Friday, September 27, 2013

Some times being an actor can present challenges that were not considered before accepting a role. I've begun rehearsals this week on Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes at Irish Classical Theatre in Buffalo, New York. 

If you're unfamiliar with Hellman or little Foxes it is about a family living in Alabama in 1901. The story is about how the brothers and sister chose to con and swindle each other over a possible million dollar business deal.  My character Addie, is the housekeeper and cook, a former slave owned by the family before the Civil War ended thirty some odd years ago. 
From The Little Foxes (1941), a Lillian Hellman play-to-film adaptation,Director William Wyler. 
Birdie (Patricia Collinge),Addie (Jessica Grayson), Alexandra Giddens (Teresa Wright), Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall)

I don't have many lines in the play, most of the action centers on the three siblings, Ben, the oldest and in charge; Regina the only daughter and who the play is about, and Oscar, the youngest son, a coward, a bully, and the doer of dirty work.

Addie is much like women I grew up with, she is many of the women I've been studying for the Underground Railroad residency I teach through Young Audiences.  In this role exploring this part of post-Civil War America is challenges the way I choose to approach the work of acting.

As a Black actor in 21st century America playing Addie offers me emotional challenges and forces me to explore how to successfully answer some questions about race relations. The play is an excellent study and I am curious to what younger people think about these issues after they have seen the play. Rehearsals have just begun and so has the journey. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reflective Writing: Creativity and Multicultural Communication

Creativity and Multicultural Communication.

What does that mean? It's the title of a Massive Online Open Course I've been taking at Empire State College, SUNY.
Creativity, the act of being creative and the study of it is the basis of a Masters or Science program at Buffalo State, SUNY. Creativity is in part what we do with our imaginations when we are given time and space. Often creative collaborations can solve puzzles that are difficult to solve on our own. Musicians discover this when writing and composing work. Scientists also work alone and often in teams testing, hypothesizing, researching,and gathering more and more information to prove a point or a thesis.

I didn't think of theses things when I signed up for the class. I was thinking more in the lines of creativity and talking, or creativity and other people in the community and how to either bring people together and understand something about them or myself in the doing. Maybe it is the same thing.

I asked my professor what could I do for the final project, "Whatever you want."
the course was pretty open.
The arts in education organization I work with asked me to manage a one day a week after-school program for teens at risk of social and academic failure. For 4 hours a day they met at the library had a meal and took part in  music, theatre, visual, and or dance workshops. Each discipline had a 6 week residency.

I wanted to have each participant create a blog, or a podcast in which they would take turns hosting. But most of my tenure was spent with dealing with discipline and focus issues. There was absenteeism, attention deficit issues, self esteem problems, and anger issues between the teens in my group.

I felt I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was.

I created a website for my final project that told the story of the program. Using photographic images of field trips, and art  making workshops, video recordings of original poetry, audio recordings of songs they wrote and also a collection of their original poetry written during writing workshops I lead.

I learned so much during the 12 weeks I lead this program. I learned about a culture within my community that
I thought I knew all about, the culture of a modern urban youth.

I considered myself hip and cool, someone who knows what's going on and maybe I do, but I am not a teenager anymore and there are lots of things that I now take for granted. Lots of feelings and daily disturbances, people, that I may have misunderstood in the past but today as a middle aged woman, perceive much differently. I have experience.

My daughters, my sons think that I am a cool parent. They say their father and I are some of the coolest they know, but I preface that by saying, "Yes, I'm a cool parent but I am still a parent, and I was a lot cooler before I became one."

As an artist and as an educator I feel I made an impact on the students I lead for those 12 weeks. I was asked to take over a 4 day a week summer program with a very different population, and a replacement was found to replace me in the "at risk" program.

The kids were upset, I was upset. the change happened after a challenging event which removed two participants in the program after a cell phone was stolen. This theft came after an the first day of an extremely successful music workshop. I reported the incident and the events to my superiors and our partners. The next day I was reassigned. I saw it as a reprimand. It took me a few days to get over the feeling of having a project you started taken away from you, I worried about my program teens, they didn't like change and we were learning about each other.

Sometimes I see them traveling through the library, they give me hugs and tell me about the new projects they're working on. They ask me when I am coming back.

I am scheduled to lead a 6 week poetry residency with them in the fall. We will use the website I designed with their work samples and add the podcast component to it, we will also add more poems and other content that they may come up with to help enrich the site for them to own it.

As for Creativity and Multicultural Communication, I think my challenge in the course was sharing with my course mates. The idea of online classes for me is attractive because I can work on my time at my pace in my on space. However what I neglected to realize is that some courses rely on students to interact on some level at a more regular or even structured basis. I dealt with this class more like an independent study, with the goal of creating a final project. For me that meant doing what I normally do, work alone and checking in when I need to. Unfortunately this type of behavior doesn't aid in the 'Communication' part of the course. And that takes us to the idea of life-long learning.

This course uses the life-long learning approach of collaborative interaction, in other words, share with all of us what you have discovered as you discover it. Which can be very, very helpful when you are part of a group, a team of scholars. The problems that I was having with my after-school students, I could have discussed them during a twitter chat, or on  a face-book post. The rest of my classmates could have had an opportunity to learn about my puzzle and through this discourse we could come up with a solution earlier, or not, and they could have just learned something else about the world they live in, the 'Multicultural' part of the course.

We don't live in a bubble. College is about sharing, learning, researching, collaborative learning.
Musicians, actors, athletes, scientists, and educators know about the power of collaborative learning, collaborative art making, collaborative problem solving. We also know that there are many lessons to be learned alone. Having access to a creative team and knowing when and how to best use that team comes with knowing yourself and the project.
This link will take you to the website project

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Learning Through Younger Eyes

Being the lead teaching artist for a group of young curators has lots of potential for learning. Of course we consider the learning through teaching from my own experiences and sharing but I was actually writing about my own learning through them.

Presently there are 7 girls registered for the Curators of Culture summer program. During Dance week, we had a workshop with one of Young Audiences dance teaching artists. But during the introductory porton I planned for them to watch a short film about dance, discussing dance, why dance is art, what you like about dance, what do dancers need, how do dancers train, etc.

After futzing with Netflix and finding we couldn't download the plug in for the necessary software because we were using a library laptop that refused to allow us to take the role of admin, my trusty assistant, my oldest daughter, went to Youtube and found a set of dance videos made by one of her favorite mash-up DJ artists. The girls liked the videos very much. Then being inspired by her quickness, I searched dance on youtube to find an interesting contemporary ballet piece by a Netherlands ballet company that used only drum rhythm.
The girls were spellbound. They hadn't seen dance like that before and neither had I.
The power of information at your fingertips is amazing. It has taken a simple day of sharing and turned it into a group sharing event. After a field trip to Canal-side to walk around and take part in a drumming workshop with teaching artist Miriam Minkoff, we all caught the subway back to the library to document the day in their video diaries and get a quick Voyzee, tutorial.

The college course that I am taking at the moment, is titled Creativity and Multicultural Communication. What I have been seeing or rather noticing since this course began is that the "creative" part in kids lives is beginning to disappear. They are confused about what creativity is and when and how they are supposed to be creative.

How did this happen?

I am not sure. Some folks say it's the standardized testing, some say its the rise of mobile devices and the internet, some say too much video games and TV, some say not enough parental involvement and supervision. I think it could possibly be a collection of all of those and others I haven't considered. But what I do know is that kids, teens and preteens, want to play. They want to be creative, some of them don't know how. Just like some of them don't know how to speak coherently, or read effectively. So it helps when the educator whether it be a parent, teacher, artist, entrepreneur, civil servant can understand where the child is coming from emotionally , physically, intellectually, and creatively.

So often I hear a child's mentor talk about the problem with Johnny or Ashante as if they were the same kinds of people needing the same kind of solution. Public education teaches very often that there is one correct answer to the problem, artists often discover this is false. Creatives learn and many can teach that there can be many solutions or answers to a question, puzzle, problem,or  project.
Our imagination tells us so.

Watch this video with John Cleese about creativity.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Poetry, Memoirs, and Tablet Computing....

If you have been following me you know it has been awhile since I entered a post. As always I have been busy in the actual world. Previously I was leading poetry writing workshops at the Waterfront School in Buffalo with Young Audiences-WNY. My program Memoirs: Creatively Writing your Story, was funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation of Buffalo, to Young Audiences to engage middle-school students in writing and public speaking. Our end product for the residency was a

School-wide presentation of the students reading their original work and a published booklet of selected writings.

We were all very proud of what they accomplished and students were even more proud of the book then I had imagined. Afterwards during a reflection meeting with the classroom teacher, Ms. DeWolfe, I was told that students read quietly from the memoir booklet for the entire period, they also discussed each others writing asking each other for page numbers of friends poems.
I learned so much during this residency, the mission of my workshops and residencies if to get kids to write their stories, to have them consider the event that happen in their lives and retell those events as creative stories or to use certain moments to engage the reader toward a revealing interesting conclusion.
 It is often challenging in the beginning and I try to spend time entertaining them with some of my own poems and stories mixed in with more famous classic or contemporary poets and poems. This was also the first residency where I introduced mobile technology in to my curriculum. I started bringing my Motorola Xoom tablet into class under the guise of using it instead of bringing in paper copies of poems and other notes that I use during workshops. 

I often carry a couple of notebooks and poetry collections to read from. When I got the Motorola Xoom I began to transfer my lesson plans, notes, WebPages, and poetry collections (mine and others), directly to the tablet, My bags got much lighter, and finding things seemed much easier. The Buffalo Public school system has available WIFI to everyone with a device who visits the schools so I had even more access to material. I also have many poetry apps and other tools to help me tell stories and lead discussions. I also had the added bonus of using the Xoom's cameras for documenting and assessments. Plus some kids love to be photographed!

             One of the most useful apps in my tablet happened to be Google Earth and Street view.The Waterfront School has a very large population of English Second Language students; several times we were not able to communicate verbally. During one lesson, Where I’m From, students are asked to write a poem about where they feel they are from. 

I had ESL students draw pictures of their former homes or villages and before that I asked where everyone was from, when we came to an area that the majority of students were unfamiliar with like, Iraq, or Yemen, or Thailand, I would show everyone on Google Earth and on Street view. Later Ms. DeWolfe told me that this experience gave the ESL students so much pride; it made them feel special that I was able to take the time to share their world with the other students.

          Some times with teaching and learning many things can happen that we didn’t plan, good things, and that is so very cool!   During the celebration/presentation I gave out certificates to all students for completing the residency and I got the most overwhelming display of emotional gratitude from English and non-english speaking students alike.
     For the coming semester I’m planning on sharing with students how to create literary content with tablet computers and share that content with others. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Onstage: Keeping theater alive - Buffalo Spree - April 2013 - Buffalo, NY

For today's post I'd like to "re-post" an article by my friend and colleague Donna Hoke. Donna is a playwright, cross-word puzzle designer, journalist, and an editor at Buffalo Spree magazine. Below is the link to the article, "Onstage: Keeping Theater Alive".
Onstage: Keeping theater alive - Buffalo Spree - April 2013 - Buffalo, NY

In the article Donna discusses with educators and leading theater professionals in Buffalo, New York the issue of educating and encouraging younger people to visit and learn about theater. I'm quoted in the piece talking about the importance of arts in education programs for middle and high school students and how organizations such as Young Audiences WNY continues to bring quality programming into schools so that they don't have to deal with travel issues.

Bringing theatre to schools for kids to be entertained, engaged, educated and inspired are all pieces of the 21st century learning skills that we want and need our children to master.

Theater and all of the performing and visual arts all help to focus our kids in areas of study that often are seemingly boring or difficult to understand. I've seen kids transform from problem students to creative thinkers from exposure to the arts. I've also witnessed significant changes with kids behavior, and confidence through arts learning.

Math, science, social studies they can all be translated and reinterpreted using the arts. Since so many children learn differently it would be wise for us as parents and mentors to persuade government officials to include more arts in education programs in our children's curriculum.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Ah's


Annette leads  the Underground Railroad Residency, "Letters From the Underground" workshop 

Being a Teaching Artist can feel like  a calling, like the ministry, or medicine, or magic!

I will use this moment to toot my own horn letting you know that on occasion classroom teachers and school administrators have called be a magician or a wizard when it comes to my teaching artistry. I can't take any supernatural credit for the feats except to accept the compliments while letting them know that the "magic" is in my enthusiasm. I always feel that if the audience sees and feels your love of theater they can catch the same fever.

Musician & teaching artist Rodney Appleby, accompanying a spoken word student performance from Annette's "Stories From the Microphone" residency 

It usually pans out, also having a solid lesson plan no matter how simple or basic. The lesson plan is really important. I know some of true "artists" may feel too creative to allow themselves time to create something as mundane as a lesson plan, but mark my words, when you are in that classroom with 18 to (Heaven help you) 30 students all wanting to tell you about what they watched last night, and how it connects to the theme you want them to write about today, you're going to wish you had a plan to look at and remind you what your objective and activities were.

Students ask questions during Underground Railroad residency

Also, schedule that a lesson plan helps you plot out is also of great value, especially when you discover that you and your charges are having such a good time you didn't keep your eye on the clock!

Sixth graders performing their original radio script with Annette's "Quiet In the Studio" workshop 

Using historical photos for letter writing inspiration during the UGRR residency workshops
CAO students learn public speaking skills in the "Stories From the Microphone" workshop

I think I mentioned earlier that I have become the Program Coordinator with an after-school program for teens most at risk of educational and societal failure.  Many of these kids are on probation, some are frequent runaways, some keep skipping school, they have domestic issues, and lots of other negatives that keep children struggling through the public education system as well as the social services systems.

I've been comparing the kind of experiences I have as a teaching artist in public and charter schools to the recent experiences I've had in this after-school program. 

They don't compare. 

There have been several days leaving the program in the evening when I think this is just too much work. In the schools I'm a celebrity, a wizard, getting kids and teens to write about themselves and create stories using historical references because they are so psyched with my storytelling skills.

But at the "program" I have to work pretty darn hard just to get them to focus on what we are doing and stop talking. My ego for success and enthusiasm for the theatre is losing shine.

Luckily for me I have an assistant who is also a theatre/writing teaching artist, she gives me encouragement throughout the day and reminds me that this is a pilot program.

"We had some successes today" she will tell me. "That whole conversation they had about love and money that was important!"
"Yeah," I'll add, "but they didn't write anything."
"It'll come soon, they have so many other things going on.  Most of them have never been in a situation where someone is asking them to think and play!"

Yeah, she was right. Some of the things we are asking them to do really don't make any sense to them.  Improvisations where they can only say one sentence any way they want but they have to remember they can only say that one sentence. Or playing games where they have to copy a neighbor's movement but say that they are doing something completely different. It drifts on the corny side, and sometimes seems quite anti-cool. However, most of them try it and most of them are so happy not to be under the requirements of curfew, they show up early.
So I'm putting my ego in check, because like always it is not about me, it's about the audience, and in this case the kids. The audience is king to the theatre artist and the classroom is the king to the teaching artist, the greater good and the really big reward is in that challenge that I face when I doubt my skills and talents.

I'm a rock-star! A teaching artist Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Ah's!
So I'll remember the calling.
Teaching Artist, is a profession,  a professional artist, who chooses also to teach.
The "magic" of teaching is in the "oohs' and "ahs' of the students when they have discovered something new.
"Ooohs" and "AHH's" from me, when the students have taught me something new about art, the world we live in, and myself.
Artists have always been life-long learners, we have to be, how else would we ease on down that yellow brick road to creativity?

"Ease on down ease on down the road, don't you carry nothing that might be a load, come on and ease on down, ease down, ease down the road!"

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Those Who Can: Become Teaching Artists!

So the show has closed and I am back at the grind of school and work. I read somewhere from Confucius, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life!"

I like that. I told everyone in my office. I think everyone got it because we all seem to love what we do.

I've told many people over and over again how much I love my job. I'm an artist, my tax returns say I'm a professional Performing Artist.

Granted I still get to the office a little late some days, and I sometimes get annoyed with some of the office politics and daily work related details I may be required to do but overall I love the job I have when I'm not actively working a stage or a microphone as a performer.
At Ujima Theatre playing "Little Sally Walker" with audience volunteers, while piloting the Underground Railroad Residency program Nancy Goes to Seneca Falls 

You're asking yourself what that great job is? I am an arts administrator, my actual title is Education Associate but before I acquired that title I was and still am a teaching artist. the organization I work with, Young Audiences is a national organization with 30 affiliates across the country. Our branch is Young Audiences-WNY, we bring arts in education programs to schools, libraries, and other cultural organizations across eight counties of WNY. So when I'm not on stage, I am either working with other artists and helping them develop their school time or after-school time programs, visiting schools to watch workshops and performances, talking with educators abut arts in education, or conducting workshops myself! My major project at the moment is an After-school program for teens most at risk of educational and societal failure. I coordinate this program and the kids, like all kids just want to know that they have value and someone is willing to take some time to listen and share with them. We have been making great strides with them and again I love my job!

Annette as Nancy Freeman,a wife, mother, and former slave living on the Erie Canal, in Nancy Goes to Seneca Falls

When I was a young actor I never considered being a teaching artist and I never knew what that meant either. I like many of us have believed the old phrase, "Those who can do, those who can't teach" and I wanted to believe that I can do, not that I can't. So I refused to teach, because I was a doer! However the truth is that those who can't get every theatre/TV/Film/Voice over booking that they audition for had better do something, whether it's waiting tables, bar tending, doing hair/nails, walking dogs, stripping, retail sales, construction, telemarketing (yuck), collections (double yuck) or maybe ... teach?

As a Teaching Artist and not a classroom teacher you get to be the visiting artist,or as my friends like to say, the Celebrity!  Your ego will be thoroughly stroked by your young students, especially if your workshops are preceded like mine with a performance. After the performances I have a series of writing workshops. Right now I have about 6 different programs that I offer, I do that so that I don't get bored and I want to try to provide experiences for youth that are connected to the school's curriculum in order to enhance their learning experience.

I know I am successful when students are inspired to continue writing and they are completely engaged in the work they are creating. I love learning from them because teaching, I feel, should be a marriage of learning and sharing experiences and younger people have different points of view that can be very relevant to a teachers life.  As artists we are sometimes more open to the language of continued learning or life long learning. That openness is something I try to share with students, the possibility of accepting life-long learning and discovering the education in the experience.

So if you have doubts about your own career or if you are an artist and you have been lacking inspiration and motivation. Consider being a creative-doer, and teach! You may find a job that you love...