Community Arts Network Website Closing

August 31, 2010 by  

It was announced today that on September 6th the Community Arts Network (CAN) website will be closing. CAN has been a great resource for me in the past year as I learn more about community-based arts and what was the history of the movement, along with all the great work that is currently happening. I have referred many students to their Places to Study page to see what schools are offering degrees in arts and community/civic dialogue. I am even having my Introduction to Theatre students read field notes about two LA community-based theaters that was written for the Grassroots Ensemble Theater Research Project.

Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland stated “we have spent much of the past year trying to develop a stable environment for CAN to move forward, but in the current economic environment those efforts have not been fruitful. With no money for staffing or basic operational costs we have no choice but to stop. It is our plan to seek funding for the purposes of preserving the CAN’s content in an online archive so it can be accessible, but until we find such funding the site will be dark. We will attempt to accomplish this task as soon as possible.

We hope this decision does not signal the end of efforts to establish a CAN 2.0 that will build on CAN¹s history and network and provide vital services for the network that has developed around CAN during the past 11 years. There has been much hard and significant work done in that direction by extremely dedicated people and we hope they will continue to move forward with those plans.

It does signal that we, Linda and Steven, will not be in the leadership of that process. We sincerely hope those efforts continue, and we will contribute what wisdom we have as it might be found useful, but we can no longer be a driving force in that process. We have initiated a CAN Facebook page where were inviting folks to post information and to initiate and participate in discussions.”

Reflections on 2010 Sojourn Theatre’s Summer Institute

July 3, 2010 by  

To read why I did this workshop read the blog post The Future Of Theatre.

Shelley Virginia, institute participant, summed it up well: “Finished Sojourn Theatre summer institution devising civic theatre, led by Michael Rohd. Amazing! I recommend it to any theatre artist, educator or community leader interested in using theatre to build community and create space for civic discourse.”

The participants were theater practitioners who were doing devised and applied theater work in a various of settings and were looking to learn more from Michael Rhod. The format of the workshop was familiar from my classes at NYU. We would be wearing two lenses while in the workshops. One lens was that of participant and the other lens was that of facilitator. We would first experience the sequence of exercises, or games as they were called, and then afterward we would reflect and ask questions about the facilitation. The experience level of the institute was broad, ranging from undergraduates just starting in the work, to older professors who have had years of experience as facilitators. This lead for great conversations and insights.

Michael Rohd is best known for his book, Theatre for Community Conflict and Dialogue: The Hope Is Vital Training Manual. It is a great book that introduces the author’s “Hope Is Vital” program and methods. It shares his vision and methods for creating performance workshops that actively investigate social concerns. The book consists of a series of gradually intensifying exercises leading from fun warm-ups to image-building bridge activities. While he has moved away from this process work, and into generative production work with Sojourn Theatre, his mastery of facilitation is based on this model and has deeply influenced aspects of the rehearsal process for their current production of On The Table.

A big component of the book is the purposeful sequencing of games in order to parse out a theme, idea or concept that the ensemble would be willing to explore. This was demonstrated through out the whole workshop. The first set of exercises we explored how can a new ensemble begin to connect to one another through using a common, physical vocabulary, which lead into a discussion of how an ensemble works through collaboration, aesthetics and dramaturgy. In the afternoon, games were played and the theme of responsibility emerged and the ensemble agreed upon wanting to explore that further. With the partner we had for the previous game, we shared personal stories of responsibility (or lack there of). From there we shared to the whole group one sentence summaries of the stories we heard, and then each pair picked a sentence they remembered someone else saying and created a physical presentation of that sentence. From there we discussed in small groups how one or two of the same stories were picked by each group and how we would could further explore those themes as facilitators.

The evenings were spent observing the rehearsals for their production of On The Table that opens July 15th. Most of the rehearsals that week were spent working on act one. Act one (read more about act two and three here and here) consists of a four person cast, each in Portland and Molalla. Through the research the actors have done, they created fictional characters that have come to together at a memorial service in 1980. The memorial service is also for a fictional character in the town, that is in some way connected to the fictional characters the actors are portraying. The goal of act one is to set-up the idea of people and place. During the performance, the actors pop in and out of being the narrator telling about the research and portraying characters in scenes they created. During rehearsals the teams set up the presentation of act one as a game where there are rules the actors follow, but the order in which the stories are told is kept open and fluid. It was interesting to see the same game structure used in the workshops being used in the rehearsal process. The teams were creating the script on their feet and exploring how structured the content needed to be in order to be clear to the audience, while at the same time fluid and conversational. This lead to some frustration as the week continued as some actors were eager to keep exploring the rules of the game while it was clear others wanted to have a set script and/or outline. What I connected to most was that is was truly an ensemble of people creating the show. While it was clear that Rohd was directing/facilitating, many times it was his role of asking the actors what they needed or wanted to explore that determined how a rehearsal was structured. The lack of hierarchy seen in a rehearsal of a traditional commercial, narrative script was refreshing.

Due to the type of institute participants that were present, the theme of leadership was strong. The last day and half Rhod talked more about site specific theater work. We were then broken into four small groups and picked an outside location in which to present a site specific devised work around the theme of leadership.

Don’t Think, Act.

June 12, 2010 by  

Doing a lot of reading in preparation for the Sojourn Theater Summer Institute. Here are some that are sticking with me:

Educating the Creative Theatre Artist by Sonja Kuftinec
“Should we be training students more pre-professionally, undergraduates for performance jobs and graduates for teaching jobs? Or should we focus more on interdisciplinary collaborations across fields that would redefine students as inquirers and artistic entrepreneurs? Surveys…suggest a focus on redefining undergraduates as artistic entrepreneurs, while experience with graduate students…suggests a model for more explicit teacher training.”

“…when asked what they would teach and what they wish they had been taught, reveal what might be lacking in some of our undergraduate training: collaboration, ensemble building, idea development, interdisciplinary approaches to creating art, listening, conflict resolution, community engagement, and application of artistic skills in a wide range of settings.”

“Conventional [undergraduate] production (and I would add BFA pre-professional) training tends to recycle a system that emphasizes the passivity of the individual actor rather than graduating students who can think critically and creatively about the value of theatre in society and who act upon those thoughts.”

Rehearsing Democracy: Advocacy, Public Intellectuals, and, Civic Engagement in Theatre, and Performance Studies by Jill Dolan
“A member of the acting faculty in my department at the University of Texas at Austin has a decal pasted on his office door designed in the ubiquitous Ghostbusters symbolic style that transliterates as “Don’t Think, Act.” Although I very much respect this man and his work with students and department productions, walking past this declaration of his values each day challenges everything I believe in as a theatre educator.”

The Future Of Theatre

June 2, 2010 by  

The below video put me over the edge. It started when I was taking an applied theater course at NYU. Learning about the work of Rhodessa Jones and Cornerstone Theater Company, I saw theater in context of true community. Being raised in the commercial theater context, I believed that participating in theater and community meant going to watch a play and sit in a dark theater, and then leave afterward with very little interaction with the other people there.

Soon after I signed up to attend Sojourn Theatre Summer Institute, I read the below quote from artistic director Michael Rohd, “One thing that gets said a lot about theatre is that a bunch of people come into a room and they laugh and they cry together in the dark, and that builds community. But I’m starting to think that’s bullshit: People crave something that involves more than sitting and watching.” I will be participating in a six day workshop June 21-26th, in Portland. This will be a time where I will determine if my artistic journey will take on a new path. To quote Cameron, one “not out of economic necessity, but out of deep, organic conviction that the work [I am] called to do can not be accomplished in the traditional hermetic arts environment.” To dive deep into becoming the professional hybrid artist that I feel I am already becoming. To become the person I already am.

My goal is to blog daily about the experience with my work at Sojourn, even though my days will be packed with ensemble work during the day and observing rehearsals in the evenings. Here is a little about the show Sojourn is creating, from their website. “On the Table is a theatre production involving inter-city travel, public dialogue, video and participation within the performance itself. Sojourn Theatre, in partnership with Molallas Arts Commission, The City of Portland and numerous local and statewide organizations, is creating this original world premiere theatrical event as an opportunity to start conversations that bridge urban/rural Oregon and wrestle with issues of identity, resources, values, and governance. Exploring the histories and connectedness of community partner sites Portland and Molalla, it goes beyond metaphorical bridge-building to physically move audiences across urban/rural boundaries.

Act I occurs simultaneously in Portland and Molalla, with a cast of actors performing for a fifty person audience in Portland, and a separate cast of actors performing for a fifty person audience in Mollala. Act 1 tells the stories of two families, one in each community, in the year 1975. Act 2 puts both audiences on buses with the actors driving towards each other. Act 2 brings the stories of these two fictional families from 1975 up to the present, so that when the buses arrive at a location halfway between Portland and Molalla, the story has reached the current moment of 2010. Act 3 brings all 100 audience members together, seated at tables of ten; each table consists of five Portlanders seated next to five Molallans. The play concludes, strangers meet and share a meal during this final act, and the buses then take everyone home.”

Some of my favorite quotes from the video:
We are engaged in a fundamental reformation.

Move from a time of audience numbers plummeting, but the number of art participants, people who write poetry, who sing songs, who perform in church choirs is exploding beyond our wildest imaginations. These people are being called PRO-AMs: Amateur artists doing work at a professional level.

We live in a world not defined by consumption, but by participation.

We have tended to polarize the amateur and the professional, the single most exciting development in the last five to ten years has been the rise of the professional hybrid artist. The professional artist who does not work mainly in the concert halls but around women’s rights or human rights around global warming issues or AIDS relief or more.

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Must Read Theater Education Blog Posts

February 10, 2010 by  

I am a HUGE fan of the newly created website Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation (TACT). ‘Tis the season where I am receiving emails and questions about my process for applying to MFA acting schools and my experience with the Rutgers MFA acting program.

If you are considering applying to theater schools, or considering what schools to attend, you need to stop everything you are doing and read TACT’s five blog posts about Theater Education written by Tom Loughlin, Professor of Theatre at SUNY Fredonia. Start here with Tom’s experience with MFA programs, and note that unfortunately the mindset in MFA programs have not changed much from 1977.

Truth About Theater Education

January 28, 2010 by  

I am catching up on the last week of theatrosphere blog posts, and while Scott Walter’s whole blog post is a must read, his comment about what he tells his theater students, is what stuck out to me.

I say: “You are getting a degree at a liberal arts university. I am not offering you ‘pre-professional training’ because, frankly, there IS no profession. I am educating you, not training you. I am offering you a lens to see the world through that, should you decide to try to make a life of artistry (which is different from a CAREER in the arts), then you will have four years of reflection and experiment from which to work. If you want to be buffed up for the so-called profession, you need to go down I-40 to Winston-Salem and the NC School of the Arts.” Now, what are others saying? I conjecture that they are selling the Cinderella Myth, pointing at a couple alums who are working occasionally, and teaching their students that what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is that the successful want it more (which is a huge lie, but that shifts the blame for their failure to the students’ shoulders and absolves the teacher entirely). It is a con game, plain and simple.

Epic Theater Citizen Artist Conference

August 27, 2009 by  

I attended an amazing and inspiring workshop few weeks ago at the Citizen Artist Conference hosted by the Epic Theater Ensemble. I appreciate Epic Theater’s approach to working with kids is their work with community through Augusto Boal’s Exercises. These exercises empower the students to connect to community and to feel responsible for change.

We opened with Boal’s The Great Game of Power. After the game, four students who have been part of Epic’s summer workshop entered and read scenes from their adaptations of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. It was great to see well-crafted scenes about current topics based on the themes of Enemy of the People of course, but even more inspiring, these were young people in high school who were just crafting their playwriting skill. What I didn’t know at the time was that these were the type of plays that we would be creating over the course of the weekend. Epic has many curriculum. The Enemy of the People curriculum is just one.

On the second day of the Conference, we had the chance to create our own works based on Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, just as we had seen from the students the previous day. As one of the Epic Theater member’s explained, to be able to give this lesson, a person has to really know the play. The class was divided up into four groups. There were five categories that we used in order to create our own idea for a new play. The main idea was that the play had to have a main character that would be an enemy of the people in some way. For example, an owner of a hotel who was covering up health issues like eroding pipes that were of real danger to the guests. The next step was that all four groups had to pitch the ideas to the class. Then we had to vote as to which story was the strongest. The idea that was the strongest was the one that we would write scenes about.

What was important was the reactions from people as the group did not accept their ideas. We talked about this afterwards. This was a lesson for all of us in the room. It is hard to produce artistic projects. Really hard. Things do get… complicated.

The following exercises we created characters and did improvs on the main idea for the story that we chose. In our case it was a school meeting where there was a debate about the use of styrofome plates and the health of students who use those plates. Afterwards, we broke up into groups and wrote individual scenes using a very simple format that the Epic Theater uses. After that we shared our improvs that were based on the checklist each group produced.

How I Hope To Use These Exercises

I would like to have my own classroom one day and I’d like to include the study of various forms of historical drama. I am sure that I will find my own way of teaching, of course, but I admire the use of Boal’s exercises and Critical Thinking exercises of classic plays in the way that Epic teaches. I would like to borrow these ideas and techniques for my future students.

And I know that Epic is happy to pass on their ideas, as at the end of the conference, we received a Curriculum Guide.

Integrating Epic’s Techniques To My Teaching Artist Work

I have taught techniques to kids to play and understand Shakespeare’s words. Epic’s lesson plans teach students to put stories into the present day and empowers them to create their own stories while they are learning a story that is very removed from them. Using these techniques would ultimately help me, to help students understand and gain a world of knowledge about the story that they are working on. It would also help me ,to help students create their own stories and learn more about their own world.

I hope that you will all get to experience the workshop the next time around.

Also, be sure to check out Epic Theater Ensembles upcoming production: Mahilda’s Extra Key To Heaven by Russell Davis and directed by Will Pomerantz, September 16-October 11.

Carrie Edel Isaacman is a regular guest blogger, look for her monthly posts to come out on the 27th of the month. She is currently working as an Adjunct Lecturer through CUNY and substitute teaching in the NYC Public Schools while she pursues her MS in Educational Theater at City College. She is also involved in TA 101 with New York State Alliance for Arts in Education.

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Artists and Money

June 29, 2009 by  

It Is Okay for Artists to Make Money…No, Really, It’s Okay
From a Harvard Business School ‘Working Paper’ published June 3, 2009 by Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin:

When art and commerce are mentioned in the same sentence, many people become bad-tempered or think something needs fixing. This paper argues that more artists ought to make more money more often. Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin and theater dramaturg Lee Devin identify and undermine three fallacies about art and commerce, and suggest that it is necessary to carry on a more careful and less emotional conversation about the tensions between art and business and to overcome a general aversion to business common among artists and their patrons. They also stress the need to develop better theories about how art and commerce can achieve integration helpful to both. Key concepts include:

  • The interests of art, artists, and business can be best served if more commerce enters into the world of art, not less.
  • There are three fallacies, often implicit, about relationships between art and commerce: (1) art is a luxury and an indulgence, (2) art is clearly distinguishable from “non-art,” and (3) commerce dominates and corrupts art, and subverts its purpose.
  • Good art should achieve appropriate commercial value consistently, not just occasionally. A conversation takes place when art and commerce are in tension, a conversation in which neither artists nor managers should dominate.

Pay My Rent
Alan M. Berks, writing on the blog Minnesota Playlist, June 28, 2009
Would you feel comfortable with a part-time dentist? Someone who’s got some talent filling cavities and performing root canals but who only squeezes them in at night, after she comes home from the full-time job she does all day, typing at a desk, let’s say, to pay the bills? Or, do you think, the work is going to be a helluva lot better if your dentist could concentrate on the job full-time, all year round? What about your plumber, lawyer, electrician, and accountant? Why then do we accept a system where performing artists have almost no expectation of making a real career in their chosen profession?… I don’t believe that everyone who wants to do theater deserves a living wage. For most people, theater is always going to seem like more fun than dentistry, so more people will want to do it. I think that a market that squeezes young performing artists a little so that they have to choose whether they’re really committed to it is probably appropriate. But anyone who doesn’t think that theater is already a ruthlessly competitive market has no idea what an audition is.

Theater Heals

March 14, 2009 by  

Yesterday I went to a teaching artist observation as part of my class in Special Topics with the Manhattan Theater Club. The company has a playwriting/acting residency where students write on themes from current plays they have seen. I visited a school where the students have very advanced life experiences for their age. Some of the students have been in jail and some have just had really rough lives. The writing that the students produce is so full of feeling. As the teaching artist observed, “They get conflict really fast”. That day a situation came up where in a writing exercise that the students prepared, a scene between two characters on the theme of betrayal, a female student wrote on some serious issues involving suicide. The theme of betrayal came from the recent viewing of the MTC’s production of American Plan. The teaching artist and the two visiting actors handled the situation with such sensitivity. During class, they discussed the scene by asking the female student how serious the character is about the violence? After the students were dismissed the teaching artist, actors and our class instructor discussed the student’s writing and the possible issues behind it. Apparently the teacher had already talked with the student at the end of class and there were further plans to talk with the school about it. At that point I said my goodbyes and thanked the teaching artist. I asked if it would be alright to come back. (Technically in the Special Topics class we visit twice for field observation for each play.) He invited me to visit for the culminating event. I will do this, so that I can see the very rich plays that the kids produce, but also to see how that student that I mentioned is doing.

I left the field observation having felt great concern for the student, but also relieved that she will get the help that she needs. In a way, healing took place through the fact that the girl revealed something that she needed: help. And because she asked for help via the writing she may just get that. In this case Theater may have just saved a life.

Carrie Edel Isaacman is a regular guest blogger who is currently working as an Adjunct Lecturer through CUNY and substitute teaching in the NYC Public Schools while she pursues her MS in Educational Theater at City College. She is also involved in TA 101 with New York State Alliance for Arts in Education.

Living Underneath the Hyphen

February 11, 2009 by  

On one of the first days of class with Jennifer Strycharz at City College of New York in the Drama in Education, the first course in the MS in Educational Theater, she stated, and I regretfully do not remember who she was quoting, but she was quoting someone who talked about being a teaching artist as “living underneath the hyphen”. I really liked this saying about teaching artists and what they do. We are artists who teach.

I hate to sound too over the top but it is just the truth when anyone says the arts will inspire and motivate in a way that traditional learning may miss. In today’s economy where arts are being threatened it occurs to me that to make a commitment to work as a certified teacher in the arts and as a teaching artist it is not enough just to teach, but I have to be an arts advocate.

Some areas that I have taken a real interest in towards including in my work and education is Disabilities in the Arts. During the Teaching Artist 101 course I was so inspired by the representatives that talked about the organization of VSArts.org. I am thinking about purchasing the diversity kit from VSArts.org site. I was so inspired by all that I found there. They even have forms that can help a teaching artist to adjust lesson plans to the particular population that they are working with. I also love all of the informative articles there as well.

I also love to work in any grade level including college age students. I am really enjoying being in education again.

FOLLOW UP: It is Jonathan Neelands is the one who started the term “live beneath the hyphen” . He has several books with wonderful games and exercises that we use in class. Enjoy!

Carrie Edel Isaacman is a regular guest blogger who is currently working as an Adjunct Lecturer through CUNY and substitute teaching in the NYC Public Schools while she pursues her MS in Educational Theater at City College. She is also involved in TA 101 with New York State Alliance for Arts in Education.