Art is powerful stuff. We artists know this, and we artists who teach or work in community settings have a particularly strong relationship to the knowledge of its power and efficacy. There are many examples of art in action all over the world, and throughout history. Some of them are easily site-able and have been written about quite extensively from the safety history affords us. But a few are breaking now! These two events are on my radar right this second, in Hong Kong and in Moscow.
I was a theater director and teaching artist in China for three years, in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong S.A.R. government uses teaching artists, and drama teachers in particular, to promote creative thinking and expression, which they, based on much research, concluded would further learning in many subjects, foster entrepreneurship, and a host of other skills. Arts education was the best way to teach young minds to think creatively and outside the box. And now they are. Many of my former students are now out there in the streets demanding democracy – – and I am so proud, and scared for them. My colleagues and I discussed often the ethics around teaching young people to think for themselves in a country that imprisons people for doing so, and it is amazing and bizarre to see this in action now. This is the power of arts education in action.
I don’t mean to say hundreds of thousands are thronging the streets of downtown Hong Kong because I was their drama teacher in 2008; but the concerted efforts over time of education, and the freedoms kept in post- hand over Hong Kong, paired with the influx of means of creative expression, and you have a gorgeous and dangerous cocktail of potentiality. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, led in part by the efforts of Hong Kong Drama/Theater Education Forum and its accumulation of research in the field, concluded in the early 2000’s that the skills drama education affords people are those most necessary for success in business and entrepreneurship, as well as for balanced person-hood and community involvement. In the Confucian method of education, rote learning plays the leading role, and individualistic creativity is discouraged. As a colony, Hong Kong became a haven for independent thinkers whose lives were put in jeopardy during the cultural revolution. The government of Hong Kong, the present Chief Executive aside, has been leading the Chinese state towards an innovation mindset; recognizing that rigid conformism does not make for successful business people. Spontaneity and free association are a few of the necessary talents developed largely through the arts, and drama in particular. Public speaking and fluency. A sense of confidence. The ability to work as a team, under pressure. Creative thinking skills. The ability to innovate. A free imagination. And here we are today.
I also had the privilege to study in Moscow when the Moscow Art Theater teamed up with the Eugene O’Neil Theater in Connecticut to bring American students over to study (now the program is accredited by Harvard University). While training there I attended too many incredible performances to count, and met some top of the line artists who were so deeply literate and infused with energy and understanding and a civic empathy I never forgot. One of the remarkable theaters in Moscow is Teatr.doc, whose often political works feature devised theater; the only place in Russia for such work, that I know of. They also host an amazing yearly event featuring new plays from all over the world. They have been closed, effective immediately, by the Russian government on some made-up technicalities. This is part of a much larger crack-down, Soviet style, by Putin’s government, but the latest in a growing series of egregious attacks on the community and the arts as the voice of the people.
There is a petition here, and more information, compiled by writer and theater critic John Freedman, to be submitted to the mayor of Moscow in protest of the abrupt and inexplicable termination of Театр.doc‘s rental agreement by the Moscow city government. The link contains a timeline of events, and context for what is happening in further detail.
Keep your brethren in your heart, and raise your umbrella! Keep strong!
Standing Above The Clouds
Young filmmaker Jalena Keane-Lee on her process of working with native Hawaiian teaching artists/movement leaders in her essay and film, Standing Above the Clouds.