Teaching Artist to Actor Teacher: UK to US and Back Again | Victoria Row-Traster

Stepping off the plane at Heathrow Airport, I have returned home. For now, forever… who knows? First, my family and I need to find a home base, but second – what I am going to do for work? This is the second time in my life I have relocated across the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in a city unsure of whether my profession exists there.  This is because I am a Teaching Artist – I live, share and teach my art–will you give me a job?

My first trip across that ocean was almost eight years ago. After graduating from The Central School of Speech and Drama, London, I returned to my Northern England roots and taught drama and theater at a high school in North East Lincolnshire. Although I was very happy at my school, my partner and I decided to relocate to his home town – New York. As you can imagine, my dreams of teaching at a theater school such as “Fame” were just within my reach – that is before I very quickly learned that (although they do exist) very few schools in New York City have the budget for any art subjects at all, let alone a full-time drama teacher on staff.

Coming from the UK, my experience up to that point had been that theater was embedded deeply within the National Curriculum, a framework that ensures all state schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland provide a common, consistent curriculum to all students. In the schools in which I trained and taught, the administrators had recognized Process Drama as a valuable teaching tool for addressing the social and emotional issues that high school students face. So you can imagine my dismay when the only positions I was offered in the U.S. were for two hours a week in an after-school program where I had the opportunity to produce “Bye, Bye Birdie” or “Grease” for the one millionth time… I was somewhat heart broken.

I had wanted to return to graduate school for some time and was thrilled to be accepted into a Master’s program at New York University. As I had already earned my teaching degree, I was interested applying my theater skills within a range of community, educational, and college contexts. I enrolled in the Educational Theater in Colleges and Communities program and developed new strategies for teaching and learning through drama, and explored creating theater for audiences of all ages. My dreams had come true.

I was learning my practice from visiting professors such as the late Dorothy Heathcoate and was also fortunate enough to travel to Brazil to work with the legendary Augusto Boal, both icons in my field. I was also discovering that my field was in fact changing and evolving tremendously. There was a relatively new profession gathering steam that I was about to discover.

While at NYU, I saw a job advertisement seeking something called a Teaching Artist. I learned that this an artist who was trained by a theater company to go into schools and teach residency programs built around the work in their theater. This sounded like an ideal way for me to continue teaching the subject I loved in a school environment and work directly with professional artists. Soon after, I was sent all over New York City by Periwinkle National Theater Company and worked in various schools with many different types of students. This was both rewarding and an eye opener to the life of a working Teaching Artist.

A year before graduating from NYU, I applied for a job at The New Victory Theater on 42nd Street –truly the Holy Grail of educational theater. With my Masters in Educational Theater within reach, I applied for the position of Curriculum and Publications Manager in the education department where my responsibility was to research, write and produce The New Vic School Tools™.  I was also a member of the New Victory Theater’s Teaching Artist Ensemble, a collection of professional New York-based artists working collaboratively to create workshops and residencies taught in conjunction with the shows being presented on the stage.

After five successful seasons, over 50 published guides and a successful cross-over into the digital world of online resources, as well as teaching a successful graduate course at City College of New York on writing and implementing resource guides, I hung up my hat at “The New Vic” as my family and I decided once again to relocate back to London.

Returning to the UK after working in educational theater mere feet away from Broadway, I was not sure how I would fit into the educational theater scene in London. I had left England as a drama teacher who loved her job but returned a Teaching Artist… Does my profession exist here?

To my surprise, I soon learned that in my seven years absence, many London-based theatre companies had also built their education departments and outreach programs similar to that of many New York based Theater Companies – and were actively and effectively pushing for presence in their local communities and schools. It seems that in the UK, there had been a shift towards involving classroom teachers in the artistic endeavors of visiting artists and bringing our young people into our wonderful theaters.   I was excited to find that in the UK Teaching Artistry was now also becoming a very real and rewarding way for an artist to work, share, teach and live within their art.

Soon after returning, I was fortunate to be invited to join the Education Department at the National Theatre where I currently work as an “Actor Teacher”, going into primary schools and delivering active and creative workshops based on plays being produced and presented by the National. I am currently working on a residency where a play has been commissioned by renowned British children’s author Nicky Singer especially for the project and an outstanding cast of actors will tour it around schools – amazing!

In my next post I will talk about my transition back into the Educational Theater scene in London, and examine the similarities and differences in training and support networks for Teaching Artists this side of “the pond.”

Leave a Reply