I have spent much of this Autumn working on creating the violence for an all-female production of “Julius Caesar”, which opens in November. This type of project is some of my favorite work, and this production in particular has been inspiring, challenging, and visionary. The challenges the women have struggled with and slowly– with growing fierceness, glory, and concentrated power– overcome have prompted me to post this blog from 2012 once more. Coaxing adult women into taking up more space, striking with surety, turning with quick and safe confidence, weapon in hand…even having to remind them that this warrior does not fear death…. I want girls to have some practice being bold in safe, fun environments! It used to be popular to be boys or pirates or whatever at Hallowe’en, but I watch as the one day a year we can try a persona on, break free from our assigned role and have a bit of wildness turns into another day for girls to be icons of “thingness” rather than “action”. Let this wonderful, wild day of being someone else remind us to give our girls encouragement to swash some buckles! HAPPY HALLOWE’EN!!!
I love pirates. Not, of course, modern real-life pirates, but the pirates of history and fiction with whom I fell in love as a girl. I still remember the thrill I felt when I met my first wild and adventurous pirate, Sinbad the Sailor from 1001 Arabian Nights. I was a shy, bookish, wandering girl of 8 who spent long afternoons alone in the woods to recover from school where having both too much energy and an agile, hungry mind made me ….. well, let’s call it “less than popular”. My discovery of the swashbuckling, adventurous narrative saved me.
To be clear, my love for the buckling swashers and swashing bucklers was not a love born of wanting to be in a moment with them; I wanted to be in a moment AS them. I wanted adventures! I wanted to wave a sword and save people and ride a fast horse or a fast ship or a slow camel under a different canopy of stars. While it’s true that there are more and more girls and women who are allowed to be heroic or adventurous or daring in novels, the stage and the screen still reflect society’s general expectation of females, and there is tremendous resistance to both writing such parts for women and casting women in such roles.
Enter Stage Combat. So delicious! So many techniques and practices that borrow from everything from martial arts to mime to circus tricks, and so many wonderfully pointy objects to wield. There is no room in safe fight practice for ego or a sense of victimhood, nor for hesitation/disempowerment or domination. A good teacher/choreographer also designs a fight for surprise. At this point in my career, teaching stage combat to mixed-gender (mixed-race, mixed-ethnicity, mixed-class….) groups of young people is one of the most joyful, effective, and subversive practices I know. Plus it’s waaaay fun.
Stage combat is also an entrance to roles otherwise denied chicks. The practice (The skills? The mindset?) has allowed me to play a number of swashbuckling roles (including pirates), to direct swashbuckling productions (like “Pirates of Penzance” for Cornell’s Summer Concert series last June), and to find a bravery in my self when I need it.
So, Teaching Artists, Guardians, clamour for the opportunity for your young women to practice saving the day and having adventures. Long live the ladies of the blade!
Posted in: Arts in CommunityPlaysThe Business of ArtTheatre for Social Change
Schools are now in session, and once again Social Studies teachers are wondering how to get their students to remember the many different peoples that are too often lumped together as ‘Asian’ or ‘African’ or ‘First Nations/Native American’. English teachers are hunting for a new way to engage students in discussions of The Odyssey or The Iliad or any Greek plays or legends. Theatre teachers are adapting a folk tale……. and everyone’s budget has been cut. Masks are a wonderful way to discover differences in cultural perspectives, character nuances, and the ideas of subtext and implication. But what if you are prohibited from ordering art supplies? Well Ta DAA! Enter Manila Folder Masks. Made almost entirely out of Office Supplies!!! Contact me if you want the accompanying how-to in comic-book form.
Manila Folder Mask: What is it?
Believe it or not, Manila Folders have different properties than any other paper product, including card stock and oak tag, which they resemble. They are more pliable, more resilient, and more durable, and can take and hold more shapes than any other paper product. I STRONGLY recommend to group leaders or anyone wanting to lead students on this venture to experiment with this marvelous stuff first, and really listen to what it is telling you. Make curls, make cupped leaves, make springs and foldy sproings or bridges. Cut slits on an angle and bend them open… The picture on the left is a Dragon I am making right now!
What are the pros and cons of using it?
*So many teachers cannot order “art supplies”. Luckily, these are OFFICE supplies. Plus, it’s very cheap!
*You can make them REALLY BIG (I made a 3.5 foot-long dragon’s head complete with hinged jaw with folders, staples, and brass paper fasteners)!
*You can do it without any liquids, and the ‘waste’ materials are all recyclable!
*Materials do not need to be new—used works fine.
*It’s stronger and longer-lasting than papier mache.
*Anyone can do it. Children as young as 4 and as young as 84 have had delightful experiences making manila folder masks.
*Manila folders are an intriguing material. No matter what you do, it will be really cool. However, to be able to create what you want in any intricate or huge way, you really have to play with the material, listen to it, watch it behave, learn it. I personally think this is a “Pro” not a “Con”.
*Repeated sweat will ‘eat through’ the head band—so you put packing tape on the inside. Which, of course, means that it becomes cleanable. How cool is that?!?!?
Stage One: ‘Sculpting’ the form
There are several basic models from which to ‘grow’ a manila-folder mask. I will outline the form that is simplest and lends itself to the most complex. In this case, the ‘form’ is a supported shape of your head. First, create a band that snugly fits your head. You will need strips from the length and width of your manila folder to make one long enough to go around your head—make it about an inch or 1.5 inches wide. NOTE! When you staple the two pieces together, make sure the ‘head’ of the staple is on the inside and the ‘feet’ are on the outside, so the staples do not get caught in your hair or scratch your face. This is a general rule for this project.
Inside, beginning of a mask structure
After you have made the snug band, you need to create at least 2 cross braces over the top. I recommend making them run diagonally rather than perpendicularly; strength comes from mixing diagonals with right angles, and you’ll want the right angles for your ears/hair/crown, nose, horns etc. NOTE! It’s best NOT to trim the braces. Make them toooo long on purpose so you have an uncut strip to which you may attach other facial structures. Joints are the weakest spots, so we want to keep them to a minimum.
Stage Two: Building the Mask
At this stage, it is important to know what you are aiming for. Are you 6 years old and making a bird with a 4 inch beak? Are you an adult artist making a 2 foot long monster mask? It is important to know because you will now build the support frame and then portions of the outer part of the face. Wait—what? PORTIONS of the face?!?! YEP! Part of makes Manila folder masks so groovy is that you don’t need the whole outer part to be solid. The masks look awesome with spaces and they also look awesome with a ‘skin’ of light fabric, gauze, tissue paper, even toilet paper (tissue and toilet paper should be brushed with modge podge).
To build a support for your bird beak or giant monster face, use long slender strips with cross braces, tabs, folds, or curls as supports. Remember to connect strips at diagonals and right angles for maximum strength, to have the attachments be at different locations on the strips to prevent ‘joint weakness’, and to make strips as slender as a half-inch to make the structure light. I have included photos here to help show what I mean. In case you are interested, I have created a How-To booklet in a graphic novel format to show some manila folder mask-making techniques, and if you comment on this blog post, I will send it to you for free.
For cheeks, chins, ears, brows and so on, cut out trapezoids, teardrop/leaf shapes, fat rainbows, et cetera, and experiment with bending them to make a box or ‘canoe’ with ‘tabs’, pressing them into your palm to make a ‘cup’ with extra on the bottom for stapling, and so on. Folders LOVE to hold these shapes! Make them slightly larger than you need or with a tab or tail for attaching.
Go ahead and try something! Remember that all masks want to be super 3D. Add horns, hair, squiggles, nostrils….go crazy! One classroom of 4th graders with which I worked struggled with their first ‘test drive’ mask. They then absolutely fell in love with the stuff, and made masks for their play based on First Nations Tales, then made masks just for themselves! They loved it so much they gave up computer time!!!
Stage Three: Finishing up
Inside: I would put a light layer of modgepodge (which functions differently than either glue or wallpaper paste) for strength and rigidity. You may need to put some packing tape on the inside to protect the mask from your sweat or to cover up the staple feet that you did on the inside by accident.
Outside: For a crisper hold, use modgepodge. One neat trick is to draw on the manila folder pieces with magic marker (MUCH better than soggy paint!) then put modge podge on (immediately for a more paint-like look, after a moment for a harder line look). Lay colored tissue paper over the markered area. Voila! It looks AWESOME through the tissue paper. To make the colored tissue paper even more translucent, put a light coat of modge podge on the outside of the tissue paper as well, once the underneath coating has dried. I strongly recommend experimenting on scraps first!
Posted in: Arts-in-EdMasks
Now that the school year is in full swing and folks are beginning to stress about test scores, the idea of extending the school day, cutting recess, cutting creative activities and so on comes again to the fore. “Play is under pressure right now, as parents and policymakers try to make preschools more like schools. But pretend play is not only important for kids; it’s a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart, ” Alison Gopnik wrote in “Let the Children Play, It’s Good for Them! A leading researcher in the field of cognitive development says when children pretend, they’re not just being silly—they’re doing science”. If you are a regular reader of mine, you know this is crazy making for me—I have written blogs in the past that touch on related subjects ( for example, The Importance of Play). I also believe that play is crucial to a healthy society; it gives us the opportunity to explore ideas and test working relationships, take risks and discover that failure is a step on a path, not an end. Yes, I love using and recommend heavily Michael Rhodes book, “Theatre, Community and Dialogue, the Hope is Vital Training Manual” AND the original community-building book “The New Games Book: play hard, play fair, nobody hurt, by Andrew Fluegelman, Ed. Headlands Press: Garden City, NY: 1976”. Moreover, neuropsychologists and others have shown how we build new neurons with focus and practice, including those for empathy ( see “Mirror Neurons” and “How to Grow the Good in Your Brain” ).
Why the heck are we denying developing humans the opportunities that make them become fully realized?!?
So as not to bore you to death, I have broken the rest of this blog into 3 easy-to-digest sections, and you can scroll to your fave.
- I. How is play important to individual development?
- II. Why might play be important to the health of society?
- III. What are some cool awesome play-like things you could do RIGHT NOW that would also be helpful on a larger scale?
I. Jon Hamilton, in an article titled Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain, writes “”The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says. “It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.” There links in the article to more studies and commentary on play, its impact and it’s decline, and in fact, NPR’s website has a whole section on Education (click here).
II. As an artist, I recognize the crucial role play and playfulness has in a creative process, but more importantly, in our ability to be less afraid of the unknown and of failure. Play is where we can learn to roll with the punches, take healthy risks, form useful alliances not conscripted by religion, race or like-ability but born out of a mutual desire to accomplish something. A lack of play opportunities compels us to fear ‘risk’ and ‘other’, and fosters the idea that we must feel secure at all times and at all costs, cling to what is known as ‘safe’ rather than risk alliances and explore change. On a large scale, this is how we become controllable; the Taliban outlawed arts, education, and playing, as do many regimes.
In John Poole’s article, he writes “Not surprisingly, Panksepp and others think the lack of play is a serious problem. Especially at younger ages. And particularly in school settings. Without play, we know that other species become quick to aggression and have trouble “fitting in.” Panksepp thinks the rising rates of ADD and ADHD may in part be due to this problem. In trials where extra playtime was given to kids showing signs of these disorders, there was marked improvement in their behaviors as reported by teachers and parents. “It’s not just superfluous,” says Panksepp. “It’s a very valuable thing for childhood development. And we as a culture have to learn to use it properly and have to make sure our kids get plenty of it.”
A fabulous website called “Invention at Play” is very much worth visiting to arm yourself! Here’s a sample “Make Believe/Visual Thinking: In pretending, we learn to navigate with ease between real and imaginary worlds while learning the differences between them. Using our imaginations encourages original thinking, flexibility, adaptability, empathy, and the ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem. Pretend play helps us learn to think visually and spatially and to both capture and express ideas.”
III. Cool games for grown-ups to help make a difference!
In “How Scientists Are Using Games to Unlock the Body’s Mysteries! They’re not just for kids anymore”, Sharon Begley writes about online games that help scientists solve important problems, like Foldit: “This online game asks you to determine the 3-D shape of a protein, knowledge crucial to understanding how it works,” (Foldit here) and Eyewire (neuron mapping).
Other fabulous fun that helps is on Zooniverse (I LOVE these!).
I want to close with another Sharon Begley quote, “It’s this tinkering approach, this trial and error, that is the basis of play. Beginning when we could hold a rattle, we all learned to solve problems by playing with them.”
Let’s keep making play an important part of learning to solve problems.
Posted in: Arts-in-EdThe Business of ArtUncategorized
September 1st, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the sole surviving Passenger Pigeon.
Quite a few interesting, powerful, relevant articles have come out, ranging from blog post by Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff, Hugh Powell “Never to Be Repeated: Lessons From the Passenger Pigeon” (it includes link to NY Times editorial by Lab of O Director John Fitzpatrick) to thoughts about “de-extinction” in a Smithsonian article by William Souder, “100 Years After Her Death, Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, Still Resonates”.
However, for me it wasn’t until I saw the paper ‘pull-out’ from my edition of the Smithsonian Magazine, that I felt a real connection.
It was printed with the pattern to fold the paper into an origami Passenger Pigeon.
Like the origami cranes, gracefully and soulfully keeping us aware of and connected to the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima, this funny little paper art becoming a bird in my clumsy hands immediately made Martha both real and relevant. Art, especially participatory art, illuminates ideas and feelings that are not reached by the neuropaths used when we read text, and spreads a dawn of new understandings like concretized, limiting words never can.
And what might be the next step an organizer, educator, artist might do with an origami Passenger Pigeon? What if the children in your group each made one, then created a movement piece with them exploring flight or migration patterns on a map or in front of an image? What if they became a starting place for Paper Art about other losses, physical, cultural, personal, to be shared at a community center or public space? Here in Ithaca, there was a call for any visual art about Passenger Pigeons, curated and currently hosted at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There are soooo many exciting and engaging ‘next steps’, each easily inspired by a simple folded sheet of a lost bird. Heck, just make some and brainstorm some next steps with your group! You can even become a part of the North American Passenger Pigeon Project with your art or community project! You can download an origami pattern to print for free, or order a box of 50 pre-printed ones for a whopping $12.50 at the Fold the Flock website.
Martha’s remembrances include other incredible art pieces and projects. I am including the ones near my home in the Finger Lakes region of New York State; come if you can, but if not, perhaps you will be inspired to do something similar with your own students, group, communities.
- The 16 clay bas-reliefs of Passenger Pigeons by artist Anita Welch are hung on trees in Sapsucker Woods, and seem, to me, like shades of the birds of themselves as they haunt the forest.
- The work of sculpture Todd McGrain, whose huge bronze statues of Lost Birds slowly ‘migrate’ from site to site in regions where they were plentiful. His Passenger Pigeon currently looks out over a marshland near the Lab of Ornithology’s Visitors’ Center. You can learn more about these statues and The Lost Bird Project here .
- The sound/loss artworks of Maya Lin, especially the What is Missing? Project. To quote her website, “What is Missing?, Maya Lin’s last memorial, will focus attention on species and places that have gone extinct or will most likely disappear within our lifetime. The project exists as a multi-sited installations, as a website, whatismissing.net, which acts a nexus for the project, and as a virtual and physical book.”
The website includes a dynamic , moving interactive map that allows participants to learn and reflect on extinctions past, present, and future.
- The work of Stef den Ridder, presently a Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bartels Science Illustration Intern, whose work graces the ‘cover’ of the ‘State of Birds Report 2014′ and other recent publications. This image is used with permission, ad you can read the report (and see some of her work) here or watch on YouTube here.
- Finally, a tribute written to/about Martha herself, an article by Joseph Stromberg, written for Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, “Martha, the World’s Last Passenger Pigeon”
Art reaches us and teaches us.
Posted in: Arts in CommunityArts-in-Ed
I spent part of this past weekend attending New York Summer Sling, “a 4 day stage combat workshop sanctioned by the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD). Classes are taught by SAFD certified fight directors and teachers from universities and theaters around the country. Class options include introductory instruction in all of our eight weapon disciplines for the stage, unique and specialized experimentation with period fighting styles, and master classes in advanced physical acting techniques” (from the Summer Sling website description).
Despite an incredible lack of sleep and profound anxiety ahead of time, I had one of the most wonderful conference experiences of my life. I am still, 48 hours later, in the throes of profound contentment and joy, brought on in part by getting out of my head for a while (which is good for everyone), in part by being in a constant state of motion (which is great for me personally), but for the most part, by being in the presence of so much … grace of heart and soul.
The people were kind and generous of spirit, all experience levels were welcomed and all attendees were welcomed and encouraged, regardless of background or challenges. There were classes for skilled experts and classes for the neophyte, classes for related skills (blood use and application for the stage, English Dancing), and classes open to everyone (such as “Action and the Camera Parts 1 and 2 (Corey Pierno)—>Students will experience action design as filmmakers, and will be taken through the process of breaking down a script, putting together a fight scene, camera and shot considerations, and solving unexpected problems” or “Shaolin Kicks (Michael G. Chin)—>Students will be taught basic Northern Shaolin Kicks and technique including crescent, instep, round house, cutting, sweeps and spins. Students will also be taken through stretching exercises. This class is open to all experience levels, martial arts training is not required”).
These workshops are held in cities across the USA throughout the year, and you can take just one day if you want to. Obviously, if you have any interest in performing with weapons or staging fights, you would love it.
But so would most of the rest of you.
Are you writing a play or a battle-strewn novel? GO and take the open and/or novice classes, and ask to watch an advanced class in rapier or broadsword or whatever for one of your classtimes. Are you a theatre teacher? GO and take any one of “here’s a new way of staging a battle” or “how do you create realistic contemporary violence” classes. Are you a regular person who needs a total immersion get-away that can be very physical, very fun, and very supportive? GO and get rejuvenated! Bring your kindest self, and soak in the learning.
You can also find them on Facebook here.
Posted in: Arts-in-EdPerformingThe Business of ArtWriting