On the Value of Being a Teaching Artist, and Other Musings

Jared standing in front of a whiteboard in an elementary school lunchroom, gesturing to notes while students sit and listen.
My first round of teaching with Young Playwrights’ Theater, summer 2019 at Garrison Elementary School. Note Freytag’s pyramid hiding under my chicken scratch writing—thanks, Gustav! Photo by YPT’s Teshonne Powell.

NOTE: Last summer, I made a private commitment to write a blog post every month for a year. It was partly an effort to actually use this website and partly a way to force myself to write for a general audience. The endeavor has been helpful in both senses but considering I am fudging the rules with this last one, it’s also a reminder that I was never much for publishing regularly. Expect the occasional update from now on.

Next week, I wrap up another round of work with Young Playwrights’ Theater, an organization that has generously given me a regular outlet since I arrived in the DC area. This year’s assignment was at Chelsea School, which serves secondary students with learning and language processing difficulties. The two classes I taught, one for middle-schoolers and one for high-schoolers, were a challenge at times, partly because of my efforts to adapt to the students’ needs and partly because changes in the arrangement made it difficult to plot out a consistent plan for the whole semester. Nevertheless, it’s been a rewarding experience that has reminded me of what being a teaching artist can give to the teacher and the artist.

For starters, being a good teaching artist is synonymous with being flexible. After over a decade of working with K-12 students of all ages, I have come to expect that no program will unfold within the same parameters week by week. Rarely does a teaching artist come into a school with control over their space, their time, or their attendance. Often they are part of a larger effort to engage students who need stimulation, as was the case at Chelsea. Ultimately, they are there to suit the larger priorities of the school, which is perfectly fine. In fact, it’s good for artists, and teachers, to recognize that many students first encounter the arts as a diversion and most tend to stay in that mode. Whether that speaks to the limits of arts instruction in schools is an issue for another day. For now, it’s enough to say that teaching artists bring something valuable to students when they offer a release from the regular school day and an opportunity to explore other interests.

Being a teaching artist also gives practitioners a chance to reacquaint themselves with the basics. As a playwright, a lot of the mechanics of a script—exposition, inciting incidents, rising action, objectives and obstacles, etc.—seem like second nature. The truth, of course, is that my practice began somewhere; teaching the fundamentals takes you back to that place and forces you to look at it with fresh eyes. Doing so helps artists and educators at all levels because it reminds us that prior knowledge is the foundation of advanced learning and good scaffolding helps students go to the next level. The time I spent at Chelsea this semester will no doubt pay off if I get to teach the craft at the college level, just like pulling together our two plays—sci-fi epic Against the Dying Light (Part I) and magical coming-of-age adventure Harper Holly and the Mysterious Artifacts—will help my own craft.

As I take stock of where my work as a teaching artist fits into the academic and professional realms, I see the potential for clearer conversations about what a teaching artist can do. As a staff member at Texas Tech University, I got to collaborate with students in the School of Theatre and Dance’s community engagement course, one of their core requirements. This gave me an opportunity to pass on some of the practical wisdom I garnered from my administrative position and receive some new ideas in return. As I look ahead to my next steps, I am thinking about how to make support like that available to others. Teaching artists play a vital role in the landscape of arts instruction but I imagine they often fall through the cracks between institutions who need them to do a job with minimal supervision. Bridging those gaps and providing specialized instruction ahead of time can only help raise the level for all involved.

Dispatch from the Dissertation: Why is This a Soccer Story?

Later this summer, I will have the privilege of traveling to England to conduct some research for chapter two of my dissertation, which focuses on dramatizations and reenactments of the Christmas Truce. The Christmas Truce refers to a series of brief ceasefires—multiple truces, really, not one—that unfolded across the Western Front on Christmas Day of 1914, just a few months into World War I. Allied and German soldiers left the trenches for No Man’s Land, where they exchanged gifts, sang carols, and played impromptu games of soccer. Since then, the Christmas Truce has become one of the most enduring stories from the Great War. It has also become, somewhat strangely, a “soccer story,” particularly over the past twenty years or so. Indeed, by the time the centennial rolled around, Britain was all in on that narrative, dedicating a memorial of a pair of hands shaking in the outside of the ball, hosting various reenactments and commemorative matches across the world, and releasing high-profile dramatizations such as this Saintsbury’s ad and a play called The Christmas Truce, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. What was once a peripheral element of a remarkable event is now its primary feature.

One of the key aspects of this “soccer story” is the mythical notion that soccer briefly “stopped the war” and proved its capacity to transcend basically anything. Even for the most committed soccer fan, this is a stretch. In reality, the Christmas Truce is part of a larger shift in Britain that has seen soccer become an increasingly prominent site of militaristic and nationalistic commemoration, as observed by scholars such as Iain Adams and Daniel Fitzpatrick. This is to say nothing of the commercial possibilities afforded to the likes of Saintsbury’s and Budweiser, the latter of which released a historically dubious video called “World War Truce” as part of its Rise as One series in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup (Budweiser is, of course, one of the World Cup’s biggest sponsors). For my part, I am fascinated by the part performance plays in reifying these myths, whether that be in dramatizations or reenactments. There is something about embodying this narrative that contributes significantly to the larger commemorative project, and I aim to excavate that phenomenon in detail. This case study will make an excellent addition to dissertation, which examines how soccer performances on the pitch and on the stage wrestle with what the sport is supposed to “do.” In one sense, the story of the Christmas Truce is evidence that, in a way, it can do quite a lot.

Waiting for Godot: An Abilene Audience from 2009 Weighs In

In 2009, I did what any self-respecting small-town theatre student staring down the barrel of graduation would do: I got some friends together and staged Waiting for Godot in our theatre’s underground laboratory space. I figured Beckett’s classic was the kind of show that a conservative town like Abilene, Texas just “needed” to see, and I figured it was a way for me to take the next step as an artist, which is partly why I took on just about every job myself, including the role of director and co-lead Didi. It was ambitious and pretentious—I even insisted we say “GOD-oh,” instead of the much more widely used “guh-DOH”—more than it was artistically successful, but it remains one of the fondest memories of my theatrical life. A lot of that is the fact that my friends and I did it on our own steam: thanks, forever and ever, to Adam Singleton, Spencer Williams, Natalie McBride, Chesna Riley, and everyone else who stepped in and kept my from floating away on my own ego.

Last weekend, I pulled my show folder out of storage at my parents’ house and soaked up the memories. It’s all in there: production photos, notes, character development projects, doodles, program drafts, receipts. It’s a fantastic little archive (yes, I said it) of a special time that I am so thankful I kept. The real standout piece, however, was a set of audience questionnaires that I completely forgot about. It asks a simple but enduring question: who is Godot? I took the liberty of providing some options and the results of the surveys are so distinctly of the time and place. The surveys collected 53 responses (which is perfect considering the play debuted in Paris in 1953). Prominent on my list of options are such oh-so-2009 issues such as Change, the joint-top answer with 9 votes, along with the Stimulus Package (1) and Universal Healthcare (0). Change was tied with Nothing (9), followed by God (7), The Answer (4), Happiness (4), Christ (3), Revolution (3), Other: Meaning (2), Death (1), and a Leader (1). Pozzo, Samuel Beckett, Freedom, Work, and Punishment received 0 votes, although one person did claim Samuel Beckett was God. Apart from the two “Meaning” answers, the Other option had such stellar entries as “Hope”; “The unfulfilled expectations and goals of men, universally and individually”; “No clue”; “Chapel credit”; and “After speaking with Chesna [the dramaturg], I am coming to believe that it is pointless to guess.”

There were other notes and adjustments to answers here and there, but this is a clear enough picture of a diverse audience response that a) tied the play to issues of the times, b) drew religious connections consistent with their probably beliefs, and c) represents the continuously broad associations made with Godot. Oh, and there’s always someone with chapel credit on their mind. Now, excuse me while I dig up the data from UMD’s 2019 production of The Visit.

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