At the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) August conference in Kentucky, David Gonzalez, multi-media artist and storyteller, asserted that when we step from our places of comfort, it is then that engaging and challenging work truly starts to happen.
As we ask our students to take risks, what risks do we take?
I currently serve as president of that organization, a still too rare role for teaching artists and a situation I hope will soon change. In the midst of one of the time-crunched-over-loaded-agenda meetings, a meeting in which several board members waited patiently, yet ultimately fruitlessly, for attention to a particular issue, a meeting that required the entire agenda be thrown out and a meeting that required me to assign new duties to already busy people, I found myself internally shouting at me, ‘Why did you ever agree to run for this position?’
In contemplating such decisions as running for president, I realize how I open myself to inadvertent possibilities or agree to participate in situations that may, at first glance, seem challenging, beyond my expertise and, potentially uncomfortable. I keep discovering that an attitude of ‘what will challenge me’ inevitably leads to my own enrichment in ways that I cannot predict or control.
At the time of accepting my new role as AATE president, the idea of re-envisioning staid, sedentary board meetings in order to feed into and off of the excitement of my national colleagues seemed appealing. I imagined engaging them in multiple, simultaneous conversations, stimulating rich conversations that would result in an overall common endeavor while encouraging each to invest in personal pursuits supporting the big endeavor. Frankly, I imagined our meetings structured as drama sessions, using what I know to feed what I hope can be.
Truth be told, I have enjoyed, though obsessed over, fashioning these national discussions in ways that parallel a well-designed arts learning experience. In my first big attempt with the board, I planned a scaffolded series of conversations prompted by a clear set of essential questions. The process would continually re-assign groups, bringing us together occasionally to share our ongoing work. It required, at first, that the group trust me, understanding that the initial explorations might seem far afield from our ultimate goal, but would eventually pay off. Just before we were to start on the first day, a colleague said, ‘Please tell me we’re not going to play games, are we?’
As I strive to honor my colleagues’ voices, time and expertise, I draw on skills of diplomacy and democracy that, frankly, have developed through my work as a teaching artist. I am continually amazed at how meetings can be more rewarding and enriching when approached essentially as a well-designed drama session. And, when I step back into the classroom or studio and re-envision my students as colleagues gathering for a national conversation, that process, too, is enriched as the students respond well to feeling as my equal.
At the end of that first attempt, one colleague noted he felt his time had been better used than in most meetings, another said she was inspired to use such an approach back home and a third noted that he could imagine how to use such work in his directing.
The single, significant issue, and I do mean significant, is that the working life of a teaching artist is often long and demanding. Where is the time to invest in such equally demanding endeavors that promise enrichment, but lots of energy? Aren’t there already enough challenges in a teaching artist life?
I believe taking on a new experience such as board president illustrates many similar choices I have made with my career. Not the jobs or programs I design, but rather situations that challenge me in unexpected and yet ultimately enriching ways. These experiences offer opportunity for serious reflexive thought. I would say it is often only in such occurrences that reflexivity is fully engaged.