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Producorial Responsibility #2: An Emphasis on Arts Education

Having made significant steps toward ensuring artist diversity, and so at least opening the door to audience diversity, the producer’s next responsibility is to make an investment in arts education.  Let me make no bones about it: the stigma that still clings to this part of our field among so-called “serious” producers is wrong-headed and self-destructive.  I personally cannot take seriously anyone who calls themselves a professional artist who does not seek to use their artistry to engage youth; nor can I see a reason for any public entity to fund any organization that either does not have arts education programming or does not position what it does in schools and community venues firmly within its’ artistic wing, where it can be held to the same rigorous standards as what appears on its’ stages.  I scoff – and so should we all, scoff – at the notion of an education department that is not firmly under the artistic wing with a direct line of accountability to the artistic leader of the organization.  A marketing department sells the work; a development department funds the work; an education department is the work.  It must be integral to every theatre, and every theatre artist’s, why.

Why so strident on this?  Because we as a field, working as we do in an active democracy, must be judged by the impact we make on individual social and civic participation.  Our job is to help people enter and engage in the public forum, contributing to the challenges we face as a society.  Theatre’s base job has only ever been to convene the people of the community to address serious matters that challenge us all.  We matter most, of course, when we can manage to bring to the convocation (and empower to speak) those who are the most oppressed, the neediest, the ones whose voices are never heard.  The theatre provides the chance the political forum cannot: the temporary suspension of the political strata, such that every voice can have equal weight.  Thus can Antigone’s position finally be heard and young women everywhere know that their sacrifices may not be in vain; Falstaff can be wiser than a king; Fugard’s and Wilson’s characters can carry the hopes of multitudes for a more transparent and just society.

And the truth is, in America today, our neediest communities sink beneath what I call a “cycle of diminishing potential,” a cycle that leads to less and less civic participation in each new generation, and the theatre only has two slender opportunities for intervention.  The most powerful by far is arts education, as we’ll see, and for us to treat it as some kind of slightly-embarassing brother-in-law to public performance is disgraceful and foolish.

The cycle of diminishing potential consists of the following six challenges:

1.  Poor education, specifically, unengaging education

2.  A culture of “immediate security”

3.  Lack of economic mobility

4.  Few public forums to constructively express concerns

5.  Co-dependent relationship with local government

6.  Lack of pro-active investment in education

Which leads back to poor education for the next generation, which fuels the culture of immediate security: the need to get the best available job in the shortest amount of time possible.  Sometimes it’s to support a family, yes, but often it’s just what the culture has drilled in after absorbing what disasters befall poor communities during economic downturns.

Let’s walk through this cycle from the perspective of a young woman growing up in a disenfranchised community, starting from where she first finds herself considering future civic participation (in the form of college, career, clubs, political participation, self-determined social affiliations, etc.): high school.  The average high school in America’s neediest communities will have no formalized arts education plan whatever, no accredited classes in more than one art form.  The strongest schools will have 1-2 featured afterschool or internship programs per 400 students that are rigorous, year-long, and affiliated with a professional organization outside the school (such as a professionally-advised drama program or step group or robotics team); many will have none.  There will be no clubs that are not academic in focus, like newspaper or debate, run as they will be by teachers, most with no prior expertise.  Student council, in all but the rarest cases, will be a joke.  The sports programs may be well organized, but in most cases, the facilities and resources will be so bleak that no amount of talent or training will make the team competitive with the private schools that share their leagues.

In classrooms, the situation is bleaker.  Students enter high school from a broken middle school system, and their skills are widely varied, generally low, and full of unpredictable gaps.  As a result, the attempt to get the bulk of the class toward earning a passing grade on the year-end state exams (mandated under No Child Left Behind) means that instruction flattens out, becomes about lowest-common-denominator coverage.  The teachers who care deepest lower their standards to try to get the kids to feel a sense of accomplishment (those that don’t care just abandon standards altogether), and the kids appreciate it as freshmen but feel dubious about it as seniors, as they see their school through the outside eyes of colleges and employers.

In this environment, the voices she grew up begin to have a clarity, no matter what her teachers and counselors say.  These voices say “get what you can now, as soon as possible; you are not equipped to grow into something larger than all that you see around you; sell now, you are not for all markets.”  As I write this, my throat thickens, my eyes itch, the old desperation rising which every good educator feels so often working in these communities.  Because you remember their eyes, your seniors, when they tell you with a smile they decided to join the Marines, or become a medical information associate with a 18-month degree, or go to Florida for a job (why do they always go to Florida?), and they are just so earnest.  They’ve figured it out, finally, and it turns out it was just what they always knew and what their community told them: that no one has made, nor ever will make, any kind of real investment in them.  But they’re OK with that, because you’ve taught them to love themselves, to trust themselves, and they are damn determined to make you proud.  As a medical information associate.

As she enters the culture of “immediate security,” her economic mobility drops immediately, as do her opportunities for social and civic affiliations beyond what she’s already formed (which we’ve seen are probably zero) because she is too busy and too isolated and there really is very little of this in her community.  Without public forums – beyond the religious, which a surprisingly low number of urban persons of color participate in, church being primarily a white middle-class and rural endeavor – to build new affiliations and express economic concerns, she develops a co-dependence with local government.  She’s really not making enough to live (and support her boyfriend who just got out of prison on a possession charge and can’t find a job, and her cousin who just had a kid), so she begins to participate in programs that help her, from food stamps to WIC to helping her mom get her disability payments in a timely fashion.  As she spends more and more time in these offices, she begins to view the bureaucracy that surrounds her of a piece: the paperwork, the deadlines, the focus not on the individual but the protocols.  And when she has her own daughter and that daughter enters high school, she’s learned that her role in the machine is as passive recipient.  She does her best to make sure her daughter follows the protocols, does well in school, uses whatever limited resources the school has to her best advantage.  But she does nothing to improve the school – it’s simply outside of her purview and understanding of her own capacity to impact her local government.  And since no one else has either, her daughter has an even less engaging experience than she did, and eventually the worries of her mother that she “get a good job” win out over any ambitions she may have had.  And outside, the professional worlds of technology and medicine and law advance so quickly that whatever entry-level jobs are now considered good for the daughter will be even further away from the world of economic mobility than those that were available to her mother.

But we as theatre producers can intervene at two points in this cycle – in #1, the educational arena, and in #4, the creation of dialogue-rich public forums, the former providing the much more powerful chance.  When a professional theatre artist works with a group of students in their school – specifically in high schools, where I believe they are most needed and useful – so many things change.

First, theatre artists build projects (using little more than their own native artistry) that can be rigorous regardless of the disparities in skill levels each student brings to the project.  Students who have trouble writing can create through improv; small roles are available and prove critical; everyone starts the text analysis process on difficult poetic text like Shakespeare from a very similar place.  The ways in which students can express learning, and be assessed on that learning, are myriad, so everyone can be fairly expected to work to a very high standard (which is what young people really want – to be challenged).

And these projects can build defenses against the outside pressures that perpetuate the cycle, as Epic’s do.  We use Augusto Boal’s work to explore power and how we can beat our own “cops in the head” that keep us down.  We use Keith Johnstone’s exercises on status to help students understand the impact of daily transactions within bureaucratic structures on our psyches.  We borrow from the world of social activism to teach students how to reach and influence critical stakeholders with persuasive arguments when trying to reverse unfair policies.  All while working with theatrical fundamentals like character and dialogue.

Next, theatre artists automatically create community.  The nature of their work leads toward the feeling that the team has self-selected based on a desirous affiliation – each project creates a new family around it.  This is why the negative connotation on the word “compulsory” as applied to arts education bothers me.  Why is that a bad thing?  It may seem so tiny, but for the student who has never joined a club, never stated an affiliation, never chosen an art or a sport, the idea of simply identifying as a critical member of a team that is making a particular play in English class can be absolutely life-altering.  We all want to feel a part of something, even if we were pretty much told we had to be a part of it.

Next, professional theatre artists represent for the average student something truly exotic: someone who has chosen what anyone would consider an “unrealistic” ambition and yet are clearly succeeding at it.  There’s a moment of curiosity – is there a path outside of what is being drilled into me day after day, consciously and sub-consciously?  Again, it’s just a wedge, the tiniest sliver of wood that keeps that window of young ambition from closing today.  But realize how resilient that window has been! – day after day after day of people trying to force it closed, saying it has no right being open at all, with the proof of that thesis demonstrably presented in 6 classes/day, 5 days/ week, 40 weeks/year, not to mention the daily bleakness of the afterschool hours, and yet it is still open.  It never closes, I don’t think – it’s just that one day the air it lets in becomes poisonous.

And finally, in case it’s not self-apparent, artists bring much needed doses of joy to the classroom.  Again – not to be underestimated.  Not trivial.  You cannot work efficiently without joy.  Sure, joy is frivolous without rigor, but no one is suggesting bringing anything less than our highest level of rigor to these classrooms; and rigor is worthless without joy.

So we provide a much needed intervention – not in every student’s life, but a surprising number are receptive – and suddenly we give students something tangible to present in their own minds against the pressures of the culture of immediate security.  Do they become artists?  Some, perhaps, but that’s not the goal.  The goal is that they feel empowered, at that critical moment, to remind their mothers of the dreams that were once articulated for them: a dream of a pilgrimage to an unknown place (like college) to capture that ineffable jewel of enlightenment, and then come back in triumph to jump above the system as it’s understood in their community.  To be a doctor, or lawyer, or poet, or engineer.  And to give back.

How do I know this is the true dream of these families and these communities?  Because it is the universal dream.  It’s the hero’s journey, and we all believe in it because it’s part of what it means to be human.

Knowing we can have this kind of impact through our art, shall we instead relegate it to the lower goals of aesthetics?  Shall we define artistic greatness by anything less than how many lives an artist has changed?  Shall we look up for approval from those we consider above us, when instead we could inspire everyday heroes?  O, we make our art a paltry, paltry thing when we were to hold it to anything less than these most lofty goals of rigor, empowerment, the spreading of joy, and the raising of the potential of an entire community.

And please, don’t offer up the weak defense that you don’t, as an artist or an organization, know how to participate despite your desire.  If you are a real artist, trust me, you know how to reach teenagers through your art.  Will you understand all of the procedural challenges of schools at first?  Of course not.  You’ll learn by watching.  Will you be great at it at first?  Absolutely not.  They’ll eat you alive.  You’ll feel broken.  You’ll question yourself.  Just like that time you blew it on a professional stage somewhere.  And then you’ll toughen up, and you’ll come up with something unexpected and surprise them, and they’ll change despite themselves, and they’ll, at worst, begrudgingly admire you, and you’ll come out of it a better, grittier, more creative, more facile artist.  That’s who you’ve always been, or you wouldn’t be where you are today.

And if you’re running an arts organization and feel shut out by your local schools, just demand to get in.  Since when were you stopped by local bureaucrats?  How do you have a working theatre if you haven’t figured out how to work the post office, the fire department, the local cultural affairs office, the department of labor, you name it!  You’re really going to let these petty fools block your moral imperative to reach these needy young people?  That seems a profound failure of the spirit, and I know I’m right to expect more of you.  Toughen up.  Try again.

I’ll see you all in school.


  1. Douglas D. Fox says

    1) don’t insult teachers as you did many times in this article. To teach theatre in those states that certify you for it you will be amply trained.

    2) time for you to get out of ivory tower of Manhattan and see the good thing happening in high school theatre elsewhere. A good place to start: the International Thespian Society’s annual Thespian Festival at the end of June. (look it up, easy to find info and you WILL be impressed with what the students do!)

    3) a major part of the problem lies with funding and testing. No funds but for testing and the classes that are tested. Arts are seen as a “frill,” a “nice to have, but expendable” not a necessity. Change the perception and commitment of the boards of ed and administrations.

    4) one thing that any producer could do immediately and every theater could too — have AFFORDABLE (best free considering students have to pay for transportation) MATINEES that start at 9:30/10:00 AM so schools can bring students to see shows. Experiencing live performance goes along way in building the desire to do performance. With careful selection of plays can get English and history classes too (ex.: Crucible hits English, history, theatre and psychology – mob hysteria. And then all the classics read in classes: Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, Oedipus Rex, A Doll’s House, Our Town) Students who can barely read and decode a script will “get it” when they see it. Far better to see a live production than to view a film from ages ago (as in gag – Zefferelli’s Rome & Juliet)

    5) Run summer camps, Saturday camps, after school camps.

    6) VOLUNTEER time in the schools after school to help them mount a show

    7) LOAN GRATIS set pieces, props, costumes, lighting/sound equipment to help mount the show.

    8) Don’t condemn and dismiss the teachers — bring them in as interns or in some way provide professional development that raises their standards and abilities (they have to get PD to maintain renewal and it is sorely lacking for theatre folk)

    • Sorry if you felt I was condemning, insulting, or dismissing teachers – certainly not my intent – I work with teachers every day of my life and come from a family of teachers – I would consider MYSELF a teacher. Any chance you could let me know where specifically you felt I was insulting teachers in this piece?

  2. Blake Wilson says

    Ron— Great article and one that really puts its finger on many of the things I’ve witnessed in my own work with schools and students. Our schools are full of people who DO care and who DO have opinions and ambitions. And it’s incumbent upon theatre artists to help tap that potential (even if others are unwilling or unable to).

    The long term health of the performing arts in this country depends our our ability to grow our audiences…but you can only do that, in my view, by widening the field of stakeholders.

    As with any civic activity, participation goes up when people begin to believe that their involvement will actually matter (either to themselves or to the ultimate outcome). And that’s where arts educators come in.

    For me, the most powerful experiences I’ve had in the theatre have taken place in the creation of theatre rather than in the viewing of it. That’s why I feel so strongly that theatre artists should engage with communities and engage with young people as much as possible.

    But that’s a tough issue for a lot of theatres…true engagement means sharing the power and giving others a seat at the table. That’s tough to do when a theatre has been locked into particular ways of working.

  3. Arts Education – ArtsNFashion Magazine Winter Issue 2011 (Page 45)
    “Do some stretches at least once an hour.”
    “Don’t get locked into staring at the screen.”
    “Look away from the screen every half hour or so.”
    Very good advice from occupational health-care professionals. The question is, what do you do while you ’ re looking away? I started looking around and what I saw were plenty of arts and theatre programs running into plenty of money trouble, resulting in plenty of cutting back and cutting down. The reasons for these money troubles are many and
    various and they aren’t likely to change any time soon. I decided to leave the debates and fist-fights to the
    accountants and the politicians and just concentrate on what I could do to help while the shouting goes on (and
    on). What I found was “educational voluntarism;” in my case, offering my services as a lecturer in theatre, writing, and related subjects. It definitely requires an investment in time, effort, and research – but the experience is well worth it. Basically, you create a multi-media monologue on a specific topic tailored to a particular age group. The youngest group I’ve lectured to was a combined class of advanced theatre students at Valhalla High School in El Cajon, California; the oldest would probably be late-career professionals at the Lipinsky Institute at San Diego State
    University. I’ve also donated lectures to UC Irvine and the Osher Institute at UCSD (the most recent was June 2012). The wide variety of arts-volunteer activity going on all over San Diego County is recognized each year by the San Diego Performing Arts League with their SDPAL Star Awards. Scores of people have received this award over the past two decades, which says a lot about volunteer involvement with the local arts (I received a Star Award in 2010 for my education and outreach work with the San Diego Shakespeare Society). As a supplementary activity to playwrighting, I’d have to say that lecturing is one of the healthiest ways to “look away from the monitor.” It also provides help where it’s badly needed – and will almost certainly be needed for some time to come.

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