I’ve been in New York since September, studying and performing theatre. Since my earliest days, when I moved the furniture in our living room in order to choreograph, sing, and dance my way through every record in my parent’s great record collection, dance and theater have always gone together for me. I continued, from those in house productions, to theatre productions in grade school and then into high school shows. I kept studying and performing through college but as I did I began to hear a voice in my head asking “How might you do theatre and dance off stage as well as on? How could theatre and dance experiences offer something valuable to people outside of the theatre? How can they help us learn? “
I paid attention to that voice and began to explore possibilities. I found work as a dance artist in the schools, co directed a theatre company for developmentally delayed adults, and developed dance and theatre programs for kids in a residential psychiatric treatment center. My graduate study combined performance study with studying the impact of dance and movement on brain development. I worked in Latin America creating dance and theatre in communities and schools. I was the arts education director at the state arts commission supporting lifelong learning. As University faculty I provided dance and theater based professional development programs for teachers. It was all great work that I enjoyed and valued, but I had taken the work of theatre and dance off stage so thoroughly that I was seldom working on stage. It was time to find a better balance. To start the process I headed to New York.
For three months there I’ve been there, studying theatre, dance, and performing on stage. During that time I had the incredible luxury of focusing my attention on being a learner rather than a teacher. The two roles should not be mutually exclusive of course, but lately, instead of presenting workshops and classes I’ve been taking them. The process has been filled with hard work and sheer delight. I’ve struggled through acting exercises designed to help actors tap deeply into the emotional life of a character – as well as myself. I’ve delighted in losing all track of time as I researched aspects of a play, wrote a biography of my character, rehearsed. I’ve bumped up against the experience of not knowing the answer to something. Suddenly, in my professional life I was back to discovering, to exploring, to wondering about.
Those things are a part of the teaching – presentation life too. But it can become too easy for me to be seen by students and program participants as “the knower” prompting me to do my best to know what needs to be known. The graduate students I teach tend to see me as the “expert” and my attention shifts from the energy of questioning and discovering to that of bearing the responsibility and challenge of figuring out how to best convey information and ideas to learners.
During these last few months I’ve been swimming around in the seas of not knowing, finding out my own answers. One of the remarkable things participation in the arts offers is the chance to continually learn; to ask questions, investigate, and uncover new questions. As artists we study and hone our craft, we learn technique and varied approaches to making the work. We work to be present and in the moment, which is harder than it may sound when you are on stage in front of an audience. We research, envision, rehearse, try something out and toss it away as we refine our work. Theatre and dance are disciplines requiring very specific knowledge and skills. And yet, within that specificity there is always something mysterious about the making of the work. In the final analysis it is the alchemy of craft and practice, and spontaneity and mystery that makes a performance come to life.