Keeping Caution from the Wind

Over the past few months I have been engaged to look at ways of applying theatre within communities that are cautious about a theatre activity trivializing or simplifying complex concepts and events within that community. Such caution is well founded given the numerous applications of otherwise well-meaning arts-based learning experiences that have gone horribly wrong.

I find theatre and dance to have more impact in learning environments if they do not try to outshine or outperform concepts or events. They should support and gently invite participants’ empathetic responses to such concepts or events. For me, using theatre and dance activities to engage conversation and encourage the exchange of ideas is paramount.

Theatre and dance should not be limited to ‘what happened’ and ‘to whom.’ Instead theatre and dance are best used as tools of inquiry to illuminate, question, or imagine beyond the given facts of concepts and events

Patrick

On this Election Day….

“I always took for granted that the best art was political and was revolutionary. It doesn’t mean that art has an agenda or a politics to argue; it means the questions being raised were explorations into kinds of change…”    Toni Morrison

 “Art is not a better, but an alternative existence; it is not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.”     Joseph Brodsky

 

This has been a long and grueling campaign season, for the electorate as well as the candidates.  Perhaps it has been a preparation for governance, for what lies ahead, for the intention and approach that will steer our  next steps. But preparation is only useful in relation to ensuing action

  In order to engage in effective action you must first find something that you value. Participation in the arts, as maker or audience, provides ways to take action that will engender our values and beliefs. When we engage in the arts things happen. Take action.  Movement is all!  

 But the challenge becomes how to keep moving and yet simultaneously slow down.  The Latin phrase festina lente means, “Make haste slowly”.  Take action, but do so with consideration and reflection.  The space between action and reflection provides room for growth and growth provides an impetus and avenue for art making. We make meaning in our lives by forging it with our hands. It requires sweat, consideration, and commitment.

 It is action that forges the meaning and significance of a life. Working toward meaning is the point.  In life, as in politics, it is critical to have some direction, and yet, we also need to envision the impossible goals that we are trying to achieve if we are ever going to achieve some of our possible goals.

We are living in very particular times that demand our response. No matter the immensity of the obstacles before us – political, financial, or spiritual, the one thing we cannot afford is inaction due to despair. The artist’s job is to stay alive and awake in the space between convictions and certainties. After the tragedy of 9/11 the playwright Charles L Mee Jr was asked” How are we supposed to function in these difficult times. How can we contribute anything useful in this (political) climate?”  He replied, “You have a choice of two possible directions. Either you convince yourself that these are terrible times and things will never get better and so you decide to give up – or, you choose to believe that there will be a better times in the future. If that is the case, your job in these dark political and social times is to gather together everything you value and become a transport pack. Pack up what you cherish and carry it on your back into the future”.

And so, into the future we go, our pack on our back.  Act today. Vote.

Alison

And then, you act: making art in an unpredictable world   Anne Bogart, Routledge Press 2007

Just Say Go To Moving Beyond First Choice-Only Choice

Much of my work over the summer was colored by participants’ resistance to my expectation for exploration and development of performance through repetition and the re-hearing of choices and text. Put another way, participants were content with their ‘first choice, only choice’.

The work of making a performative event is (and as far as I can remember, always has been) just that – work. Performance is a process of revision, editing, and refinement. It is never complete in its initial, first choice-as-only choice origin. An individual choice must emerge and then fold into the collective. Choices and impulses merge with direction and choreography and result in what is presented as ‘complete’. As the adage has it – rehearsal is ‘re-hearing’ material until it is ready to be heard by an audience. It takes work to develop the eventual ease and ‘spontaneity’ that an audience experiences.

There should be no mistaking as to the meaning of discipline within the creative act. It is the central commonality shared between any and all undertakings (regardless of discipline or genre) that produce results or products based on a process of refinement

This refinement in theatre and dance manifests, in part, as pushing one’s own sense of potential toward a disciplined, informed, and living choice to be ready, empathetic, and eager for yet another go at seeing what happens next.

Here’s to your ‘go’!

Patrick

The Joy of Participation – On stage and Off

A year ago a friend gave me a sticker that now lives above my refrigerator:  “Art is Art and Everything Else is Everything Else (Ad Reinhardt).  I laughed when I first saw it and have pondered about it ever since. “What is Art?” or “Yeah, but is it Art?” is an age old question that has been asked by everyone from art historians to museum viewers to second grade teachers to the artists making the work. Does it need to be functional or aesthetically pleasing to be art?  Does it need to be on a stage and have an audience? How is art reliant upon craft, vision and technique?  What is it that makes art “art”?

I had the good fortune to attend several performances at the Fall for Dance festival in New York during the last couple of weeks. The festival, held at City Center, presents a wide array of dance companies, performers, and genres.  On any given night there is a chance to see various companies perform work as wide-ranging as contemporary and lyrical ballet to a fusing of Korean martial arts and hip hop. All festival tickets are $15 for any night, any seat.  Accessibility and invitation fuels the festival and the two-week event brings in a full house and broad range of audience from dancers and dance aficionados to those who are seeing a concert dance performance for the first time.  The performances included contemporary Sumatran drumming and dance, Hawaiian male hula and Russian folk dance. There were modern dance duets, fiery flamenco pieces and exquisite East Indian Kuchipudi danced with live music. The pieces were all created for the concert stage but many of them evolved from the regional steps and styles found in circus rings, the fields, cultural celebrations, the docks, the bars, and the streets.

As I watched the performances and heard the exuberant audience applause, whoops, and cheers it made me think of the ways we all use the arts to mark occasions in our lives.  We tell stories. We dance at weddings, make speeches to toast anniversaries, decorate ballrooms for our proms, and write poems to celebrate birthdays.  Those artistic impulses connect us with one another. That sense of personal connection is what makes us thoughtful and well-rounded humans. That level of engagement fuels us and highlights our days.

Art, we know, stimulates different parts of our brains. It makes us laugh, tear up, and run a whole gamut of emotions in between. It gives us ways to consider and create. The arts explore form, content, and context including the ways an artist’s work has been influenced and the ways it influences us. But the arts aren’t found only on stage. The elements of dance and the principles of design are evident in the rhythms and choreography of a hop scotch game. The arts inform our days in the design of our shoes, the graphics of video games we play, the shapes of coffee cups we drink from.  We are most familiar with the presentation of performing arts on stage but what about when they take place on the street, in a classroom, a community center, or the kitchen? How are those rhythm games of hop scotch and jump rope the precursors to hip hop popping on concert stages? Rennie Harris, a dance artist from Pure Movement Dance Company who drew his movement vocabulary from street dance says dance traces a path from isolation to connection, from conflict to empathy. A “through-line, “in movement exists in a place where cultures cross.  Here’s to the throughlines of connection and challenge.

Alison

Fall for Dance Festival

http://www.nycitycenter.org/content/stage/ffd.aspx

The Honest Truth is….

Blogging keeps you honest.  Well, assigned blog writing keeps you honest.  This is the power of having a team to be accountable to…it keeps you honest on a deadline.  The daily responsibilities of swiping your time card, taking your dog to the vet, doing the grocery shopping and cleaning house harnesses you to the delusion that the “to do” list is a tangible acknowledgment of success.  It becomes easy to avoid deeper digging into our desires and needs when the ceiling is leaking and another storm is in the forecast.  How quickly we can compartmentalize our artistic, philosophical, and intellectual selves when the entropy of daily life coaxes us into believing those parts of our life cannot solve the demands of existence.

So we stop…we forget…we just give up on the layers of our lives which can’t seem to pay the mortgage or fulfill the demands others seem to be placing on us.  But in the end, it is our choice…our fears, our exhaustion which paralyzes our need to feel life ever present, and ever profound.

I envy the artist who simply cannot exist without facing those fears every day.  They enter the studio, they harness the exhaustion, they make the choice to act, to create, with complete understanding that they may fail.  My lack of artistic productivity these days rests in my fear of failure.  I am not a failure in the role of school administrator, so this is where I live eleven hours a day.  I am not a failure as a task master of the home, so this is where I spend what free time I have left in the day.  But if I am honest, my inner self is frightened this is all I will become.

Without my Throughines team, I would probably remain silent in this fear, but you see, assigned blogging keeps you honest.  And I can’t come to this work with false pretenses.   We have always developed our experiences from a place of true given circumstances and now can be no different.

ASK yourself…am I living in fear?

MAKE a choice to face that fear.

REFLECT on how much better life will be when we push through the minutia, dig in and feel things deeply and do something extraordinary.

Art, Theatre, Dance, Music…they are the threads that keep humanity together and I am so grateful to be assigned moments of truth telling no matter what storm may be in the forecast.   In this country, we all have the power to live with purpose which goes beyond our “to do” list.  People with greater responsibilities and fewer resources than I, are living life with more grace…time for me to step up.

Susan

Beyond Video Clips and PowerPoint: Actors As Teaching Tools

Using actors in professional development experiences can provide rich opportunities to deepen understanding and enlighten inquiry.

 Having had the good fortune to serve as an actor in real-time scenarios developed for law enforcement and medical professionals, I have seen how using theatre’s performative structure (identifying and defining character, location, central conflict, and motivation/objective) affords these professional development training sessions to provide their participants with unique experiences to encounter and engage with briefing session theory and/or protocols.

 Unlike traditional role-playing models, the actors remain on the outside of the briefing session content. Participants encounter the actors as they would individual members of their service population. Given that both actor and participant understand and buy-into the authenticity (theatre’s suspension of disbelief) of the scenario’s content, the participant is able to navigate the encounter by applying strategies and concepts learned during the briefing session. Because the actors are outside of the participants’ learning environment, the traditional staleness of role-playing is removed. The resulting outcome is an unanticipated, fresh, opportunity for participants to apply the language and procedures discussed in the briefing session. The actor responds authentically to subtle and overt communication styles of the participant in ways that do not manifest in traditional participant-to-participant role-playing activities.

 Central to the success of actor-based real time scenarios, is the actor’s understanding of committing to the participant’s success. A firm understanding of, and commitment to, the goals and objectives of the encounter being a successful learning experience for the participant, adds to the actor’s import in the encounter. Through reflective statements during debriefing (“as the patient I felt . . .”; “as the witness I felt . . .”, etc.), the participant can hear first-hand as to how s/he did in terms of applying content material within the scenario.

Patrick

Wondering…Imagining…Creating

Our days are populated with questions. Some questions are  mundane but necessary  –  “ Do you know where the Student Union is? Which chili peppers are ripe? Do you know how long the flight delay will be? “  We  use questions pragmatically in order to  gain information.  These kinds of questions often lead us toward an action or outcome; if this (information in response to a question) then that (next  response or action).  But we also use questions as a way to  prompt and investigate our deeper thinking.  These questions lead us to muse, to imagine   “What do you think will happen if……  How could I show that … What’s another way of getting to …”

Our  personal life and society is informed by the questions we ask one another and  ourselves.  We often hear  the suggestion  “If you want to know, just ask”.   But questions are made up of more than just the asking – they also require listening to the responses provided, whether we are asking ourselves or others.

Listening is the cornerstone to good acting. Work on stage is not simply about delivering lines but is fundamentally about listening and reacting in real ways to what another actor says.  Onstage and off we inform out thinking by acting and reacting.  That exchange fuels our learning.

We need to listen carefully when we ask questions of ourselves too. When I’m choreographing a new piece, the theme or topic often arises out of something I’ve noticed, something that caught my attention. “ These Chinese pictograms are so beautiful. I love the flow of the ink. I see a quality of movement within the written Chinese characters.” That noticing prompts me to ask questions, to myself and others, about the things I’m wondering about. “What does this series of characters mean? How do the individual marks contribute to or convey the meaning of what is written?”  Then I listen for information – “The characters themselves are often composed of parts that may represent physical objects or abstract notions.”  The  learning process gives rise to more questions. “What is the relationship between human form, movement, and the characters themselves? How might I use embodied shapes or movements to express that relationship?”

Asking questions prompts imagination.  “ What will happen if … How do you think it will turn out if we … How else  could  you show that …How could  we find out if… Where else does that happen…? One response to asking and listening is making.  So, as I start to choreograph the dance I ask myself, “How could I explore the writing process and the meaning of the written characters through movement?  How and what Chinese characters are analogous to human form? How could  movement embody the rules used in writing Chinese characters; horizontal strokes are written before vertical ones , left-falling strokes are written before right-falling ones, characters are written from top to bottom, characters are written from left to right. How does the relationship of form and meaning transfer across culture? ” 

  I ask, I explore, and I listen for answers. I imagine possibilities.  The piece becomes a response to what I am finding out, incorporating the  information, feelings and ideas I’ve discovered in the process.  Asking  and listening becomes a reflective process. Hearing or seeing a response to something that we’ve wondered about can lead us to refine our own perceptions or actions and imagine new ones. When I make a dance it grows out of what I’ve noticed, what I’ve wondered about, and what I imagine.  

In the book Imagination First by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon imagination is defined  as the capacity to conceive of what is not. It is the ability we  all have to perceive and conceive of possibilities and options. Creativity is imagination applied. It is working in active ways with what we find out after we ask questions after we conjure up ideas –  after we imagine.   Creativity is taking information and doing something with it; making a dance, sketching an idea for a new piece of furniture, whistling a tune you’ve just made up, planting the garden with a new design of contrasting blooms.   As we envision possibilities we begin to explore and push our thinking in new or re-visited ways.  Unless we encourage, or allow, ourselves to imagine what does not yet exist we there is nothing toward which we can direct our will and resources.  Creative acts enable us to show what we think – to take ideas from our mind’s eye  and put them into action.

I was recently asked to put my artistic process into words – not always easy for a dancer to do. In response to the request I wrote:

Dancing ideas.

I ask a question and dance my way through response, finding the  next questions along the way.

 An explorer’s journey, finding action in the idea. My artistic compass; intent, process, design and the sheer delight of moving. Make, reflect, refine. I look for shimmering possibilities and find them in shape, pattern, breath and surprise — a play of light rising beneath the surface.

I make dances to weave connective threads across form, content and community.  Sometimes I fail. But I’m not in it for safety.  I’m in it for love.

Alison

Imagination First. Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.  2009

What bothers you?

“This is really bothering you,” he said to me.  A gifted freshman said this without hesitation the day I confronted him about his unethical behavior which took place while I was gone and the students had a substitute.  I remember vividly how clear and simple his statement  was and how stymied I found myself.

Seven years later, as a new administrator, at a new high school, I found his words echoing in my ears as I attempted to mentor a different student in my office.  This new student didn’t say these words, and his reasoning for being there were not nearly as monumental, but the look on his face resonated the same reaction.

“This is really bothering you.”  When I think back on that moment, I am  struck with how much truth hung there between me and that child…a child who now serves our country on the front lines…but at that time, a child none the less…truth lived there in complete honesty because he saw me for who I was.

To feel things deeply can be a blessing and a curse.   In education it needs to be rooted in our will to teach, but at many times it can cost us greatly.  Those who find strength beyond the wearing nature of it, perserver and sometimes, Hollywood makes a movie about you.  Most times, you simply find strength in the small things and endure with grace and pride.  Others fail to live up to the enormous, necessary expectations and wither into oblivion.  Yet, every one of us has to face the fact that “this” can really bother us.

The system, the family struggles, the lack of fair game from the child all can take its toll.   A child arrives in this world with a slate of complete acceptance, rich with possibilities and innocent of complacency.  When we think about what a child faces before they complete their schooling, what they might endure while in school and how they might evaluate its importance at the end…it is little wonder they might challenge us along the way and remain baffled by those of us who seem to be “bothered” by anything at all.

Today broke me.  Today I felt this “effort” of twenty three years was in vain…the cultivating, the encouraging, and the willingness to believe in the value of personal efforts fell short and it “really bothered” me.  And if it wasn’t for this blog deadline, it would have been processed in silence.

But I have this shared, fundamental belief in the power of art making and how it is generated by and responsible for a number of throughlines found in life.  In order for me to continue with this organization I needed to dig deep, and be fast to find not frustration, but purpose in why any of this matters.

I ask my teachers all the time, “what is your truth?”  A friend’s phrase, not mine, but very useful nonetheless.   With little to go on, truthfully, feeling like a failure, I found myself pondering this through the lens of ASK MAKE REFLECT.  ASK:  Why does any of what we do in education matter?  MAKE:  Well that was the hard part, wasn’t it?  I haven’t been able to “Make” anything for months…I had become a hypocrite.  But then I realized… I had been in a dance class last week.  I watched two 90 minute classes over two days.  The teacher encouraged the students to discuss what inspired them and through a series of quote improvisations, these girls choreographed vignettes which I knew, based on their reaction, was the freshest, most honest work of their artist lives.  Right there…a teacher, hopeful, but not secure, witnessed the power of artistic expression which was rooted in process over product and lead to a deeper understanding of the language on their paper and in their bodies.  Their euphoria was palpable.

But I forgot that.  I had found myself feeling unnecessary and worst still, a disappointment.  “This really bothers you,” I thought.  But at the end of the day, no one can really pull you forward into the light but yourself.  And this is what I REFLECT on.  The raging  insecurities in your head can always be silenced by the truth of art and as long as it can maintain a constant hold on our education system, what “bothers” me will still be justified, but will never rule my heart.

Carry on,

Susan

Back At It!

So many of my colleagues, and all of my students, headed off to a new academic year. Discovery and the challenges and triumphs of engaging with new ideas and concepts mingle with opportunities for metagognitive response and delight in ‘already knowing that’ in order to put ‘that’ (whatever it may be) to use. It’s a wonderful wonderful way to transition from summer to autumn.

– Patrick

 

Making Rivers Rise

I spent the past week teaching a dance course in Kenai, Alaska. It was cold, windy and grey outside, but inside our studio was a hotbed of charged energy. A class of Lesley University  masters degree students was busy making dances,. In the process they illuminated the power and delight  that  making  creative work can generate.

The studio was filled with questions, laughter, and occasionally, befuddlement. Ideas were generated, chased, and developed. As I watched these teacher/dancers craft their choreography the energy of their engagement was palpable.  I could feel their excitement as they tried out ideas,revised their choices, tried again.  

As these  individuals grappled with various dance structures and improvisations they unified as a group. They did not necessarily share the same ideas or reactions  at all times but they shared the experience of aiming their attention  to the task at hand. The pull toward  making  a piece of work – in this case a dance piece –  carried its own force, energy and delight. The challenge of making drew them to action and focus. The process of working hard turns out to be fun!

Twenty three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. Our best moments usually occur when our body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls an optimal experience. And optimal experiences are something we can make happen, something we can create.

I am struck time and again by the power and deep satisfaction I find in the act of “making”  theatre and dance work.  I saw that enjoyment, effort and satisfaction at play with the group  in Kenai. Watching them struggle to create a piece put me in touch with my own creative prompts, process, and outcomes.

 There is a wonderful experience of “and conversely “to be found in creating arts pieces. That is, simple ideas can give rise to complex expressions. Deep feelings can be expressed in a simple gesture. Working as a part of a group can bring us closer to our own, personal sense and experience of creative action. Working as part of a group helps us know something more –  or further –  about who we are.

Making creative work can be  both  simple and complex. It requires starting  – which can feel surprisingly risky considering that we are making something that didn’t exist before we made it.  How wrong can we go? Well…… we, of course, have to make it to find out. But “making” in the arts, gives us an opportunity to savor the process as well as the final outcome or product.  Maybe it’s the satisfaction of navigating our way through the inclination to make, coupled with our own uncertainty, that makes it feels so good to actually do it.  Pushing up and against frustration or uncertainty we act on our ideas, crafting and refining our work along the way. It feels good to do something  that is hard when the something is an expression of who we are. Our satisfaction and success may swirl, and shift along the way but in the act of making work we can be swept into the flowing power of a rivers rising rapids, following the line toward attention, connection and focus.

Over the last few months I’ve participated in dancing and choreographing with professional companies in New York, in class with Parkinson’s patients in Arizona, with teachers willing to investigate the role and impact of dance in the classroom curriculum in Alaska. The cast of dancers varied, the location or setting changed, the emphasis on process or product shifted, yet the deep satisfaction, struggle and delight in participating in a creative process – the act of making – was evident again and again.

Asking questions. Making something in response. Discovering.  Thinking about what we did and what we found out. It is artistry. It is humanity at play and at work. It’s what we do. Here’s to the making.

 Alison

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Harper and Row, 1990