Friday, June 26, 2009

Theatre On Purpose

Who am I anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” And so the lyrics from Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line reveal the inner thoughts of the actor vying to be cast, chosen, selected by the disembodied, all powerful director on the god microphone. It is this very question “who am I” (emphasis on the “I”) that forms the basis for my philosophy of theatre education – Theatre on Purpose.

I’ve spent over twenty years of my life working with young actors whose dreams of stardom cloud their vision. I treaded those boards myself having begun performing at the age of eleven with my own dreams of Broadway and beyond. It was only after I began teaching that I realized the power I had to positively guide and the potential I had to destroy the tender spirits of these aspiring, young actors. I confess, I have done both. The role of the drama teacher requires a nuanced barometer measuring the delicate balance between encouragement and hard, cold reality. There is nothing new about this dilemma. The theatrical cannon is full of stories of star-struck youth. Stage Door, 42nd Street and All About Eve are just a few of the chestnuts with some version of this plot line.

I never ascribed to the notion that my job as a drama teacher was to be a wet blanket. I’ve always erred on the side of the encourager and have seen some of my students go on to satisfying careers in the arts while others struggled with the “success demon” that plagues so many artists. What defines success? Fame? Name recognition? It has always been my intention to focus a student’s attention on the craft and love of the art rather than the idea of fame. However, I have after many years come to realize that each individual is on his or her path and must learn whatever lessons are his or hers to learn. It was my over-developed sense of responsibility and illusion of parental control, (earning me the name “Mama Barth” with my students) that kept me in the coach’s role always walking that fine line.

Just as the young student of acting has his or her entire future ahead filled with a myriad of choices and dreams, the drama teacher has an equally full past that if left unresolved can have a devastating impact on his or her students. It was C.G. Jung who said, “nothing exerts a stronger psychic effect upon the environment, and especially upon children, than the unlived life of the parents.” Throughout my career, I came to recognize the truth in this statement as it applied to the choices I made as drama teacher and director. I observed other drama teachers wrestling with this same issue. If left un-processed, unanswered, the question, "who am I anyway" may haunt the drama teacher and affect everything from his or her motives for teaching to the selection of age-appropriate material for his students. For example, to remain creatively challenged, stimulated and engaged, the drama teacher may camouflage the choice of a play that might be directorially interesting but utterly inappropriate for his students in the guise of challenging them to rise to the occasion.

While my experience has shown that there are many dedicated, highly skilled, and generous drama teachers out there, sadly there is also a population for whom teaching is the “fall back” or the temp job while still pursuing the illusive sit-com on the side. I have come to believe that teaching drama is a vocation, requiring self-knowledge and a keen awareness of the importance of role modeling.

Theatre on Purpose is an approach to teaching drama that inverts the process and uses theatre as a means for a student to discover one’s self. It involves self-reflection, counseling, mentorship, and intentional choices on the part of the teacher in all areas including scheduling with a realistic balance between home and rehearsal time and material selection. I have come to believe that it is in the spirit of generosity and humility that one grows the most. I know too many forty-something unfulfilled actors who walk around with a giant hole in them still asking the question, “who am I anyway? Am I my resume? If fame and fortune are the goals, then anything short of those achievements leaves one feeling like a failure. I have made it my mission to help my students know who they are first so that they do not fall victim to this emptiness later in their lives.

While there is no blue print for this approach, it must begin with the teacher’s honest examination of his or her own un-realized dreams. The lure of the spotlight, applause and the unanswered question “who am I anyway” must not be worked out through the lives of his or her students. The drama teacher must also define what he or she deems “success”. An unhealthy definition might include an unrecognized drive for perfection and status within the educational theatre world. The drama teacher must maintain a clear compass when making choices that impact his or her students.

Theatre On Purpose also emphasizes using the art form as a way to shine the light on societal values and issues. For example, I recently guided a group of students through a process of creating an original dramatic collage focused on racism . Over the years, I have collaborated with students in creating pieces on homelessness, war and immigration. When, as a teacher, I join with my students in the collaborative process, not so much as a director and teacher but as a co-creator, the relationship shifts and the ensemble experience becomes a mutual bond.

There is nothing easy about this approach to theatre education. Intentionality takes effort, constant assessment, and evaluation. It is however, a fulfilling vocation for those who are called. As the bard himself wrote in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own-self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou cans’t not be false to any man.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Meaning and Story

"In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes. There will be singing. About the dark times." Bertol Brecht

Our life is our journey. Our journey is our story. Our story is our legacy. In her book, Writing For Your Life, Deena Metzger says that we each must come to know our story, for in the end, our story is all that we leave behind. Traces of our lives, our loves, our attempts, our failures, our victories, our passions, our losses, our dreams, our desires – the particularity of our lives. They may be found in journals, discovered in diaries, cherished in the hearts of our loved ones and tucked away in pockets of memories or may die in silence, scattered with ashes, buried in the grave. Pieces of ourselves, left to interpretation. Metaphorically speaking, reader/interpreter/inheritor of our stories, be they children, grandchildren, friend, enemy, historian or politician, sift through the remains of our lives only to imagine, surmise, frame and piece together what ultimately is a puzzle of perceptions. What good is our story? Asking this question pre-supposes that anyone would care about the details of our lives. Certainly, one could argue that autobiographies enlighten, guide, give perspective, fill in gaps of information, satisfy curiosity. But is this the true value of our story? If life is journey and journey is story and story is legacy, then the authoring of our lives is the authoring of our story. Truth and lies, autobiography and fiction, author and interpreter all interwoven, boiling down to one thing – meaning. But what is meaningful to one may have a different meaning for another. The interpretation of the event, the story, the life, is directly affected by the lens through which the event/story/life is being interpreted. Regardless of the fact that meaning may be relative and subjective, there is one absolute. The story itself has meaning only in so much that it is read, reflected upon, considered, examined and sought. If our story is our journey and our journey our life, then, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Deena Metzger says that we each must come to know our story – which implies that it is possible to live our lives without knowing our stories – without finding meaning in our experiences – without examining the legacy we are leaving behind. Ultimately, then, the greatest value in our story is how it may impact the living of our lives. It is in the intentional and conscious examination and authoring of our lives that the greatest impact can be made and the greatest legacy may be left.

Never is life and meaning so tested as in times of tragedy, loss and grief. The story of our lives becomes framed within the context of circumstances that prompt, compel and force us to ask questions that through the ordinariness of our days fall mute and remain disguised, camouflaged, or denied. As the plot of our story becomes more complex, the meta-text – the marginalia – the highlights and underlining add color and texture. Meaning begins to take shape. Chapters here-to-for unwritten, unspeakable, unimagined, fill pages, rip out hearts and bring us to our knees. Despair, confusion, uncertainty, anger, rage, loneliness, compassion and tenderness swallow us whole. Like Red Riding Hood in the belly of the wolf, we must digest our story in order to be transformed by it. As Deena Metzger says, we must come to know our story. I would add, we must come to know who we are within the context of our story, thereby we become not only character within the story, but interpreter and author. It is from this premise that I assert that writing our story is a an act of healing and a way of creating meaning from the events of our lives. And thus, Purple Sage Arts was born.

In Defense of the Arts in Education

In today’s world, where instant is everything - where we seemingly are more connected than at any other time in history, as an arts advocate, I would assert that in many ways we are more distant than at any other time. We don’t talk to one another, we email, text and twitter. In the digital age, Youtube and facebook are the sources of entertainment, discussion, and information . While all of these technological advancements have made an indisputably positive contribution to our society, their power has also made the role of the arts all the more important and vital to the culture. There is no replacing the experience of a live performance - whether it be in the theatre, at a choir performance, or in the concert hall listening to an orchestra – each of these art forms is brought to an audience by living, breathing human beings.

Students of the performing arts learn what it means to practice, to commit to a discipline, to rehearse and to channel the energy necessary for artistic expression. They understand that there is nothing instant about achieving excellence – but rather, it is the very opposite – time - that allows the musician, singer, artist or actor to develop in her craft- and it is a life-long pursuit. Passion, desire, drive and love are at the heart of this commitment. Creativity is the divine, God-given energy that flows through every human being – and the artist is the channel for that energy. Imagine a world without beauty. A world without the music of Mozart, the poetry of Shakespeare or the biting societal commentary of Arthur Miller. The musicians and the dramatists reflect our world back to us – holding “the mirror up to nature” as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote.

Social networking cannot replace the authentic relationships, respect, and community that are created in a performing arts ensemble. The teamwork required for collaboration transcends technology and relies entirely on interpersonal communication and emotional sensitivity. High touch may have been replaced by high tech in most areas of our life today – but not to for the cellist, guitarist, or singer. Not to the actor or dancer – To the artists, it is all about high touch.

And the greatest touch of all – is the one that touches our hearts – makes us feel and, as Arthur Miller said, become “more fully human.”

Resources: Educational Theatre Association