doing the work started to seem less worth it. One by one, the unit fell apart. The first to go went to teach English full time at a high school, where her students are privileged to have the full extent of her teaching and she has an actual salary and benefits. The second to go threw herself on the whims of the marketplace to become truly freelance, as she had been before the institution (for whom she used to freelance) became more institutionalized.

The third remains there and is now surrounded by artists with much less experience and much less perspective. She doesn’t get paid any more than these new artists but must, continually, educate her colleagues as well as her students.

And it is the institution’s loss. It let a solid formidable program fall apart because it could not recognize the value of what it had. And this is what happens when experience is undervalued and obedience is the rule of the hour.

All three Teaching Artists are doing just fine. But the Institution has lost.


The_Three_Witches_from_Shakespeares_Macbeth_by_Daniel_Gardner,_1775 (1)

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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.

You can quit calling me a Teaching Artist
November 12, 2013, 10:16 pm
Filed under: education | Tags: , , ,

When I first started teaching, I was thrilled to learn that what I did had its own title. I was so proud to call myself a Teaching Artist. If you’d met me at a party in that period and asked me what I did, I would have happily declared “I’m a teaching artist!” And when you didn’t know what that was, I would cheerfully launch into my standard explanation of “That means I go into schools and teach workshops and residencies in art, which in my case is theatre.” I gave this speech to one friend back in Virginia who said, “Ah, yes. You’re doing God’s work.” And I swelled with pride. So noble. So righteous.

That was 15 years ago. In the intervening years, quite a bit has changed. The landscape for Arts Education in New York City has changed. Teaching Artists’ positions within Arts In Education have changed and so have I.

I didn’t know much when I started all those years ago. I learned it all on the job. Being a Teaching Artist taught me many things and there was a constant dialogue between my art and the classroom. Teaching taught me how I wanted to direct and directing taught me new ways to teach. For years, that was a very rich exchange.

I have been fighting the devaluation of my skills and experience in the field for a long time now, pleading for credit for the contributions of me and my peers. I recently realized that it was a losing battle. I realized that the title of a teaching artist has been so greatly diminished that it has come to be more like a kind of migrant worker of Arts Education. Like, “Let’s get some teaching artists in here to pick these strawberries.” Or “Oh, these teaching artists, they won’t come to anything unless you pay them.” (Actual quote overheard by arts administrator from actual other arts administrator.) More and more, we get treated like petulant children who won’t do what we’re told, who must be corralled and organized.

It used to be that we were Artists first – acknowledged and valued for our Artistic skill outside the realm of the classroom. We were hired as consultants, expected to handle whatever came our way with our own expertise, our own artistic practice, our own aesthetics. Now that we’re (working-at-will) employees, we’re brought in once a year to get reprimanded and instructed in paperwork and then sent on our way to represent the organization in a specially marketed light. And I don’t get paid enough for that nonsense.

So, I’m hanging up my teaching artist shoes. This does not mean I won’t teach anymore. I’ll be happy to teach a Master Class or a workshop and/or residency as your Guest Artist but I’d like to give up my title as a Teaching Artist. It has ceased to be meaningful to me so I’d rather be called something else, thank you very much. Call me a Curriculum Consultant, a Mentor, an Artist, a Teacher, an Actor, a Writer, a Director – any of these are all right with me. But you can get someone else to pick your strawberries. I’d rather not be called a Teaching Artist anymore.

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.

The Systemization of Art in Teaching Artistry
April 12, 2013, 10:48 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I’ve been a teaching artist since 1999. I’ve worked for a large percentage of the arts organizations in New York City. I’ve worked in every borough at every grade level. I’ve taught in around 300 schools. This is how I make my living: I go to schools, I teach workshops and residencies and various arts organizations pay me to do it. While my hourly rate can sound impressive, the laws of time, space and arts funding are such that it is impossible to teach all the time. Most of the hours I work as a teaching artist are unpaid, e.g. the hours of commute time to the school, the lesson planning, the scheduling, the paperwork, etc. Trying to put together a full time load of Teaching Artistry (which for me usually works out to working for three to four arts organizations at a time) is a serious task and not a lucrative one. The most money I have ever made in a year was $24,000 and that was only once in a very good year. I do not have health insurance and am regularly unemployed. The value of this career, for me, lies in the way this path gives me a bit of time and space to make my own work in the theatre. Its primary value is its flexibility. That is also its primary flaw.

I tell you this, not because I particularly need to reveal the practicalities of how I put together a living, but because I am concerned about the trend toward the standardization of Teaching Artistry. I have met, in the last few months, several students in Teaching Artist Certification programs, students who are presumably shelling out a lot of cash and time and maybe taking on student loans to become Teaching Artists. They are doing this, I assume, to get the sorts of jobs I have and have had for 14 years. I’m worried about them and the field. Is it responsible to send flocks of students out into the field where there isn’t work for them? In all my travels, I have never met a teaching artist who trained to be a teaching artist.

I met with a career counselor a few years ago and she asked me if there was a way to progress in my field, “Was there” she asked’ “a higher position to aspire to?” And the answer was no. I was, at that point, already sitting at the top. I was teaching for some of the most reputable arts organizations in the city, getting paid the top hourly rate. Maybe there are better, more secure, higher positions than mine that are secretly hiding somewhere but as far as I can see (and I think I see the field pretty clearly) there is no better position than the one I have. And I am barely scraping by with 14 years of experience, many glowing recommendations and a load of lesson plans under my belt. What on earth are these freshly certified teaching artists going to do? Has anyone teaching these people thought about this? Are they coming after my jobs? They might be. And they might get them.

This move toward standardizing is happening inside the field, too. When I began, a teaching artist was an Artist who went into a school and shared his or her Art. We learned on the job, wrote our lesson plans on scraps of paper and shared our triumphs and failures with our colleagues. We had the occasional “Professional Development” where we shared exercises and ideas or learned a new skill. It was uneven, sure, but each artist brought a piece of themselves to the process and created unique unquantifiable experiences for students (which is not all that different from the experience of art in my opinion.)

As time has gone by, our lesson plans have had to become, at first, written to be shared with administrators then shared in a particular format or structure, then, required to include standards and blueprints and long lists of other educational jargon. The most recent lesson plan I had to do was a 15 page document, for which I had to invent a great many educational buzzword sentences. None of which are of any use to me in the practice of actual teaching. I write these documents and rarely look at them again. These developments have led teaching ARTISTRY to something more like TEACHING artistry. Our professional development is now about how to make better lesson plans, how to talk about assessment, how to teach specialized populations. I can’t remember the last time I learned an actually useful exercise from a fellow teaching artist at one of these things.

I understand why it’s happening. I’ve filled out city funding applications for my own work; The paperwork is the sort of quantifiable evidence stuff that funders, bureaucrats and the Department of Education want, so that they can get more funding for the arts in schools. From an administrative point of view, all this stuff is a series of boxes to check off and the arts organizations just need to do it to make sure they keep getting those dollars.

The extra work for the teaching artists is no real burden to arts administrators, they just have the unenviable job of telling us about it. It is however, a real burden to an artist like me. I don’t get paid any more than I did when I started and the work looks more and more like the work of a classroom teacher. In fact, a classroom teacher recently sent me her unit plan and I was shocked to discover how much crossover there was in what she had to set down and what I had to set down. It’s turning into the same language. This may be why this move toward certifying Teaching Artists is happening. It’s perfectly logical that you train people in this educational jargon if they’re going to have to speak it.

But here’s the thing: a classroom teacher is paid a salary (not a BIG one, unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another time,) receives benefits and generally has the support of a union, her/his fellow teachers and the weight of an entire system behind him/her, as well as job security. A teaching artist has no benefits, no salary, no guarantee of work, no job security and no one to turn to if s/he is treated poorly. One new program manager who takes a dislike to you can lose you your job or severely limit the classes you’re brought in to teach. If there is a downturn in Arts funding in the school’s budgets, you might not get work at all.

It is not a sensible job. You have to be able to roll with the unpredictable elements of schedules, of teachers, of schools, of classrooms, the sometimes epic commutes, the revolving door of arts managers, the fact that you’re essentially on your own out there, the months of unemployment, the delicate schedule juggling (especially tricky when balancing one arts organization’s demands with another.) This gig requires an EPIC amount of flexibility. It takes a kind of artistry to manage in a world of ever changing circumstances and it is not the sort of world that responds well to systemization.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do it myself and maybe, given the way that the field is changing, I’m becoming a bit of a dinosaur and my breed will soon be extinct. But before that happens, I want to make plea for someone, somewhere to just THINK about what’s happening here. I’ve always thought that one of my principal roles in the classroom as a Teaching Artist is to provide an OUTSIDE perspective. The best Teaching Artists get described as a breath of fresh air, a challenge to the day to day, a way to see the world differently, a welcome change of pace. I think our work is at its best when we are NOT like a classroom teacher, when we bring all of the anarchic energy of art to a room full of people used to a particular perspective.
If we continue to push toward more standardization, toward teaching artists being like teachers, but with art, we lose the very value of the position. And listen, if that’s where the field is going, okay. But if it’s going there, if teaching artists are going to become certified and systematized, I hope, at least, that these new TAs will get the benefits of being part of a system. They’ll need guarantees of work, benefits, a salary. If this stuff doesn’t happen with those changes, then the system has just created a clever way to outsource arts teachers.

I have given up security, salary and health insurance to have a career that allows me to be an artist. The certified teaching artists coming up behind us will likely not even have that. It’s a much different world than when I started back in the age of the dinosaurs and I’m worried that there’s an ice age coming and all the dinosaurs will go and it will be a very long time until anyone finds our bones.

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