Tag: nyc arts in education roundtable

A Tribute to Paul King

Paul King with slight smile wearing glasses, brown blazer and blue collared shirt against a black background

Published September 24, 2020
(Originally shared September 16, 2020)

The New York City Arts in Education Roundtable presents a remembrance to a great friend to the Roundtable, Paul King, former Executive Director of the Office of Arts and Special Projects. This video was originally shared at The Roundtable’s Kickoff event, “Bridging the Divide: Making Connections Between Personal Impact and Communal Change.”

URGENT ADVOCACY ALERT: Submit Written Testimony to the New York City Council in Support of Arts Education

NYC Arts in Education Roundtable logo in black and orange.

Posted on May 19, 2020

The following letter was sent out to the Roundtable mailing list on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. To stay up to date with weekly e-blasts about advocacy efforts, best practices, current trends, upcoming events, and more, please subscribe to the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable mailing list.

Update (June 19, 2020): The NYC Arts in Education Roundtable recently launched the #ArtsAreEssential campaign to preserve arts education funding in the 2020/2021. For more information about the campaign, please click here. 

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Thoughts on Teaching and Connecting and Change

By Alex La Torre

Posted on Friday, May 15, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. 

Starting a class now means clicking “start meeting” and then staring at my own face for a little while. There’s this moment in that silence that I can only compare to the sensation of being a kid and fearing that no one will show up to my birthday party.

I make sure my lighting is okay. I glance over at my windows to make sure they’re all the way shut so I don’t have to deal with unexpected background noise. My brilliant co-teachers log on and we chat the way we would before any class, I suppose: making sure the flow of our lesson plan still feels right, looking over the roster of students, etc.

Our very normal conversation makes me forget how different everything is for a few seconds. Of course, we also have to talk through the Zoom-version of our theatre game and wonder if it really will work on screen. I never thought I’d miss asking students to make a standing circle in the middle of the room so much. And then names start appearing in the waiting room. Another reminder of how so much has changed.

 

Things that aren’t the same:

  • I’m never really sure if I’ll see these students again. I don’t have the luxury of long-term curriculum planning and the knowledge that I’ll watch them grow through a whole semester or the full length of a class. Old models have gone out the window.
  • I can’t check in with students in the same way. I may notice someone seems distracted but there’s no discreet way of having a one-on-one conversation with them to see how they’re doing. I can’t use the chat function to connect with one student and continue to lead class for everyone at the same time – I am not that skilled a multi-tasker.
  • It takes an entirely new type of focus. Breakout rooms are cool. But I can’t stand in the middle of all the small groups and soft focus and go in and out of all of their conversations and ideas; hearing one group deciding they’re creating a hero with the “super power of silent farts that can paralyze a villain in their tracks,” another dreaming up a “magical gemstone that will grant their wishes.” Instead, I have to figure out whose mic is making that noise so I can mute them and keep an eye on the chat for questions.
  • I don’t know how to care for students in an individualized way when I’m staring at 20 faces on one screen. In those same breakout rooms, I can’t keep an eye on the student who has a hard time speaking up and pop into the group to make sure they feel safe. I can’t remind the idea person with one knowing glance to make sure they’re leaving space for other people’s thoughts.
  • I can’t casually assess how students interact with each other during drop off and pick up or transition moments. It feels impossible to get a feel for their comfort with each other in the same way. 
  • I can’t high five them. I can’t have a student come up and ask for a hug on the last day of class. I can’t take a moment to walk a student to their car and tell their parent or caregiver that they came up with some brilliant ideas in class that day.

 

Things that are the same:

  • I can look around the “room” and try to discern where my students are at. The information I receive is different, sure. But it’s there. How are they feeling? What does it mean to them to have a space in which they get to be creative? Is it an escape? Is it a release? Is it a way to get the sillies out? I can still meet them where they are to the best of my ability.
  • We can find common ground. Someone makes a Harry Potter reference (I adore that this has not changed since my own childhood), everyone laughs, they ask to know what house I’m in. (Hufflepuff, and proud of it.) 
  • Students support each other. If one student struggles with their lines as they adjust to Shakespearian language, then another chimes in with words of encouragement. 
  • We can create a true ensemble. One that is committed to working together and cheering on each member. A kid tries out a funny accent they’ve created for a character. The Zoom room gets filled with thumbs up and applause emojis, some kids unmute themselves so we can hear their laughter. It’s different, sure. But it’s also the same. It’s kids showing up for each other in whatever way they can. 
  • It gets messy. Sometimes you try out a new warm up or game and it’s a dud. I still invite kids into the process, “Listen, they can’t all be winners! Thank you for trying that experiment with me.”
  • There’s still emails from parents. They still include both heartwarming thank yous for the class and the more banal questions about registration and can my kid have more lines in the next class and so on. 
  • We still reflect. I still linger at the end of classes to check in with my fellow teaching artists. How did that feel for you? Should we try something different next time? Did so-and-so seem quieter to you today?
  • Personal expression shines. There is still seemingly always a student rocking something with a unicorn on it. Or a cat ear headband. Now there’s the bonus of seeing that they’ve got a matching rainbow bedspread or an actual pet cat. They are the coolest kiddos in my eyes.
  • We make art. There’s still characters to be created, stories to be told, and laughter to be had.

 

I miss so much. My heart physically aches for all the things that have changed. It is a terrible lump in my throat, welling up of feelings that doesn’t seem to go away no matter what I do.

But I see names fill up the waiting room. I look at my co-teachers faces, we take a deep breath together. I hit “admit all.”

 

*****

Alex La Torre is a bilingual teaching artist, arts administrator, and stage manager. Her various hats have allowed her to teach, create, and supervise programs at McCarter Theatre Center and throughout a variety of school districts in central New Jersey, working with students of all ages. She holds her BA in Secondary Education, English, and Educational Theatre from Boston College.

From Cardboard to iPads: Teaching Theatre Before, During, and After the Pandemic

By Hayley Sherwood

Posted on Friday, May 8, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. 

A few weeks ago, I was checking in with a few friends who all work in the community engagement department of their respective theatres. Many of them manage teaching artists across the country and many of their departments have seen devastating lay-offs and furloughs in the past few months, not to mention a sobering shift in the landscape of their entire organization. We were reporting on what has changed and how all of our plans for the future were foiled. The air of this Zoom call somehow felt warmer, which was an imagined experience we were all happy to indulge. In one report, a friend not-so-jokingly said that he felt like he suddenly worked for a media company. As he said this, visions of my first couple days working from home hit: googling “how to edit a video” and trying to recover my password from a dusty Skype account. I agreed—I was suddenly performing a job that no one had trained me to do and so were all of my peers. 

This, of course, was no fault of the organizations I work for. For decades, all of the theatre organizations I work for had been dedicated to make having no screens (live theatre) even remotely as exciting as having screens. In order to do this, these organizations, my community of fellow teaching artists, community-engaged theatre practitioners, and I all became experts in in-the-moment relationship building. I work amongst some of the best fast friends in the world. These people can read a room in a second. 

Give us a piece of cardboard?  We’ll have a three-act play in 15 minutes. 

Give us a bunch of iPads? First of all, I would have been amazed the theatre department had the budget for that but I probably wouldn’t have known where to start. 

My imagination around technology is at a deficit because the departments I work in have been forced to operate in a deficit. Inside of this, though, we have created magical tools from scratch, fashioned entire operations out of thin air and we’re very proud.

During my first attempt at lesson planning for my first online workshop, I felt like someone had emptied out my toolbox. No cardboard in sight and a whole bunch of iPads. Even as a wave of webinars on how to operate Zoom hit my inbox, I still felt lost. How could I convince my students that I’m there for them in these circumstances? I’m not. 

Suddenly, I was a brand new Teaching Artist trying to figure out how to do this. I hearkened back to my first Teaching Artist gig. A staff member at my university asked me to teach some theatre classes at an arts festival at her child’s elementary school. I lost sleep over my lesson plan (something I had never written before). The chaos of the school’s arts festival was invigorating but with each step closer to my classroom, I felt like a bigger impostor – “they definitely will not think I’m cool” I thought. When I got to the room, there was a big sweeping set of stairs and my fear dissolved. A tool, I thought. I’ll be fine, I thought. I’ll just guide them toward turning that staircase into a volcano.

“I go into a room expecting one thing and suddenly I realize that a beautiful surprise gift was waiting for me all along.”

My career as a teaching artist so far has been a lot of building volcanoes – I go into a room expecting one thing and suddenly I realize that a beautiful surprise gift was waiting for me all along, whether that’s in the form of the number of desks in the room or in the mind of one of the students. becoming a teaching artist in NYC has really been about trust. If I trust my own knowledge, my co-teaching artists’ knowledge and the boundless knowledge of my students, my plan will move swiftly and seamlessly and all of our personalities will shine. Teaching artistry is about letting the brightest thing in the room shine – most of the time that is the improvisation games I planned but sometimes it’s the horrible day one of my students had.

So, what do I do when I can’t rely on the movement of the room? Well, I had to reach so deeeeeep into my toolbox that I became a student again. A student of this moment, a student of theatre arts and a student of my students –wherever they were, I would go…digitally, of course.

“I became interested in the ways that the work Teaching Artists are doing now could be sustainable, not simply Band-Aids on the work we wish we were doing.”

I’ve learned a few things so far. The first is that when presenting online, in that now very familiar “webinar” setting on Zoom: I had to write a script. A great lesson plan often includes a script – make sure to highlight this concept or definitely model with example—but that’s nothing compared to the full-on classical text I prepared for my first webinar. I was convinced something technical would go wrong so, in collaboration with my co-facilitator, we mapped out every word, every screen share, and every word we needed to spell out after we said it. It was through this that I remembered how, first of all, every teaching artist training I’d ever taken had encouraged me to ban scripts from my toolbox and, second of all, that relying on a script was actually my closest ally in my work as an actor. I’m not about to walk back into the first day of school 202….0(?) with a script in hand but maybe there are parts of my teaching that would be served by this kind of prep. With this discovery I became interested in the ways that the work Teaching Artists are doing now could be sustainable, not simply Band-Aids on the work we wish we were doing.

When one of the organizations I work for told us we were converting our weekly programming online, my co-teaching artist and I began texting up a storm—trying our best to get in contact with our students in a way they recognized and, most importantly, in a way that would be easy for them. The boundary I had once tried to maintain as an adult in their life vanished. Suddenly, as I was in contact with my students on a more regular basis, thanking them for signing into our Google Hangout with a simple text here or there, I began to question why that boundary was there in the first place. Through this questioning I emerged in deeper commitment to my students and less committed to any authority I may implicitly and explicitly have over them. I welcome their friendship and am honored anytime they seek my company. Of course, plenty of the people that I previously saw on a regular basis have let me know that they cannot prioritize our theatre class and must focus on other things, whether that’s celebrating a quarantine birthday or taking care of a sick relative. Setting these kinds of boundaries, rather than trying not to text their teacher, are the skills that I’m grateful to practice with my students and I know they will continue doing this into so many parts of their life.

“Organizations have built the structure for these relationships to begin but it is the work of us all that will sustain them.”

Learning how to navigate this new world of teaching has taught me a lot and I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to be made a student of my students. I’ve learned, finally and most importantly, that the people I “work with” are some of my dearest peers. Many of the people I’ve met through my work in community engaged-theatre or teaching artistry are the people that reached out first to see how I’m doing. They are showing me the care and attention I hope they feel from me. These organizations have built the structure for these relationships to begin but it is the work of us all that will sustain them. I am confident that the work we do in educational spaces will only be strengthened by this test, eventually. We will add video editing, online workshop facilitation, and Zoom expertise to our resumes and work together with our friends to find the services we all need. I hope theatre has a place in that collective decision.

 

*****

Hayley Sherwood is an NYC-based theatre artist who believes theatre belongs to everyone and activates this mission as an educator, administrator, producer, and actor. This has led her to teach K-12 students with organizations such Story Pirates and Opening Act, teach and manage programming with CO/LAB, an organization that creates a social and creative outlet for individuals with developmental disabilities, and produce COMMUNITY WORKS, a community-engaged theatre program at Williamstown Theatre Festival that casts local residents of all ages, socio-economic, veteran and disability statuses in a giant, world-premiere musical that is performed for thousands on the mainstage of the festival. She holds her BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University and her MA in Educational Theatre for Colleges and Communities from NYU. She is a member of Middle Voice at Rattlestick Theatre Company and tutors the coolest family in Staten Island.

The Click

By Renata Townsend

Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. 

I miss the click. Do you know what I’m referring to? The feeling in a room when the game clicks in – the energy shifts and the focus is palpable. The feeling where the circle gets tighter, participants’ posture starts to lean in, faces start to change, protective shields start to melt away. There may be laughter or impenetrable silence or nonsense words being said in a quick order. 

I miss this – this is one of the reasons I became a teaching artist. 

I have always loved games. So much so, that I facilitated a session at the 2017 NYC Arts in Education Roundtable Face to Face Conference sourcing and sharing games that we know in our arts education community (shout out to my co-facilitator Paul Brewster). Facilitating a game to build ensemble, reflect on the world around us, break up the day for students, build SEL skills, have fun – is my jam. I love it. I’m fascinated by it. But now that we are living in a digital world, how does this transfer? How do we play games online that were originally created to connect people in space? How do we create the click, digitally? 

Like the majority of teaching artists I know, my work has been significantly cut. I have been able to maintain an afterschool gig teaching middle school students in Brooklyn (now dispersed all over the city/state/country). Parents at the school shared that more than anything else, they believe their kids need to connect to their friends. The kids are bored, scared and lonely. A few weeks ago the normally boisterous, giggly, sassy 6th and 7th graders revealed to us during a check-in that on a scale from 1-5 they were feeling like 2’s and 3’s, using words like sad and tired to describe their moods. They were shells of themselves. It broke my heart but didn’t surprise me. After that experience my co-teachers and I decided that we were throwing the previously decided on curriculum out the window and were going to focus on three things: 

  1. Fun 
  2. Connection 
  3. Play  

This past week I facilitated a session comprised of games. I modified tried and true theater education games that I have played countless times in the classroom, to the digital space. I was nervous to try them and was transparent in the beginning of class that I have never played these games in this way and they might completely fail. I introduced the first game verbally and put the instructions in the chat. At first it was clunky and I had to repeat the rules. But then something magical happened. The game started working and I started to see smiles, students leaning into their computer cameras and bright eyes. At the end of class one student said, “Can we please do this again?”. The click happened. 

I’m re-ignited to find the joy in teaching online and discuss the pedagogy of arts education in the digital space. Here are the games that I played:

Facilitator Note: All of the games take significantly more time to introduce in the digital space. Be patient. I also modeled all of them with a student, wrote the instructions in the chat box and checked in that everyone understood the rules with a thumbs up to ensure that everyone is on the same page before starting. 

 

3 Differences (adapted from the Boal Game, taught to me by Helen White) 

  • I partnered students up and wrote their names into the chat. (ie. Maria, John)
  • I told students to pin their partner so their partner’s box/window could always be seen. 
  • I set a timer for 30 seconds and told students to observe everything about their partner’s box/window (what they’re wearing, how they’re sitting, what is in their space)
  • After the timer was up I told the students whose name I typed first in the chat that they would be turning off their cameras first. I repeated the student’s names that were in the first round. When their cameras were off they had to change three things about themselves or their environments. They had 1 minute to make the changes. 
  • After the minute was up everyone turned their cameras back on and they had to write their three guesses into the chat. Partners communicated using the chat function. 
  • At the end of the round we reflected full group on the experience. 
  • After reflection, switch partners for round 2. 

Facilitator Note: Students were changing clothes, bringing siblings and pets into their screens and running around their homes in the minute’s time – I was shocked by how fun this game became! 

 

Story Seedlings (adapted from Story Words, taught to me by Ben Johnson)

  • This game is done with two people. 
  • One person will be the storyteller and one is the gardener. The storyteller’s job is to begin a story using the phrase “Once upon a time”. While the storyteller is telling their story the gardener is writing words into the chat box. It is the storyteller’s job to incorporate the words into their story. 
  • This is a great exercise in flexibility and collaboration. 
  • It is a lot of fun for audience members (other students in the class) to watch how the storyteller incorporates the words. 

Facilitator Note: Depending on how many students you have participating you may want to set a limit on how many words the gardener types and/ give a countdown when the student should end their story.  

 

15 Crosses (adapted from 4 corners, taught to me by Peter Musante)

  • This is a physical game! Encourage students to stand during this game, if they are able. 
  • The goal of the game is to cross the screen in 15 unique ways. Do not over think it! 
  • When you are finished with your 15 crosses, sit and watch as people finish up. 

Facilitator Note: There is no wrong way to play this game! The goal is to get out of your head and move your body. It is fun to record the game while playing and then watch it back. 

 

For even more ideas of games that particularly work well in the digital space check out the previously recorded TYA/USA webinar: Zoom Zap Zop: Virtual Theater Game Slam  and please share games that are working well for you!

 

*****

Renata Townsend is a teaching artist, theater maker and content creator for young people. She has performed and taught with The New Victory Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, St. Ann’s Warehouse, The Park Avenue Armory, CENTERSTAGE, Co/LAB, Marquis Studios, Opening Act and Circle in the Square Theatre School. She works with the World Science Festival on finding ways to engage families while they are waiting in lines and writes Teacher Resource Guides for Broadway shows. She is the Head of Enrichment for Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, a theater for young audiences company that creates immersive experiences that encourage kids and adults to imagine and play together and has served on the Teaching Artist Affairs Committee and Face to Face Panels Committee of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable. Renata is a SUcasa Grant recipient and New Victory Theater Labworks Artist in Residence and is currently working on an original show that will push into early-childhood classrooms. She holds a BFA in Acting from UMBC and a Master’s Degree in Applied Theater from City University of New York, SPS.

When the Hustle Halts

By Stephanie Anderson

Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. 

Let’s go back to Tuesday before everything changed.  

I went from Brooklyn to a class in midtown
to a class on the upper west side
to the office in Herald Square
to a class on the upper east side
to a meeting in Harlem
to a rehearsal in FiDi
And then back to Brooklyn.  

Three days later absolutely everything in my schedule had been cancelled.  Sound familiar?

Before quarantine, I went to an improv show at the PIT, and the audience was asked to simultaneously yell a one-word suggestion, a word that summarized what we wanted most in life.  My roommate yelled, “Pizza!”  I yelled “STABILITY!”  I would like both, please.

There is no stability for a teaching artist.  Not really.  There is no predictable yearly income, no guaranteed residencies, no dependable student attendance, no consistent schedule, no complete ownership over curriculum, no reasonable commute, no power to be particularly picky when saying no to projects.  I am acutely aware of my lack of control, but still I try.  I hustle to get on teaching rosters, maximize my time, and color-coordinate my schedule with artistic precision.  

But then this virus halted my hustle and took away the illusion of control, and I hated it.  Grasping at any semblance of productivity, I signed up to write for this blog, and when asked to pitch topics, I was ready.  I was five days into quarantine, so I had obviously already completed the five stages of grief, and I was prepared to harness my newfound enlightenment to write “What We Can Control.”  You know, something along the lines, of… 

We can’t control this virus or our health or our livelihood, but we can control our attitudes!  
Our use of time!  
Be positive!  
Try Yoga!  
Exercise!  
Eat well!  
Call all your friends!  
Apply to all the jobs!  
Write that play!  
Learn that language!  
Make lemonade out of lemons and turn quarantine into opportunity because you can’t control the chaos in the world but you can control your response to it all! 

However, I soon realized I couldn’t control my response, my emotions, or my energy levels.  I woke up, and I didn’t want to do anything.  I was jaded and exhausted from pouring my heart into productions and residencies and relationships only for them to be taken away.  I saw other teaching artists somehow starting yoga channels, speaking on zoom panels, running a half-marathon in their backyard, organizing 24 hour play festivals, and starting Socially Distant Improv (shout out to Dana!).  

But I was just tired, deflated, unmotivated.  And this scared me because normally motivation is my superpower.  I am a resilient, scrappy, hard-working problem solver.  At least I was?  I felt such a loss of identity because I was no longer productive.  

I was supposed to make my official New York directing debut last weekend: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at The King’s College.  In Act I, Rosencrantz says, “We have no control…none at all.”  Tom Stoppard knew all along.  We have no control, and that’s my big take on day fifty-one.  As much as I try, I can’t control the world, my life, or my emotional responses from moment to moment.  

All I can do is choose where I put my focus, and that has been a constant learning process.  

On day one of quarantine, I started writing a daily list of gratitude, and this bedtime ritual has made a world of difference.  I choose to focus on my faith, the needs of others, and the good in the world.  I focus on my mental health rather than my productivity.  I focus on the times in my life when I have found income, opportunity, and human connection in the most surprising places, and I remember that this too will pass.  When I think upon these things as opposed to what I can’t control, I find a weird sort of quarantine peace, even joy (I’ll let you know how tomorrow goes). 

I have also found joy in redefining productivity.  I’ve played piano for hours with no intention of perfecting a piece, writing a musical, or sharing it with the world.  I’ve called my Aunt Sally.  I’ve made biscuits just because I wanted biscuits.  I’ve gone on walks to nowhere. Slow walks.  Sans podcast.  I’ve sat on the couch and watched three episodes of Gilmore Girls back to back without multi-tasking or feeling guilty.  All of this is so refreshingly “unproductive” because it will never go on my resume, but it has fed my soul and kept me sane.  

Thankfully, new opportunities continue to arise and bring back a semblance of a routine, and I’m slowly rebuilding my capacity to create art and listen to The Daily without letting it wreck me.  I’ve been feeling more like myself again with enough work to motivate me but not define me.  It has taken a global pandemic to make me slow down, but now I’m forced to embrace Dr. Wayne Dyer’s wisdom: “I am a human being, not a human doing.”  I like being.  I like having time to say yes to people.  It turns out, even without my old hustle, I am still loved, still valued, still capable of finding and spreading joy.  And so are you.    

 

*****

Stephanie Anderson is a director, actor and theatre educator with a MA in Educational Theatre from New York University. Stephanie spent five years teaching theatre at a public high school in China, where she built a theatre program from scratch, teaching multi-tiered classes and directing over a dozen showcases and productions. In New York, Stephanie teaches musical theatre, improv, and devising for programs including NYU’s Looking for Shakespeare, Opening Act, Ping Chong + Company, Uncommon Charter High School, Story Pirates, and TADA! Youth Theatre.  She can be seen acting with Verbatim Performance Lab which explores human behavior and implicit bias.  Directing credits include The Last 5 Years, Fiddler on the Roof, Beauty and the Beast, You Can’t Take It With You, Things I Had to Learn, and Hello, Dolly!  www.stephaniejanderson.com

Improvising in Quarantine

Teaching Artists Speak Out_ Blogs from Quarantine Post by Dana Shulman. Background: NYC apartment buildings looking up at the sky.

By Dana Shulman

Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. To view other blogs in the series, please click here.

—–

You can make sure you are stocked up on hand sanitizer, canned food, and toilet paper, but you can never be completely prepared for going into quarantine during a pandemic. Sure, I have enough to eat in my house. We are very fortunate and we planned ahead; however, I had no idea what my brain and my heart and my soul were going to need during this intense time.

On Thursday, March 12th I was in the middle of teaching an improv class for The Peoples Improv Theater when we got word there would be no more classes for a while. My students looked at me. I looked at them. I didn’t know what to say, but I talked anyway.

I’m an improviser, that’s what we do.

I told everyone I had no idea what was going on or when we’d be back, but I knew that we all needed to set one quantifiable and attainable mini-goal for however long we would be quarantined. I told them I would check in the next week and see how the goals went. I offered up my goal first.

I decided that I would finally get myself to drink 10 glasses of water a day.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could even accomplish this one small goal. It seemed like a lot. Quarantining seemed like a lot. Everything seemed like a lot.

Every week after class we all swing by the bar and then head to an after class improv jam; however there was no jam. Everything was cancelled. The situation was getting real and scary really fast.

We all looked at each other and not knowing what else to do, we started our own makeshift improv jam at the bar. Someone grabbed my phone and we put it on Facebook Live. We all laughed and tried not to touch each other. People at home were happy to see that some of us were still together. This improv jam and the silly video meant a lot to a lot of people.

That was our last night out.

I went home scared and unprepared emotionally for what life would be like in the coming days/weeks/months. I imagined myself laying in bed and crying and feeling lost for a long time, missing my students, missing my people, missing laughter and art and creativity and the stage. I wondered what good all the hand sanitizer, canned food, and toilet paper could do without the things that I knew I needed to survive.

I woke up on March 13th and a few of us decided to record some two person improv sets since we were each quarantined with another improviser. That sounded fun and would make my mom pleased to get to see me perform so we did it. We knew we could all stream from our personal accounts; however it felt more powerful if we all streamed from one account. I quickly made a new Instagram account.

Socially Distant Improv.

Sounds good.

Instagram account made.

Show scheduled.

My friend Kim made a graphic advertising our show.

It gave me something to look forward to. It gave us all something to look forward to.

I have not stopped working from March 13th until now at the time of this publication. We’ve been working around the clock.

Socially Distant Improv is now a fully functioning channel on Instagram Live.

We stream 75+ weekly shows.

We successfully ran a 25 hour international comedy festival this past weekend.

It’s 3 weeks in and we have over 1300 followers.

It’s modest, but it’s growing.

Every single day Kim and I get some sort of note from someone telling us why Socially Distant Improv is important to them. Performers are thankful for the encouragement to create and perform and to have a show their far away family and friends can finally see. Our viewers are thankful to laugh and to have shows they look forward to catching. Everyone seems thankful for a continuation of something normal and for something that stays on a schedule in this time of uncertainty.

I have never worked this hard in my life. It’s early mornings to late nights for no pay; however, I’ve never been more fulfilled. I am performing new characters and improvising with new people every single day. I get to reconnect with my current teammates and we are learning to listen and play with each other on a whole new, deeper level. I am making new friends and teammates all over the world. My new friend Rafa who is an improviser in Mexico City will come visit NYC as soon as he can, and I know that we will perform at The PIT together. We are breaking down the walls of theaters and connecting like never before.

This virtual improv theater we created has meant more to my family than I ever could have imagined. At 11AM every day I do improv with my niece and nephew in Boston. They love getting to perform for the world and I love getting to guide them through it. It’s absolutely priceless. Yesterday was a tough one for me, and I didn’t feel like doing anything today, but I knew I had to get up for those kids…so I did and it was beautiful and exactly what I needed.

I have not stopped working from March 13th until now at the time of this publication because when I stop, even for a minute, I feel lost and I cry.

A huge part of my new “job” has been reaching out to performers to ask them to grace our “stage” with their talents since March 13th.  Most were not in the right place to do that on March 13th and we completely understood; however, we kept building Socially Distant Improv. We knew that when and if these performers became ready to get back in front of a “crowd” we’d be ready to make it happen for them.   Most eventually find it comforting and rewarding to get back out there and perform in this new virtual format.

Nobody was emotionally prepared for going into quarantine during a pandemic. Most people I talked to in the first week were laying in bed and crying and feeling lost…AND THAT IS OK. That is great. That is surviving. THAT IS OUR ONLY JOB RIGHT NOW.

So cry, laugh, lay around, get super buff, eat a cake, write a novel, call a friend, take a vow of silence, do anything…JUST SURVIVE. If you survive, that helps me survive and then we’re getting through this together. That is the only way.

Last week a show was cancelled because one of our performers was suddenly feeling sick, and I lost it. What am I doing? People are sick. People are dying. I’m facilitating playtime and laughter. It felt wrong.   I was angry and sad and confused, but I wanted to cover the show so I logged on to Socially Distant Improv and went live. I improvised for 20 minutes with an old friend. It was some of the best improv I’ve done in a long time, and I needed that. My scene partner needed that. Maybe one of the people who witnessed the improvised magic needed that too. So I guess that’s another reason to keep going.

On that note, my thoughts here are done and it’s time for me to take a break and have a good cry. Afterwards, it’s back to work for me because I have a job to do. My job is to survive and this is how I’m doing it.

None of us were prepared for going into quarantine during a pandemic, and we are all just improvising as we go along.    

I’m still not drinking enough water.   I’m working on it.

*****
Dana Shulman is an actor, improviser, teacher, coach, and silly long distance runner originally from Boston and currently in a long term relationship with New York City. She is a long time faculty member, producer, and performer at The Peoples Improv Theater and is a founding member of independent improv team Student Driver (est. 2010) who headlines and produces one of The PIT’s longest running show Indie Road (every Sunday) and their longest longest running festival Indie-Pendence Day (every Fourth of July). Dana teaches improv, stand up, & coaches running through Opening Act & Manhattan Youth, two organizations which do amazing work to support NYC public school students. You can also find Dana playing with ComedySportz NYC and she was a member of the first main stage cast of Improv Asylum NYC. She is a recent graduate of Freestyle Love Supreme Academy and would like to believe she is getting better at rapping. Dana is a co-founder of the brand new and thriving Socially Distant Improv which streams 75+ live comedy shows a week on Instagram Live.  You can follow that adventure at www.sociallydistantimprov.com or @sociallydistantimprov on Instagram. Please check out her regular shenanigans on Instagram at @onedanaatatime, her running adventures at @followthatfannypack, her cat at @murphyburger, and her slightly more professional self, www.danashulman.com.