I cannot say that I always agree with the notion that a teaching artist needs to be an artist first, but this summer certainly gave me more to ponder on this point. Artistically I enjoyed a triple play of experiences—playwright, director and actor—in two vastly different settings on opposing sides of the globe. While engaged in the second one, I realized something I had gained from the first experience that continued into the second. Listening.
NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences selected my work for a play development process. Rarely do I spend such time benefiting from the hard work of others. And rarely do I spend such time not in the seat of control. Honestly, I felt frustrated at times as my play moved into the hands of other artists. I wanted my play to work in certain ways, which wasn’t always happening, although I fully admit this was partially due to the limitations of that draft of the play. But some of the play’s moments felt so obvious to me, yet the other artists didn’t seem to understand them as I expected they should.
During the early part of the week-long process, I struggled with what I should or should not say. Then I realized, ‘I’m not listening. I’m expecting.’ I backed off a little. I let myself listen to what I liked and what I didn’t. I began to hear some things I hadn’t expected, now that I wasn’t clogged with getting what I wanted. I learned things about my play that I didn’t know were there, which paid off in daily writing sessions that flowed much easier than previously. This renewed approach allowed me to enjoy the feedback of the audience, too, regardless of their opinion.
Two weeks later I stood in the rehearsal hall of Rangapeeth theatre company in West Bengal, India, communicating the storyline of a play that we would develop together. Since most of the actors do not speak English (and my Bengali is non-existent), regular translation was a necessity. However, this became a boon. As small groups of actors inhabited various parts of the hall to construct pieces of the play, I could tune out the cacophony of voices and focus on listening to tenor of the group work. I could see the accomplishments and challenges in faces and bodies, listen to the overall mood of a group, note when disconnection was happening within a group and hear the confidence of discovered ideas.
I started to enjoy the glorious freedom of not having to attend to every spoken word, but hear intention and watch meaning come through the choices made by the actors. When we sat to discuss the developing dialog, they became the arbiters, not just translating my suggestions, but digging deeper into the characters’ worlds. I couldn’t tell them what to say, which gave them more control; I learned instead to challenge them in the areas of timing, physicality, tonality and balance—a multi-leveled listening adventure.
I think of this listening in light of my work as a Teaching Artist. How often do I control the learning experiences of my students, knowing full well what I hope for them to do and accomplish, but not inviting them in as regular collaborators? Although I realize this may be difficult with, for example, very little children, conversely that is the test, much as the rehearsals conducted in differing languages. The challenge is: How do I place the focus on listening and responding in preference to telling and doing? How can I construct situations that encourage collaborative journeys that benefit from significant contributions of all participants, encouraging all of the ‘artists,’ be they children or not, to be teachers in some fashion? How do I become less the ‘Teaching’ Artist and more the ‘Listening’ Artist who fashions learning experiences for each and every one of us involved?