The Rebirth of the Settlement House Movement

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

It's so important that people see these individuals who come to do fun stuff with them as professional people and to understand what it really means to be an artist. We don't have a lot of opportunities in our culture for people who aren't involved in the arts to connect with professional artists and we have a lot of misconceptions around what it means to be an artist.

I think that a lot of young people see these talent shows on television and believe that an artist is somebody who has been tapped on the shoulder by some sort of Cupid who deems you talented, and if you don't have that stamp on you, if it isn't immediately apparent that you have some virtuosic talent, then you're not an artist. I think those in the arts community know that being an artist is about having something to say and being willing to commit to the struggle to say it in a way that people can experience or understand. The idea is that it's about the commitment to the whole process and it's about knowing how to tap into the resources that are all around us. It's about being able to accept what it is we have to work with and make the most out of that instead of wishing we had things that we don't.

I think that's the first principal of creativity—accept what you have to work with. To me, this is what we need to be teaching children. Artists are just incredible project managers, in the sense that they come up with an idea and figure out how to see it through from the seed to its manifestation and it's something that then becomes shared. And I think that's really missing in our current world of education. I think the people who are really trying to reform education are saying we have to think about project learning, and that's what artists do. Artists learn by creating problems to solve, they learn by coming up with a project and executing it and the whole idea of being engaged in practice, in action, reflection, and then further action. It's an understanding that learning is really a spiral, it's not linear, you need to go around and around, you need to try things over and over again and see what happens when we create experiments and try them.

Can you give me some examples of the ways that artists you've brought in to the Performance Project have engaged the community beyond their performances as part of the series?
We just had Nerve Tank work with a group of youth at The Door. They came in and showed some video of their work, did a short five-minute live performance for them and then immediately engaged them in theater-making. But first we had a conversation, because here's Nerve Tank, this very experimental theater company. I've gotten some strange looks for pairing these experimental companies with young people. They think that the kids are not going to be able to relate to that work. But I am a theater educator whose approach is based in devised techniques, because I think it teaches people not just to do theater but to make theater and to understand what the process is. It teaches them that it's not this hierarchical structure, it's about learning collaborative skills, it's about learning how to communicate your own ideas and reflect on whether or not they're getting across.

To me, these indie or experimental companies, or whatever you want to call them, these are the people working in the way I want to see young people working. So Nerve Tank was an ideal company to bring in. I think young people get this kind of theater in a way we don't give them credit for—we don't live in a linear world any more. They're getting sound bites and images, their whole world is a collage of experience, so I think they really do get this work.