Alone We Can Do So Little | Victoria Row-Traster

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

It was during my Master’s Degree at New York University that I learned of the new a career path called Teaching Artistry. And, after working with various arts organizations around the city, I was offered the position of Curriculum and Publications Manager at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street.  It was common knowledge at NYU that the New Vic had the “Rolls Royce” of education departments in the city and a position on their team was highly sought after. The organization as a whole worked cross departmentally in order to get the most of out their programs, including the education team itself.

For me, this new “collaborative” way of working was not only stimulating but liberating; in my previous jobs, in both the UK and the US, I had been a lone wolf. Either I was the only drama teacher in a school or a part-time employee who often felt like an independent satellite.   Either way, I had never felt like I was really part of the big picture or integral to the mission and goals of the organization.  But now this had all changed.

Right away I was introduced to the Teaching Artist Ensemble just as they were about to begin a week of professional training.  Small “Show Teams” had been created, each with the task of creating a pre- and post-performance workshop; these workshops would be taught in conjunction with a show being presented as part of the New Vic’s season. Led by Education Director Dr. Edie Demas, the education staff had recently implemented a collaborative planning strategy for creating workshop lesson plans.

Each step of the planning was based on the same process a company of theater artists would use when creating a new piece of work including research, development, rehearsal and refinement. Using this structure, each New Vic Show Team developed their lesson plans based on the information they had researched about the company and the show, as well as the art form it was exploring.

During planning, each Show Team was asked to think about the intended “spark” of their workshop.  We asked ourselves how, as visiting artists do we plan on capturing each student’s imagination in order for them to be fully immersed in the work? This challenge is amplified when you include the expectations of the classroom teacher as well as the need to represent the artist’s work as intended. And often, this is all in 45 minutes!

In other words — how do we “hook” the kids? In one particular planning session my show team and I were creating curriculum around Hunchback by Redmoon Theater based in Chicago, a play which incorporated mask and puppetry into their production. We decided that each teaching artist team should take in one professionally made mask into classroom. Our objective was to share “up close” the artistry, skill and magic that goes into crafting a theatrical mask and how they have the power to transform the performer on stage.

We built an entire activity around the “reveal” of the mask to the students, including one TA diverting their attention, while the second TA dons the mask and then goes into character. In one particular school we had such an enthusiastic classroom teacher, I asked him to wear the mask and when the students saw him, their own teacher, transformed in front of their eyes – they were instantly caught up in the theatricality of the moment. It was, as they say, an “aha” moment in my teaching practice.

When going into the classroom to deliver the actual workshops, the education staff paired up two artists from the ensemble that they felt would most complement each other’s artistic and pedagogical style in the classroom.  At first, I remember contemplating why I needed a teaching partner. Surely they believed that I could handle the kids and the work on my own? But, after venturing out for my first time as a New Vic Teaching Artist, it became absolutely clear that it has nothing to do with an individual’s abilities as a facilitator and everything to do with delivering a creative and imaginative experience, full of spark and artistry, to the group of young people.

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