Taking on a big project has pitfalls. When the big project is an original play you wrote, the pitfalls include emotional exposure, frustration, and maybe even some embarrassment. But anybody who’s given birth to a work of art knows there are big payoffs. Emile Adams is a study in therapeutic writing. Emile claims to get some emotional benefit from her writing. She also happens to have been recognized many times over for her humor, pathos, insight, and dynamism as an actor, director, and playwright. When an individual takes on the task of producing an original work, they must be prepared to grow. The desire to produce a letter-perfect production may give way, as it often has for Emile, to a higher ideal; artistic growth. From her early Tulsa City-County Library play to her most recent Summerstage production, Emile pushes past obstacles including bipolar disorder. The willingness to grapple with a common truth is one of the most important things an artist brings to the process of staging an original work. Emile brings this with her every time, even if she is doing it kicking and screaming in an attempt to bring the creation fully alive.
Shakespearean Moments As the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) comes under fire and the conversation for saving the arts in schools pops up on social media yet again, I want to introduce you to Daniel Bowers. Daniel is a well-rounded kid with a hunger for performing. He sings in choir, he acts on the stage. It would not surprise me to see him take up tap dancing. Despite being a 6’4” 15-year-old football player, Daniel speaks as eloquently on acting as any acting coach. He credits his stage experience with building confidence, making friends, learning how to solve problems under pressure, and developing an appetite for working with a diverse group of people creating a big collaborative work from the ground up. These all seem like the things we would want kids to learn to succeed in life, never mind having a career as an actor. I met Daniel when he entered 6th grade at the school where I taught theater arts. He seemed to be a quiet kid but there was a lot going on in that busy brain. In addition to being an avid reader, Daniel is interested in history, languages, and making people laugh with the cast of characters living in his head. He auditioned for Alice in Wonderland. After landing a small role, he set about creating a character that stole the show. Without mugging, or ad libbing, Daniel did something adult actors occasionally miss. He took what was on the page along with a small bit of directing, and he created a memorable moment within the context of a story. I have directed Daniel in two other plays and it has always been a joy. The last show, Juliet Rescue, was a new piece written by my son, Will Inman (episode 2) and me. Daniel played “Young Will Shakespeare”. He eagerly took on the role and, while speaking in the Bard’s style, he created several hilarious moments that added warmth to the play. When I retired from teaching a year ago, I told him to come visit me in Virginia and I would take him to the Folger Library in Washington DC. It is the foremost Shakespearean library in the world. Daniel and his mom took me up on my offer and we spent quite some time learning about the collection at the Folger. I can imagine Daniel on stage there one day. But for now, I am thrilled to have seen him savor another kind of Shakespearean moment. There are lots of kids who benefit from performance experience. They are girls and boys, shy and outspoken, theatre nerds and athletes, straight-A students and strugglers, and everyone in between. They are a generation of leaders and innovators. And we want them all to have Daniel’s confidence. I hope you will enjoy Episode 3 of SallyPAL with Daniel Bowers.
The Final Collaborator
No matter how you define it, performing arts are collaborative. “But Sally, what if I have a one-man show I wrote, directed, and produced?” Unless you are performing for the shadows in your basement, even your one-man show will include at least one or two other collaborators. Your audience could be described as ‘the final collaborator’. Unlike stories told in the movies, on tv, or via the internet, a live performance assumes a live audience. Referring to a ‘dead’ audience simply means the audience isn’t noticeably responding to the performance. A live or lively audience is laughing, clapping, gasping, leaning forward, or otherwise exhibiting signs of participating in the moment. When audience members are emotionally engaged for the duration of a performance, they collaborate with performers in subtle ways. The academic term for this is suspension of disbelief. The illusion becomes real so long as the audience allows. A performer, director, or designer who ignores the value an audience brings to a live performance is in real danger of producing a lackluster show. Whether or not your audience members know it, they provide the final collaborative effort of an ever evolving medium.
Will Inman In 2013, Will Inman’s one-act play, Bad Days, was selected for a staged reading at the Kennedy Center as part of the VSA student playwright competition. Will’s plays have received a variety of writing awards and productions including the Rogers State University Original Recipe retrospective, and the Writopia Labs Comedy Playwriting Festival selected by David Letterman’s writing staff, both in 2014. In 2015 His play, Lesbian Exhibit, was featured as part of his hometown’s Fringe Festival. Lesbian Exhibit also received a staged reading in February at Rogers State University and a portion of that play was performed at Torrent Theatre in New York City in the Fall of 2016. Will starts his senior year in the University of Houston playwriting program in the fall of 2017.
Darian Silvers Darian Silvers is a native Houstonian who comes to directing through his work as a dancer/choreographer. He has performed on stage as an actor/dancer in the Houston area for the last 16 years. He recently directed a staged reading of the new opera, North Pond, at MATCH-Midtown Arts & Theater Center in Houston. Darian will direct Legally Blond and Little Shop of Horrors in the Adirondacks during the summer of 2017.
Storytelling is the primary role of the artist. Stories don’t have to be factual to be true. But to understand the truth of a story, you’ve got to be present to it. That time you spent in a theatre, literally crying at the death of a character, or when you were deep in a novel that made you cringe with a character’s social ineptitude, or the anger you felt while playing a video game when some ruthless villain destroyed your avatar’s home; these are all examples of being present to the truth of a story. Teachers call it suspension of disbelief. It’s the moment when the artist engages with the audience. Like the “final frontier” the exchange between artist and audience is the final collaboration. An audience member accepts that the artist’s work is truth wrapped in illusion. The stage is not grandma’s kitchen, the actors are not related to one another, the dancers are not drowning in yards of fabric, and the fabric is not a river. ALL performance is metaphor. Despite the deception, artists have a responsibility to tell stories honestly. You, as the author, composer, or choreographer, create the world of the story, or interpret an existing world. The world you create has rules. Your characters must abide by these rules. Without them the stakes are often too low to experience any meaningful truth. When characters bump up against the rules of your world, audiences suspend their disbelief. In other words, audience members become present to the moment of conflict. This can’t happen if your characters skirt the rules. Even when you bend your rules, it can yank a person right out of the moment. So remember to stick to the rules, but not necessarily the facts.
I’ve been missing my blog for quite some time. But, as it is with many teachers, time to write a blog often takes a backseat to a thousand other tasks associated with the job. In this time as I consider “retiring” to the east coast with my husband, I expect to reboot the blog to reflect my next venture. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
Speaking of coming along for the ride, at a recent 8th grade campout, students and teachers could choose to be harnessed and hiked up a pole. From this uncomfortable position (think: major wedgie), campers released a rope, propelling helmeted and harnessed humans into free-fall, followed by a wide, swinging ellipse as screaming, laughing, gasping participants were gradually lowered to the kissable earth. Unlike my students, I could not compel my hands to release the rope. I was unwilling to trust only my harness. Isn’t that the way with adults? I saw 30 kids take this terrifying ride. Each one released the rope as instructed and hung like rag dolls while screaming madly. But only one adult could do likewise.
As a theatrical director I find this kind of thing with adult actors who are self aware to the point of rehearsal paralysis. Most of these adult actors don’t even know they’re clinging to the metaphoric rope of their practiced behavior. It rare when adult actors release their own personality in pursuit of their humanity. But when they do, something quite magical happens… They fly.
Slam Poet Emily Hedgecock (my daughter) presents to a Teach for America audience.
Kids are wonderful creatures. We often see them through the lens of our adult experience. The novelty of life can dissipate after years of repetition. The first trip to McDonalds is magical, the second is super fun, the third is great, but after dozens of Happy Meals and crawling through yellow plastic playground toys and running on Astroturf, the place starts to become a burger joint full of loud children and tired parents. But when kids are in the beginning stages of discovering everything, even the most mundane experience can have appeal. It’s one of the reasons why teaching kids how to express their feelings when faced with a new experience is so important. It’s what creative teachers do. This video of slam poet (and my kid) Emily Hedgecock, is one of the reasons why I support the arts in schools (besides the fact it pays my salary). If art is a unique expression of a universal experience, then teaching kids how to share these experiences in their own way can connect kids in their shared understanding defining both themselves and their world.
Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things? Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way. I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea. This broadens the concept of art significantly. If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process. Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education. Diversity is a necessity for artists. But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness. I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook. Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development. Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level. If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more. For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar. For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.
How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth? This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy. Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment. When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests. The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve). When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.
Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking. The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions. The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom. We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged. In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits. It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation. Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.
Lately I have been doing a lot more researching and a lot less writing. I apologize to my two fans who wonder what in the world has happened to me. I want to share some of the stuff I have discovered over the next few posts so I will start with a wonderful article from Edutopia (the George LucasEducational Foundation website for education). The author has a lot to say about the resources available to teachers that will help us all connect in the 21st century. While not all the ideas are pertinent to every teacher, it could inspire you to use the available resources, most of which are free, to improve the classroom experience for you students. Enjoy:
This brilliant young woman is a product of Tulsa Public Schools. I am so proud to know her. She refers to feeling stupid in her blog but she is, after all, sleep deprived and speaking Chinese. This kind of cultural exchange is only one of a dozen reasons we should encourage language learning outside the primary language. Enjoy Kendall’s adventures in China!
So it’s 8:30 PM here on Thursday. That means it’s 6:30 AM Thursday for you guys. Today was our first full day in China. I’d say it went fairly well. After waking up about 4 in the morning and then going back to sleep until about 8:30 (at which time I was still tired), we slowly started our day. The shower was actually hot this morning although as expected the water pressure was little to none. First we went and registered with the College of International Education. We are now thrice insured (by our parents, by OU, and by Minzu…yay), have a placement test tomorrow at 8:30 AM, and must be sure to leave the country by August or face fines and deportation.
Next we went to find food. We walked up and down the street outside the East Gate (东门儿). We basically chose a restaurant based…