On the road againAs I write this, I pause to quickly grab a pencil and jot down one more thing on my “Bring” list, so I don’t forget when I leave for a foreign country at 8am tomorrow morning. I have more anxiety than I typically do—normally I am happiest and most content moving through space (or preparing to), and love my collaborative-creative projects best of all.

So what, I asked myself, was I worried about this time? I had done quite a bit of social, cultural, and language preparation, spent time with friends and colleagues from this country to help prevent myself from various pitfalls, and although I knew I would have to be on my toes, I also knew I had done what I could, and that lots of listening, grace, good humor and respect, we would muddle through.

Yeeeaaahhh, still worried.

Why? Turns out I am worried about the collaboration process itself. I have met none of the other people (okay, I met my point person’s husband in 2000, but hadn’t seen/worked with him in maybe 8 years) and I really have no idea what the various stakeholders expectations are, nor how anyone else involved—especially those folks in the hosting nation—perceive collaborative work and relationships.

To quote “Collaboration, from the Wright Brothers to Robots” by Michael Schrage in the March 23 Harvard Business Review, Thinking it through

Successful collaborators don’t just work with each other; they work together through a shared space. Shared space — whether physical, virtual or digital — is where collaborators agree to jointly create, manipulate, iterate, capture and critique the representations of the reality they seek to discover or design. This holds true for collaboration around products, processes, services, songs, or the exploration of scientific principles. Shared space is the essential means, medium, and mechanism that makes collaboration possible. No shared space? No real collaboration. ….. What makes a scientific discipline or artistic community or academic institution or R&D group energized and excited about embracing shared spaces to make collaboration simpler, more accessible, more effective, and more satisfying? How does collaboration become as much a value and a behavioral norm as a core competence and pragmatic means to creative ends?

YES, yes, and yes!

So I reflected on how I could best prepare myself to forward these concepts, knowing virtually nothing and no-one in advance. Here is a fabulous idea that I returned to that I have not seen pop up in a while, along with a couple reflections. I will let you know when I return how it turned out!

Know Which Part of the Collaboration Circle You Fit Best

Working Together Many years ago (over a decade), I took an amazing workshop at a conference on collaboration, a found an invaluable model for a successful team, one in which everyone felt valued and enjoyed their role. (Side note: I have searched the internet extensively for this man’s name, but cannot locate it). In a nutshell, there is a circle of ‘ways of being’ (my words) on a project. Before I explain them, let me share with you what people often say. “Oh, I can do all of those!” That statement does more disservice to your project than anything else. Why? Because it implies (a) that you do them all equally well, and (b) that they all make you equally HAPPY. Neither is true. There will be one of those that you love the most, one role that gives you pleasure and that you know you do well in any aspect of your life. You might “leak” over to the other ones, but for now, discover which of them is the MOST you. Then build your team with people in the other positions who are the most themselves! It works incredibly well—things get done quickly and happily, and everyone feels needed.

Here are the roles:

If we imagine the circle as a compass, let’s start with Visionary in the North position. “What could be?” Visionaries,HP Pre Prod you are the people who have a gazillion amazing new ideas pouring out of you all the time, and sometimes that means you don’t finish what you start (unless you have an amazing support staff). You are the ones who said, “What if there was a thing that could hold a bunch of people, and it had wheels and had its own power-source?”

Enter those of us on the “East” part of the circle, the Becomers. “What are the ways that could work in real life, right now, and the steps to get there?” We are problem-solvers through and through, taking great joy in listening to a bunch of different but simultaneous dreams (even seemingly divergent ones), and figuring out how to connect them so they all come true with maximum inclusivity and efficiency. We are the ones who said, “Hmmmm, well there could be axles and a driveshaft, and instead of turning a crank for the gears by hand, it could be a contained explosion whose force moved pistons which move the crank…” You get the picture.

Welding  But to bring the dream that became a plan to reality, the group needs those in the “South” position, the Doers. The Doers are the awesome folk who remember all the things to make the plan happen smoothly. They know the person who has space to rent, and make sure the insurance is in place before the others even knew they needed insurance. They make sure the forms you didn’t even know you needed were filled out and properly filed yesterday. There are enough pencils for everyone, they remembered to have fans installed, checked the weather report, and got enough tools for all, including some left-handed ones, and oh yeah, everything is color-coded and sensibly named, so it is easier to find by category next time, and they show up with a contact list. I worship these people.

But where does the money come from? Voilá! Coming in at the “West” are the Storytellers. They can’t help it. Their enthusiasm, love of detail, and natural warm extra-version mean that never actually ‘network’, they just share because that’s how they are, and before anyone realizes what is happening, other people have joined the dream, opening up both their hearts and their checkbooks. These people are incredible, and as an introvert (and on the polar opposite of the circle), I completely don’t understand how these magical beings give people joy by parting them with their resources….but I do know that what they are doing is including folks—in some small way– in the Visionary’s dream itself.

This lovely model also helps us to

Speak to the Most Wonderful and Skilled Parts that Live Inside Our Collaborators

and, as my mother would say, to

Put Down the Basket of ‘Shoulds’!

Wishing you the best for your next project !

Fox mask

Foxy

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.

Dragon in processManila 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?

Pros:

*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.

Cons:

*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?!?!?

TIPS

Stage One: ‘Sculpting’ the form

Hol-Masks-09_cropThere 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, orgirl in mask she made 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

manila-folder-mask-cover-300Inside: 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!

Zoe on ComputerNow 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” ).

skulls of overwhelmingnessWhy 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.

  1. I. How is play important to individual development?
  2. II. Why might play be important to the health of society?
  3. 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, inStudents discover! 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.”

IMG_0449A 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.

A Murder of ClownsBest times of my high school life.”

I just received this comment on my Facebook page after posting a PSA on how theatre transforms students’ lives. This comment does not represent a desire to goof off and party, nor is it an isolated sentiment. Theatre Education programs provide a safe place for students to be themselves, to explore relationships, to develop compassion, collaborative practices, and the idea of delayed gratification. Theatre Education programs are about understanding relationships and possible motivations behind the actions that people take.

These are the obvious take-aways.

Here’s some less obvious ones.

* Success in School. By any definition of “Youth at Risk”, the percentage of those who Song Rehearsalgraduate from high school is doubled—doubled!– when those students are coming from an arts-rich school environment. Click here to read the research study. 

At-risk students in arts-rich school environments also get better grades, have better attendance, are more likely to take upper-level classes and to succeed in them…. and on, and on, and on (more research here). For another take on how theatre education promotes success in school, watch this short (1.5 minute!) video PSA

* The business of theater is good preparation for other careers.

Here’s a short video PSA, if you prefer video, and below is an excerpt from Backstage Magazine, an article by Harvey Young (click here for the whole article).

Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago and formerly Chief of Staff to President Obama as well as a Congressman, majored in the Humanities in college with a specialization in dance. “Value” studies would look at Emanuel and identify him as not being successful because he neither works as a professional dancer nor earns income in the field of dance. Instead of adopting this flawed logic, it is important for us to 

Fourth Grade Science Arts!

acknowledge that the skills gained through theater apply to other jobs and careers outside of the performing arts. Theater majors frequently become makers and producers oftheater but they also (and probably in equal or greater numbers) become lawyers, politicians, management consultants, marketing executives, and community educators to name just a few of the many career paths open to them.”

What Can You Do?

* Vote pro arts-in-ed.

* Find a way to support/promote arts-in-ed programs in your community

* Take a moment this week to see a performance that moves you to laughter or love or understanding or tears, or to watch a child become invested in the performance version of something otherwise challenging, or a community discovering and celebrating its voice. Then thank an arts educator.

Want to Develop your Own Skills?

There are a number of organizations that hold conferences. The New York State Theatre Education Association will be hosting its 30th Annual Educators’ Conference this year on September 19, 20, and 21, 2014 in Niagara Falls, NY. This conference is designed for anyone who uses drama and /or theatre with students – drama teachers, teaching artists, music teachers who direct shows, after-school providers, English teachers, general classroom teachers and others.

NYSTEA logoThe weekend will be full of workshops, panel discussions, and performances that will provide up to 26 hours of professional development hours and help educators and artists build on past experiences, take stock of existing standards – including the Common Core requirements, and find new strategies and inspiration for the future.

 Register at NYSTEA EDUCATORSCONFERENCE

Need more convincing? Try Impact Creativity and there are more Advocacy Links at Art USA (Americans for the Arts).

I close with this quotation of Henry Miller: The arts teach nothing…except the significance of life.

 

 

 

 

 

A Road in KabulI am walking down the dirt road, my headscarf up over my nose to keep from breathing quite so much dust and smog, averting my eyes and trajectory from any men, and looking for the cement stanchions on the righthand side that mark, for me, where I turn left. So many of the courtyard and protection walls look similar, I am still nervous about making a mistake, even though I have taken this route for over a week. My left turn takes me down another dirt road, past the home of somebody important, to the middle of the next block. There, next to a yellow metal door in the huge security wall, the building’s white facade is painted in bright colors with images of children juggling, standing on each others’ shoulders, and smiling. This is the compound of the Children’s Circus of Afghanistan.

Because I think my work with the girls there was colored/textured so heavily by the context of what is happening in Afghanistan, I want to paint a more detailed picture of what life is like there, especially for girls. As many of you know, Afghanistan has been torn by war since the 1970s, with the Taliban ‘occupation’ setting new standards for oppression and cruelty in this part of the world. When I was in Kabul eleven years ago, it was illegal to listen to music, wear bright colors, watch television or movies, illegal for girls to go to school, and for children to fly kites or play outside.

Of course, in true Afghan spirit, people did these things anyway, fighting the darkness with secret arts and education. How telling that these two phenomena, arts and education, are perceived as the most threatening things people could do!! And yet, this is what we Teaching Artists know, that arts and education are tools of immense power to instigate thinking, compassion, and action.

The dynamic and delightful blend of arts and education is the backbone of the Mobile Mini Children’s Circus/Afghan Educational Girls at FestivalChildren’s Circus, and is what took me down those dirt roads this past October and – I hope! – will again in 2014.

Although I spent half my time volunteering with the Afghan Friends Network, each day also held time with the wonderful children at the Circus school. Some days I was with them as they went to perform, some days I was the teacher for the full morning, and some days I hung out with them in their math or science or English or Dari class before being their Teaching Artist for the following hour and a half to two hours.

It’s hard for people in the US to really understand what girls ‘taking up space’ means, how important that is in and of itself, never mind the actual defiant act of girls studying anything outside of the Koran, which is still an issue (especially outside Kabul) despite official government support. Girls performing, having actions and a voice, being seen strong and bold in public and across Afghanistan deeply affects everyone—the viewers, the families of the performers, the boys in the Circus, the girls themselves.

There are so many street children here, and their situation is truly bleak. Many of the children at the circus would be walking that road without this incredible organization–which feeds them, by the way. Moreover, too often, street children and orphans do not have the opportunity nor modeling to develop social skills needed to thrive and become the agents of change they wish to be; the social skills needed to learn as a team and perform integrated juggling routines develops these skills. I was asked to help develop the girls’ sense of ‘theatricality’; what is character, how does one develop them, how/why would you include characters in a juggling routine… what is a scene… how does comedy and comic timing work… what are forms of local narrative, and how can we create work along those lines…entrances and exits… beginning/middle/end… physical theatre techniques, and so on.

SchoolSo there I am, only enough Dari to say hello, in a room full of children who typically all talk at once to each other throughout their academic classes (all learning and working, by the way), tasked with doing that listening-teaching thing in hopes of sparking their understand of and interest in various theatrical concepts. Daunting. Exciting. Chaotically beautiful. Each day I would come, not knowing if the schedule would bear any resemblance to what we had talked about the previous day, having a lesson plan of something fun, student-driven, and geared toward skill-discovery and exploration. I always came early so I could hang out with them in their other classes or as they prepared to perform, and participated in warm-ups, being extra goofy or rigorous or reflective as it felt right to do.

Some days I had some translation help from the “circus father” Hamid, sometimes my friend Eva of the Afghan Friends Network (who is not fluent but had waaaaay more Dari than I did) would help and participate, sometimes I and the girls struggled through with bits of Dari they taught me, bits of English they knew, and a great deal of gesture and pantomime. One day we played with masks and discovered characters, gestures, and walks, then let them create little scenelets (girl with mask video clip).  The next using masks they madeday we played with objects, creating scenes around them then using them to become other objects (including a hilarious one where a woman trying to smack a fly with a swatter pops another character’s heart). Another day we built on the “this object is really something else” and grew scenelets with those, focusing on humor and poignancy. We found it was easier and more fun for them with the masks, and that the ‘conceal/reveal’ nature of the masks made entrance and exit buttons more apparent. 

Slowly, bit by bit, we negotiated what was important, what was fun, when it was time for a break, when we wanted to work beyond the normal parameters. They came to trust my intent and instinct and would reach more passionately across the divide of language as well as that of theatrical understanding. They worried less and played more. On our last two of my ten days, they created a new piece based on a favorite folktale, using each other as the trees and house, discovering largess and timing and so much more, and even though it was fairly raw, it was enchanting and Hamid planned on developing it to be included in the touring show, the first piece of its kind, the first story told. This video clip is from part of the story where the father has plucked the sacred fruit, is accosted by the ogre, and in fearful desperation, promises the ogre one of his daughters in marriage. For our final day, I wanted to plan an activity that was loose and individual as well as cooperative, so they made their own masks.

Girl Jugglers_edited-1I was told I should extend my stay, which I logistically could not do, so instead we have made plans for my return, which includes grant hunting and Dari-learning. I can only believe that somehow the pieces will come together, and I will again be in a deliciously crazy situation with brilliant, brave girls who will be the first in many years to tell a story, be loud and large and take up space in front of everyone. In the grey-brown streets and hills of Kabul, my heart will be bright and full of joy and gratitude.