As of last night, I completed my second-to-last stint at working with children through theatre. After 11 years of it being my career focus, I am moving out of Ithaca to Connecticut to embrace other artistic identities. There is much to think about.
This program was a new one at The Hangar. A long-term rental which was to be in our space for the month of February fell through, which allowed us to try a February break program for kids. On a whim, I opened it up to a younger age group (Grades 1-3) than we normally host.
I had, as usual, carefully planned everything out. Which book to use as a basis for our script, what crafts this book would inspire, what music, and how our day would be structured. The week we just completed looked nothing like my outline. So what happened? The book had not arrived by Sunday night for starters. The book I found as a last minute replacement was much more simple and geared towards even younger children.I was busy all weekend leading up to it with other theatrical endeavors resulting in no time to re-plan, and by being alone with the kids a great deal of the time, sans some precious hours of collaboration with an intern, I had to also be the tier of shoes, the blower of noses, and the drier of tears. My energy levels aren't as high as they were in my 20's. I wasn't sure if it was going to work.
But it DID.
And I kindly shake my head at myself for even thinking it wouldn't.
I read so much about the importance of play with children. As idol Mr. Rogers said, "Play is the work of childhood." You'd think after 11 years of this I will not just trust the theatrical process, but trust this process as applied directly to children. After all, many aspects of theatre: imagination, playful experimentation, and trial and error THROUGH play, are the language in which they speak. These are all aspects us adults have to re-learn in our BFA and MFA programs. For kids, the process of theatre is a natural state of being.
The book we ended up using for our page-to-stage weeklong workshop was "The Turnip" by Jan Brett. A simple story with beautiful illustrations, I chose it primarily as it had the most characters out of all the books I was quickly flipping through before my own engagement. Would it work? I had no idea. Perhaps it was too simple. Perhaps the book I had intended to use would come and we'd focus on that one for the performance with "The Turnip" as a warm up. The first day was a blank slate, which is a first for me- the over planner.
We took it page by page. I read it out loud twice. The children absorbed it and improvised acting out the story almost perfectly. Then the real magic happened. They began to create original character interpretations which are from their own active minds and not from the story at all. The brother badger: a ladies man. The father: a grandpa instead since one child loved playing older people. And characters that didn't exist at all! One girl saw a picture of the garden gate and decided that should be her character. They wanted to play rock songs during it. Nice to know kids still listen to The Who.
All the planning in the world, backed by my lofty BFA and MFA degrees would not have produced the original work they created. I videotaped their improvs and transcribed them into a script, only changing one or two words which did not make sense out of the context of improvisation. The character drawings they did on poster board did not look like what I had in my head when I was envisioning what our ensemble-made garden and props would look like. They were better because they were THEIRS, as raw and unpolished as children's drawings can be contributing to the aesthetic of a child-centered performance program.
We filled our days with rehearsal and imagination exercises inspired by music, poetry, and prompts. Meditation, theatre games, crafting. I made the day about them and what they needed rather than what I thought they needed. We took breaks as often as they required. We checked in with each other to see how we were all feeling. We rehearsed our play enough to perform it with confidence, but would also break from a traditional schedule to let them just be kids on a school break. We performed our play to friends and family.
What was a lighthearted, whimsical, and silly 15 minute play with rock song dance parties was also something much more. It was a reminder to me, and I hope to parents, of the importance of play in children's lives, an often talked about subject and topic for advocacy.
Personally, it was an important reminder of the importance of play in my own life. In trusting the process and trusting others, and to often let go of whatever outcome I had envisioned, for I might be stifling something even more amazing. As Ursula LeGuin said, "The creative adult is the child who survived." And I was reminded of this by 6-8 year olds, which is the best part of this life lesson.
I have been mulling over a New York Times article, "How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off" by Adam Grant for a day or so. What particularly struck me was the quote "No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight." (Grant, n.p.)
While the article seems to be primarily geared toward parents, there is much in it I found useful. For one, it resonates a great deal with Howard Gardner's Unfolding vs. Teaching model.
In his book Art, Mind, and Brain, Gardner compares students and arts education with a botanical analogy:
Unfolding is putting trust in a student as you put trust in a seed to grow at the rate it's supposed to grow and become the plant it's supposed to become. Teaching is more interactive: the teacher is the gardener who transplants a seedling to an environment in which it can flourish. The teacher cultivates it and gives it the necessary nutrients to survive and flourish. Gardner's proposition is that a blend of both approaches the ideal. This blend acknowledges the trust that each unique seed will unfold, while teaching provides necessary support. (Gardner, 208-217)
The combination of both the article in the Times and Gardener's theory helps me clarify what I mean when I say that the Hangar's education programs are process based, not product based. Of course, there are certain structures and techniques we as teaching artists much enforce, such as diction, projection, learning of stage directions, etc. However, putting trust in the students to bring much of their own exploration and play within a container that allows for rehearsal time and performance dates.
Many of the thousands of students the Hangar has reached do not go on to become actors. In fact, most of them don't. However, by providing space for them to play and explore provides them an invaluable service of allowing creativity into whatever they do which, as this article states, is crucial in their lives no matter what their vocation.
There are other education programs that are product based. They weed out only the "best" students, and by best I mean privileged kids who have been forced into hours of voice, dance, and acting lessons at an age where they really should be exploring and expanding, not being molded into anything. I am incredibly grateful that the Hangar is not this way.
The article may be found here:
Works Cited in this post:
Gardner, Howard. Art, Mind, and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity. New York: Basic, 1982. Print.
Grant, Adam. "How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off." The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2016. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.
Today, I got to host my final Dramatic Dialogue of the summer season at The Hangar Theatre. As manager of Community Engagement, it is a hat I wear proudly, and am always in awe of ways I can use my art for community discourse.
Dramatic Dialogue is one of The Hangar theatre's free summer programs. Most who attended had not seen the show. Some don't know the nature of what we discuss. But there is a curious nature to audience goers: the wanting to know more. Dramatic Dialogue is a fantastic way for this to happen.
Previously, I hosted a film critic, B movie aficionado, and puppeteer to be our guest speaker for "Little Shop of Horrors". Today, we had a very different tone, as we had a resident psychologist from Cayuga Medical Center discuss suicide, alcoholism, and depression, as themed topics for our last play of our summer season: "Other Desert Cities."
For me, the true power of theater was held in the fact that one of the overwhelming statements in the play, as well as my guest speaker's knowledge, is that suicide is a very taboo topic. People do not like to think that it happens. People who have had it affect them often do not know how to cope, so ignore it and put on the bravado that everything is alright.
But in this time, because of a topic brought about by theater, it WAS talked about. For one small moment in time, a serious discussion was held about the nature of what brings about suicide, the tragic facts of it, and resources in Ithaca alone to help cope: either for people grieving from the loss of this act by someone they love, or help for many people who have tried to take their own life.
And the catalyst for this moment of healing through discussion: theatre. A play. One that many theatres who are focused on box office revenue would NEVER pick for a summer finale. But the fact that this play was chosen, and this topic was discussed openly today, prove to me the power of the art I am blessed to have a career in, and reiterate to myself that I have found my artistic home in The Hangar Theatre: a place that looks at all sides, angles, options, and opportunities.
One man who came to our dialogue stated that our very real discussion made him excited to see this play. Another wanted to know more about the suicide rates here in Ithaca, for we have an unfortunate amount due to the temptation of our beautiful, but also fatal gorges.
In this moment in time, strangers met and discussed. In the room of a theater during performance, complete strangers will go through their individual catharsis, and often plays will be discussed and dissected with members of the audience's clan, or the friends and family they have seen the show with.
But Dramatic Dialogues ups the notch more. By having a facilitated discussion with a local expert in the field the play of choice is covering, these strangers have the time and opportunity to discuss topics they normally would not, with people they may never meet again.
All for healing, all for discussion, all for upmost artistic impact, with no worry about a bottom line. How lucky am I to do this?
I live in Utopia. Really. Ithaca is it's own little warp in the time-space continuum.
I step out my door and turn right; I walk 10 minutes to a variety of sustainable eco themed stores by locally made sewers using clothing cut from recycled material, get a gourmet cappuccino, go to see local artists displaying their work in the plethora of gallery space, buy a nice used book for myself or even a fresh, new book, from an independent bookstore. I watch artsy films at an independent movie theater.
I step out my door and turn left; I walk 10 minutes to a natural gorge, hike the trails that allow me to explore the solitary and magical world of nature from above and below the waterfall. I go swimming in the large Cayuga Lake. I buy fresh vegetables from one of the nations most beloved Farmers Markets.
And I make my humble living as a professional theater artist.
But I'm not from here. I cannot close my eyes and my ears and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist. I do not have television, only watch shows on Netflix rarely, and only ones that do not press by "angry woman" buttons. But I know what's out there. And I know what it's doing to women and men.
I already know that to list every single issue I take with the way the media is manipulating the minds of women and men in this country, and list statistic after statistic about how this manipulation is resulting in thousands of pointless deaths, would result in a carbon copy of anything written by Jean Kilbourne. But what I choose to focus on now, is the depraved way our society is treating children.
Through reading Kilbourne, and watching Miss Representation, my fears have been confirmed twice-fold: that the media and advertising of today is a backlash on the women's movements of yesterday. Just like Big Tobacco realized how planting the seeds of their ideas in the minds of the young would reap them billions of dollars in financial benefits, until the children grew up, smoked, and died, the media and advertising agencies are doing this today. They are force-feeding the ideas that make them rich: that to be a man you need to be an ultra man, and to be a girl you need to be as sexually pleasing as possible, for that is your only role of value in life.
The problem of knowing this while living in Utopia is convincing people that this is a big deal. That we cannot stay blind and silent. And not everyone in my town lives under the magical spell of naiveté. In working with children, I see far too many young girls under the influence of this advertising, and too many young boys learning that a woman is not one to respect, but to power over. Every. Single. Day, I see this.
I am hoping with the creation and introduction of my Solo Show, "The Waking Danu Project" our community can start to have a discussion about what is really happening. I grew up under a bubble of protection, the "What she doesn't know won't hurt her" approach to parenting. But, inevitably, what I didn't know became apparent to me, and the not knowing hurt me in far greater ways than a simple discussion would ever have had.
The only antidote to this collective, diseased mindset of sexism in our culture is action. I hope "Waking Danu" will only be the beginning of a lifetime of commitment to use my strengths, talents, and connections in theater to serve as a means of education, discussion, and responsible action.
In writing Danu, and reading about the latest trend of the fat cat advertising industry to prey upon the young girls of our nation, I thought to email my friend Celia. Her post for the popular "Lil Mama's" blog entitled "Girls" has the exact rage and passion about this topic as many of the published PhD's on gender studies. Celia is part of the solution. She is the exact example of solution that there can be: someone keeping their ears open, their eyes wide, and their mouth ready to voice anything wrong or amiss that they find. It is that, exact, local, grassroots activism that needs to happen for this plague of rape culture, eating disorder death, and domestic violence to become dormant.
I told Celia of my project, and asked for her permission for the use of her blog, and she graciously accepted. She has even agreed to be part of the discussion process written into my script at select performances. Of course, a woman dreams of having her work backed by the likes of Gloria Steinem and bell hooks, but to have this perfect example of exactly the type of reaction people need to be having not only offer me her words, but also her presence for my project, is more than I could have hoped for.
Click Here to read Celia's blog "Girls," or copy and paste "http://thelilmamas.com/celia-girls/" in your browser.
The Ithaca City School District, responsible for the 8 total elementary schools I have had the honor of working in via The Hangar Theatre's Project 4 Artists in the Schools program, is facing a budget crisis. No surprise there.
On their list of things to cut is Arts and Music programs. Again, no surprise there. (To be fair, there is a long list of programs that are at risk of being cut/restructured/deleted.)
In my passions against this, I decided to write my very first letter to the editor. The format of stating my opinions in 200 words or less proved difficult, as my own passions in combination with the overwhelming data of the NEED for children to grow up in a high arts environment cannot be appropriately conveyed in this small word allotment.
The request from others to read both versions made me think that I should make them available.
The symmetry of Ithaca's problem also parallels that of the nation, that I decided to make the letters open and available to anyone who feels the need to opine on the topic.
All I ask is that if you use these letters, you
a) do it with kindness
b) Locate your own town's statistics on poverty, available through the US Census Bureau
c) Never give up the fight to keep arts available for all.