Tag: teaching artists

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.

Keeping the He(ART) Alive: Adapting and Setting Boundaries

By Lauren Extrom

Posted on Thursday, April 16, 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.

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My grandfather (who was already quite sick before the virus arrived in the states) went into hospice care in his home in early March, before the stay-at-home orders were put in place, so I decided to take a trip to the suburbs of Chicago to say goodbye to him and to visit with family. I didn’t realize that my planned trip of five days would turn into a month-long trip, with little to no idea of when I would be able to return to my apartment—my life—in Brooklyn. 

I went over to his house, sang to him with my sister, and visited with family on the evening of March 11th. The next morning, I learned that he had passed away in his sleep. We planned to hold funeral services the following weekend but had to cancel due to the restrictions on public gatherings. Now my grandfather is sitting on our dining room table, cremated, silently reminding us of the impact he had on our lives. 

I’m not sure if any of us have processed it. I wish I could hug and comfort my family members who took care of him until his day of passing, but, unfortunately, hugging is not really an option in our culture anymore. So, we just take each day as it comes, do our best to remember that death ultimately is a part of life, and try to stay focused on our priorities. 

~~

Social distancing. Hand sanitizer. Business closures. Unemployment. Stay-at-home orders. Quarantine. Pandemic. 

All of this terminology has become such a large part of our everyday vocabulary, yet I still find it difficult to comprehend that all of this is actually happening. 

Whether we work on the frontlines or from home, it is safe to say that this virus has affected all of our lives in some way. My mom still goes to work as a nurse administrator at a hospital just outside of the city and is required to wear a mask all day. My dad still drives downtown every day to go to work at a small law office; two of his coworkers recently got sick with what they think is the coronavirus, but my dad still goes to work because he is 65 and is worried he may not have a job after the pandemic ends. My sister works from home but is worried about losing her job due to increased layoffs. I just finished graduate school and was in the process of interviewing for jobs in NYC, but now I am unsure of my next steps toward future employment in the arts. This pandemic is now a part of our reality, and as much as I wish it weren’t, I must accept it. 

I recognize that I am much more fortunate than most during these times; I have a loving family whom I can stay with outside of NYC and will be receiving financial support from them until I can find some sort of remote work. If it weren’t for them, I’m not sure how I would be able to pay my rent for my apartment in NYC and put food in my stomach. I’m very grateful to have this time with my family, and I certainly don’t take that time for granted. 

Still, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the solitude I usually have access to in my apartment, and to the artistic community that I am a part of in NYC. For me, my practice as an artist is a personal one and is often done in solitude when I am not performing or collaborating with others. I would spend hours in a practice room if I could, writing songs and practicing music and monologues, all of which usually involves a lot of self-acceptance, weird vocal exercises, and silly faces and tongue shape examinations in the mirror. Although I have a piano here in my parents’ house and can isolate myself in my childhood bedroom to do some writing, I can’t deny that I have had to make some adjustments to my routines and artistic goals as a result of my new living situation. 

When it comes to boundaries, I used to be a doormat. It wasn’t until I started following emotionally intelligent trailblazers such as Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert that I began to see boundaries as essential to any relationship, especially my relationship with myself. 

Here are a few of the ways in which I have tried to set healthy routines and boundaries around my artistic practice while living with my family. Every day is certainly not the same, and no matter what, I try to be kind to myself as I navigate my new living situation. I also know that every artist’s at-home situation is going to be different, so not all of these ideas will work for everyone. Regardless, I try to keep these ideas in mind as I tackle each day: 

  • I try to let my family members know about my schedule. If I want to spend an hour (or more) undisturbed in my room to do some writing, I will let them know ahead of time so that they don’t assume that something is wrong or that I am ignoring them. I also will let them know when I plan to practice the piano and/or sing, as I will inevitably be heard by everyone in the house, no matter what room they are in. And on that *note*…
  • I try to set and stick to a schedule for myself. I won’t lie—this took me about a week or so to get used to, as I’m used to having a different schedule every day in NYC. For me, this schedule always starts with a yoga and meditation session (I even wear ear plugs so I can try to tap into my peace even while my sister’s dog is wildly barking downstairs). I also only check in on the news in the late afternoon and again later in the evening, after I’ve spent some quality time on my projects. And, at the end of each day, I’ve started to have solo dance parties and literally shake off all of the energy I don’t need to hold onto anymore.
  • I try to nest into my working space. The more I can feel at home away from my home in NYC, the more vulnerable I can be with myself in my artistic practice. I’ve even considered putting up inspirational quotes on my walls in my bedroom, just how I have done in my room in NYC, so that I can remember that no matter where I go, my passion for my art is always with me.
  • I try to tap into other artistic disciplines when I feel stuck in my own. Part of the reason why I enjoy my little dance parties is so that I can get out of my head and into my body, which is something that really helps me let my music compositional ideas flow through me instead of building up inside of my head.
  • I try to remind myself that my artistic practice is my own, no matter what others may think. It can be easy to let a loved one’s comment or opinion of your artistic practice get on your nerves, especially if you’re not used to having an audience tuned into your practice session. I couldn’t tell you the number of times someone in my family has said, “Oh, why don’t you sing something for us?” when I just wanted to practice in peace.
  • I try to stay in touch with my other artsy friends. Seriously, I have never been more grateful for technology. Between virtually watching a play with two of my actor friends, to participating in a Zoom chat with my fellow choir members, it really helps to share ideas and struggles with those in my artistic community.
  • I try to set mantras to live by each day to lift my spirits. I am a huge fan of personal mantras, especially as it relates to my artistic practice. For me, my practice as an artist requires me to be very vulnerable with myself. If I feel that the people in my space don’t respect or understand that, I internally coach myself through my mantras so I can stay focused and not let my insecurities distract me from practicing.
  • When in doubt, I try to stay resourceful and open-minded. As much as I would love to belt my heart out during my practice sessions, my sister works from home and is on calls for most of the day. Therefore, I have started to educate myself more on music history and vocal pedagogy topics through YouTube videos and documentaries on Netflix. Even if I can’t practice in all of the ways I would like to, I can at least educate myself more in my artistic discipline.

It has taken some time, but I do think that I have been able to garner a lot of respect from my family members regarding my artistic lifestyle. Because I am the only working artist in my household, it can be challenging to explain what I do and why I do it. However, my family really does support me and has given me space to practice when I ask for it. 

In some households, this might not be the case, and therefore boundaries may not be respected. If this is the case for you, past experience has shown me that bargaining can actually be quite useful. Proposing ideas such as, “I will walk the dog later if we can keep the news off or on mute while I practice the piano for 30 minutes” allows both parties to feel respected and cared for. 

Additionally, if you are struggling to find some quiet space in your current quarantine location (depending on what restrictions currently reside in your area), perhaps it is possible for you to go on a brainstorming walk outside, or even listen to some music to circulate your thoughts. At times, even just being in a different room from others for a few minutes can help establish a sense of personal space, so that you can check in with yourself and your energy levels. 

Ultimately, I’m trying to see this time as an opportunity to dive deeper into how I approach my art form, because I’ve had no choice but to get creative with it. And, who knows: perhaps by sharing our artistic practices with those in our households, we may find that we even grow closer to them, or inspire them to get in touch with their artistic sides as well. We could all use a bit more art in our lives these days, anyway.

*****

Lauren Extrom (she/her/hers) is a practicing artist, arts administrator, yogi, and aspiring teaching artist. Though she considers herself a dancer and a storyteller, she tends to identify mostly as a vocalist/musician/composer/lyricist. She received her BA in Music and American Studies from Boston University, and she recently received her MA in Performing Arts Administration from NYU. When not practicing social distancing, she resides in NYC and sings as a solo cabaret vocalist, as well as a back-up vocalist in an indie rock band. She also travels to Boston to rehearse with a non-profit choir, VOICES 21C. Lauren is currently working on a few video editing projects for her friends, and is also orchestrating a musical album, which she hopes to release later this year.

Contact: lae315@nyu.edu

Website: https://laurenalyssaextrom.weebly.com/

You’re Not Going to Write King Lear and That’s Okay: On Finding Empowerment Through Art for Art’s Sake under Covid-19

Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine. Post by Chelsea Asher. Background image: NYC apartment building and blue sky.

By Chelsea Asher

Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 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.

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Teaching artists are no stranger to the American hustle culture – if anything, it’s the nature of the work we do. In New York City, we’re on and off trains, buses and subways. We’re in and out of classrooms, federal institutions and midtown buildings. We’re on late night and early morning weekend calls and basically just doing the whole damn lot. Before I was faced with the reality of losing many of my employment opportunities, sudden social distancing, and isolation, you might have caught me saying, “Well, if only I had more time, I’d be able to finally write my novel.”

The nature of the pandemic has forced many of us to interrogate truths we ordinarily wouldn’t have had to. This looks different for everyone, and has been particularly poignant, as ever, for communities living below the poverty line. As a teaching artist, I am anxious about the impact a recession will have on arts education and our students, as well as the pressure on many artists to hustle: to commodify and monetize their newfound “free time” toward an unattainable benchmark of success.

“Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear,” musician Rosanne Cash, and many other Twitter users along with her, began as the pandemic was actualized in the states. Thomas Nashe wrote Summers’ Last Will and Testament and Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron during historical plagues. Isaac Newton invented his theory of gravity while quarantined and Edvard Munch continued to paint even when he contracted the Spanish Flu.

One could argue that none of these people had access to Hulu or Netflix, but that’s not what’s important. These singular, historical creators are being upheld as the pinnacle example of optimism, goodness and, let’s face it, profit coming from our immediate times of uncertainty and hardship during Covid-19. Can you imagine a cultural standard that drives us, even during an outbreak, to think of how our own pandemics can look successful? Allow me to take the pressure off. Take a breath, unclench your shoulders, and release. You are not going to write King Lear. You probably aren’t even going to write King Lear 2. And that’s more than okay.

Let me pose a different question: when is the last time you created without the idea of product, success or audience in mind? At the start of my social distancing and isolation, I painted for the first time since I was a teenager. As a writer, I can’t explain what drew me to create this way, but as I took to the page with color and made something imperfect, I felt free. I video chatted with friends and colleagues this week and found them answering in the midst of baking recipes from their childhoods, learning guitar for the first time, and taking online dance classes. Lack of time may not have been stopping us from writing a Nobel-worthy novel, but it has kept us from the liberating nature of creating for fun, for experimentation, for solace and, most importantly, for ourselves.

In a time when the hustle is pushing down upon us, when everything remains uncertain, I wonder what our communities would look like if we could take a moment together in solace to start this artistic revolution without the expectation of volume, quality or driving a profit, but by the nature of creation itself? When I video called my friend the other night, she answered in the middle of cooking a harrowing recipe she’d been trying to get right for almost two hours. I laughed and marveled why she was putting herself through it. She just shrugged. “Why not? What else are we supposed to do?”

*****

Chelsea Asher is a writer and educator, living in Queens, NY. She received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence college and her work has been featured in Lunch Ticket, Dark Moon Digest and more.

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.

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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.

Grief of the Grounded Gig Artist

By Dianna Garten

Written: Monday, March 30, 2020 (quarantine day 10… or 17… or 63… I’m not sure anymore)

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.

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I was so excited for March and April. Twenty-nineteen had been a rough year for me; dealing with health issues had made many other things in my life take a back seat. It wasn’t all bad, but I was eager to start 2020 with a fresh outlook and attitude, and by late February, 2020 was going great! I was working on several student shows and had another contract lined up to start  soon, I was in the process of producing my first short film that was set to shoot at the end of March, I was training for my first half-marathon, I was prepping for a large gala, and I had just locked in a plan to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe! I was feeling immensely hopeful about 2020 and was ready to hustle as hard as I could going into the spring to see all these things to fruition. It felt like I was taking my life back. I was following the news and hearing the updates about Coronavirus, but it seemed far away and possibly many months down the road. By the end of February, it felt closer, but still not imminent.

Then, the week of March 9th, everything changed very quickly.

March 8th: I had finished my last long run, clocking 11 miles and feeling excited for the half- marathon the following Sunday. I joked on social media with another runner about the race getting cancelled, but still felt certain that it wouldn’t happen.
March 10th: Then on Tuesday it did. And the wave of cancellations began.
March 11th: On Wednesday the gala I was prepping for was cancelled.
March 12th: On Thursday the church I attend cancelled services through the end of April, and the bombshell announcement: Broadway closed.
March 13th: Friday. I was working in a school and could sense the uneasiness in the air; the adults were doing the best they could, but everyone was wearing gloves and recoiling from the five-year-olds when they coughed.
I received emails from every off-Broadway theater I had ever attended announcing early closures.
March 14th: Saturday. Many of my friends discussed leaving the city indefinitely.
March 15th: Sunday. Public school closed.

I had been saying all week “If schools are open I have work”, and then suddenly they weren’t and my financial footing became very uncertain.

I quickly began working for a family that reached out to me for help with the kids since private schools were closed and very frank about being unlikely to reopen. This lasted for just a week as the following Friday, March 20th , the limitations on movements of non-essential workers was announced. I had spent a week commuting in a ghost town, struggling to come to terms with being primarily a child care provider again and by the end of the week I didn’t even have that.

One of my many jobs, the one that I have loved the most and poured the most into, had announced early in that week that they wouldn’t be able to pay out contracts with the school closure, the company had lost too much revenue, so all Teaching Artists were out of work a month and half early. Another company promised to pay out accrued sick pay and sent us links and guides to file for unemployment. I was reeling. One of my best friends expressed gratitude for the chance to slow down. In contrast, I was not grateful for any of it. I felt like everything good I had planned and worked towards had been ripped from my hands in a matter of days (the Edinburgh cancellation didn’t come until later, but the end of March brought that too). I had been taking back my life, and it felt like my life had been taken from me instead.

Despite my immense feeling of loss, betrayal, and frustration, I was, and still am, taking this crisis very seriously. I do not doubt any of the measures being taken and after a few days for each cancellation respectively I knew the decision was right. However, I still was deeply disheartened; saddened by all that had changed in a matter of days and uncertain what the next months ahead would hold.

“I had a voice in my head saying that creative inspiration often comes out of trials, so why wasn’t I feeling inspired? Why did my creativity feel sapped?”

Every time I went to social media or my news app I would see a variety of amazing stories about people finding exciting and creative ways to deal with the closures next to analyses and reports that would completely terrify me. I had a voice in my head saying that creative inspiration often comes out of trials, so why wasn’t I feeling inspired? Why did my creativity feel sapped? I was seeing others seemingly using the time to sit down and write, or draw, or sing, or read, or in some other way create what could come to be their magnum opus. Why couldn’t I start?

Despite the feelings of internal and external pressure, I know I am not the only one who has lost something. Many people are facing much more serious losses than me right now. I count myself lucky to have a warm safe home, a family that doesn’t have to go to the front lines, and devices that can keep me connected while inside. Still, I feel the pain of my community around me; closed shows, cancelled residencies, delayed shoot dates, lost jobs. The impact on the arts community has been profound and the future remains uncertain. When your art form is all about bringing people together in a space, what does it mean when gatherings are prohibited? What is theater in the solitary? And what is community when we lack the space to commune? Now, after one full week of working from home, hustling to transform my side chess tutoring job into a more substantial one edging on my main source of income, engaging in zoom call after zoom call, watching the people who held by financial fate in their hands get defensive about questions, I am less inspired than when the crises started. Each day seems to bring new bad news, fears, and disappointments and the time stretches out before us for time unknown.

Yet, I have come to accept one thing which has helped immensely: I do not need to force productivity.

I will continue to work and try tp find ways to keep income coming in, but I needn’t immediately have creative inspiration or feel like a failure. Inspiration is different for everyone. For some these first two weeks may have been the perfect opportunity to get your creativity going. For others like me, it is ok to take time and grieve the things that have been lost whether they were opportunities, plans, shows, or anything else.

It’s ok to be sad and feel the hurt of the dreams that were becoming tangible and now cannot.
You can feel this and still be fully committed to #flattenthecurve.
It is ok to rest and breathe and be wherever you are.
As an artist, I trust that as I adapt to the new temporary normal the creativity will come back.
The theater community and the arts-ed community are adaptive, it’s what we do.
We are only human and our hurt is part of our humanity; we don’t have to worship at the idol of productivity.
This stop has been forced upon us, creativity will not inherently come back when exerted on with that same force.
Be gentle with yourself, give yourself what you need, feel the pain and fear and grief; you are still an artist and your spark will come back. (And if you know any young children who might be interested in chess, put me in touch with their parents, it’s my main gig now.)

*****

Dianna Garten is an NYC based theater director and teaching artist. Her directing credits include The Divorcee ShowerBossa Nova and BeesA FatimaSpinoza’s Ethics, Who am I? and I am Cecil, among many additional staged readings. She has assistant directed Not A GiftPainting His WingsAbortion: A Race Redux, and Skin Deep. Dianna specializes in devising with students and she has partnered with students to create over twenty original plays. She is deeply committed to lifting students’ voices through the vehicle of theater. Her theatrical experience also includes performing and stage-managing. She has worked with youth throughout New York City and internationally in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Kigali, Rwanda. She earned her BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and my MA in Applied Theatre from CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. diannagarten.com