Magazine article American Theatre

To Do or to Teach? Is That Even a Question? Teaching Artists across the Country Make a Passionate Case for Arts Education

Magazine article American Theatre

To Do or to Teach? Is That Even a Question? Teaching Artists across the Country Make a Passionate Case for Arts Education

Article excerpt

"I NEVER THOUGHT THAT MY LIFE AS AN ARTIST AND my life as a teacher could be the same thing," says Rachel Lee. A devoted 26-year-old educator, Lee frequently "taught on the side" while studying for her B.A in musical theatre at the University of California-Los Angeles, but it wasn't until she graduated and moved to New York that she realized her passion for theatre and education could be one job: teaching artist.

Most teaching artists fall into their freelance careers without a clear title or job description, it seems, and their work defies a simple, single explanation. The founding editor of Teaching Artist Journal, Eric Booth--the man known as "the father of the teaching artist profession"--offers a flexible definition as a starting point: "A practicing professional artist with the complementary skills, curiosities and habits of mind of an educator, who can effectively engage a wide range of people in learning experiences in, through and about the arts."

In a traditional model, an arts organization hires a teaching artist on an as-needed basis to provide arts integration residencies in underserved schools and community centers; to teach after-school arts programs; or to host preshow workshops and postshow talkbacks at theatres. But teaching artistry encompasses a wide array of community engagements--from writing musicals with teens in juvenile detention centers to advocating for voices of the elderly in civic practice--and the work is often driven by an impulse for social change.

Teaching artists continually challenge the old adage that "those who can't do, teach." Consider Forrest McClendon, currently starring in The Scottsboro Boys in London, who spearheads in-classroom work shops associated with the show and teaches after-school workshops for at-risk youth. Or musical theatre composer Anna Jacobs, whose work has been performed at Connecticut's Yale Repertory Theatre, Australia's Sydney Theatre Company and Connecticut's Cloodspeed Musicals. "If I was the most famous Broadway composer in the world, I would still choose to be teaching," Jacobs declares. "I've noticed that I'm not a happy, balanced person when I'm going through periods where I'm only doing one or the other. I need to exist in a life where I am writing and teaching simultaneously."

Many teaching artists begin simply as artists, having studied dance, music, theatre, visual arts or another artistic field through high school, college and possibly graduate school. As they embark on a professional career, teaching becomes a natural extension of their artistry, to the point that the two undertakings are inextricably intertwined. Rather than identify primarily as a "teacher" or an "artist," "teaching artist," or TA, is becoming a recognizable vocation.

NYC-based theatre TA Heidi Stallings quips that her job encompasses "the two professions that are the most unrespected or beleaguered in our country." But teaching artists are hard-working, passionate professionals. "There's such a hustle to it that it really keeps you engaged and alive and ticking," says Joel Escher, an NYC-based TA for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Disney Theatrical Group.

Because many teaching artists begin with a background on the artistic rather than the educational side, professional development workshops and conferences are key to their ongoing training. Many theatre companies offer professional development sessions that focus, for instance, on Common Core State Standards--a set of academic criteria and learning goals in mathematics and English language arts/literacy that detail what a student should know by the end of each grade-- or on specific populations, such as students on the autism spectrum or English-language learners.

In addition to being the program head of a critical literacy program at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Maria Asp teaches courses in "Performance and Social Change" and "Critical Literacy, Storytelling and Creative Drama" at the University of Minnesota, which is required training for her teaching artist cohort. …

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