A Call to Action: Theater Teaching Artists Hangout

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to “hangout” yesterday with theater makers and teaching artists Robert Stevenson (NYC) Ayodele Nzinga MFA, Ph.D. (Oakland).  The focus of our conversation was to dig deeper into the particular issues, concerns, strengths and challenges of being a teaching artist in the medium of theater.  As a theater-based teaching artist of over 20 years myself, I was particularly psyched to meet these artists and have this particular conversation.
It did not disappoint.

Here are nuggets that I am personally carrying away from this conversation:

  1. You can become a theater teaching artist on purpose or by accident.  Either way, it is crucial to build your career with intention.  Ayodele introduced herself as a teaching artist “by default.”  As both an artist and a scholar, she explained that her work depends on holding both theory and practice.  Once she stumbled upon this field of teaching artistry – once she learned that this was, in fact, a thing – she knew she belonged to this tribe.  She feels this holding of both theory and practice are at the core of what all teaching artists do all the time.
    Robert’s entry into the field was a bit different.  He studied education in school (as well as theater) and made a very conscious decision to become a teaching artist.  At the same time, he completely agreed with Ayodele’s take on teaching artistry.  Both Robert and Ayodele struck me as being so intentional about how every aspect of their work is integrated in such powerful ways.  Neither of them can think of their theater making without thinking about their teaching and vice versa.  All the aspects – artist, scholar, teacher, community activist, etc, – fuel each other and can’t exist without each other.
  2. Theater Teaching Artists possess a unique set of skills that we have learned from our life in the theater, practice every day in our work, and teach to the students we work with.  I asked both Ayodele and Robert to try to describe a typical day in their working life.  This was a comic undertaking as no “typical” day really exists.  Both artists, in attempting to invent an agenda that captures the essence of their dynamic professional lives, wound up listing such a diverse set of activities that it struck me how “superhero” like theater teaching artists have to be.  The amount of skills that these artists possess and engage on a daily basis is staggering.
    I led us through the exercise of listing the skills and traits that are needed to be successful in this work.  We came up with skills in 4 major categories:
    1) Facilitation – the art of bringing people together, activating learning, building community
    2) Management – the art of navigating multiple systems all at the same time, coordinating logistics, keeping things running despite limited resources, creating new systems when needed
    3) Artistic/Performance – the art of making theater, telling stories, talking/writing about theater, making theater accessible to those who may have never encountered it
    4) Self-Care – the art of being your best self, managing stress and disappointment, celebrating the victories big and small, problem-solving in a kind way.
    We talked about how we have all learned and practiced all of these skills (and more) through the making of theater and now, as teaching artists, we are able to teach these same skills to our students.  This is when I shared my belief that theater teaching artists really should be running the world.  Doesn’t everyone, in every field, need workers with this combination of skills?
  3. Theater is still relevant.  If you doubt this, talk to a teaching artist.  If you are not sure how to make your theater company more relevant, hire a teaching artist. I almost didn’t ask the question the dreaded question “Is theater still relevant?” but decided that I needed to bring it up…one…more…time.   Ayodele jumped right in with this exquisite response:

    “Theater is basically the conveyance of story.  Story is the oldest art form on the planet.  It’s impossible to separate humanity from its need to tell and see stories.”

    She went on to explain that her theater company, unlike many others that are struggling around the country, is experiencing a growth in its audiences.  With its mission of “building community one story at a time,” Lower Bottom Playaz is telling the stories of marginalized communities who rarely see themselves on stage.  She said that folks leave her shows with a sense that some kind of “magic” just happened.  As she brings her work out into the community, she knows for sure that these stories are changing people.  They are empowering youth and bringing folks together in new ways.
    Robert shared about Up and Away, a play he is doing with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company (in collaboration with Lincoln Center Education), an interactive adventure designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum where performances will be limited to just 8 audience members.  He reflected on all the ways that the theater is quite vital to both traditional and non-traditional audiences and wondered aloud how theater makers could do the work of scaling more innovative work like Up and Away so that more non-traditional audiences could be exposed to the work.
    Then, he challenged the field as a whole in a way that only a teaching artist can.

    “In terms of a Call to Action, in order to make theater more viable, it has to do with reaching those audiences that aren’t served…in the same way that when we make lesson plans we have these very clear objectives that we are trying to answer by the end of a lesson or by the end of a unit, the mission of a theater has to be super clear and relevant to the people in the community where the theater is located.  A mission statement probably shouldn’t just be ‘to investigate new work’ cuz what kind of a lesson plan would that be? ”

Nilaja Sun performing "No Child..."
Nilaja Sun performing “No Child…”

Next month, I am completely ecstatic that I will have the opportunity to continue this exploration of theater and teaching artistry when my guest will be Nilaja Sun, the Obie Award winning actress, playwright, and Teaching Artist.  For over a decade, Nilaja has been performing “No Child…”, her one-woman play about her experiences as a teaching artist in New York City, to audiences all over the country.  This award winning play has been licensed out to theaters and schools nationally where other young actors have performed it in their own communities.  In addition to the fact that Nilaja enjoys a successful career as an actress of both stage and screen, she continues to work regularly as a teaching artist in New York City.  She and I will talk about her work, her success, and the spiritual mission that keeps her coming back to the classrooms that need her most.  Make sure to join that conversation.
And make sure to heed the call of the theater teaching artist.  There are many of us out here doing this magical, spiritual, practical, community building work with love and intention.  I assure you that you want what we got.  We can change individuals, organizations and full communities in very meaningful ways.  Find us.
This is your Call to Action.



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