Summer SlingI 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 asAction 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.

The cast of A Class Act!My wonderful and amazing students from “A Class Act” with The Magic Paintbrush Project performed on April 27th (a play they wrote!) and hit the ball out of the park. They were amazing, they were incredible, they brought the house down. And every single one of them has a disability. I wrote about them last fall, when we were just beginning our process (see “Life is Washable”), but as a result of the show, folks have been asking about children, challenges, and performance, especially children who are on the Asperger-Autism spectrum.

I last posted some specific observations and activities about working with children living with such challenges in January of 2013, but it seems relevant to repost, so here it is. Please let me know if I can be of help to you or your group! I have also posted some additional links to resources at the end of the article.

I am a performer and Teaching Artist with a long history and much training in working with people whose perceptual/interactive experience of the world is on the fringe of typical association. In 2012, I was hired by 3 Tier Consulting to do theater workshops with children on the Asperger-Autism spectrum in Watertown and Fort Drum. Most of these children come from families with a spouse in the active armed forces, oftentimes also facing a possible move to another base; although we ran 2 sets of 2 weekly sessions about six months apart, only one boy was in both sets.

Were they scared at first? HECK yes. Another opportunity to not understand what is going on and feel out of place. Great. Kids in the show But once they realize that it’s the OPPOSITE of an informal social setting, they take to it like a duck to water. Of course the do! Even in an improv exercise, the facilitator sets out clear, strict relationship, narrative, agenda, and ‘milemarker’ guidelines, often providing ‘line kernels’ when not providing the lines themselves. And scripts? Especially short funny ones full of foibles by “regular” people that involve saying cool things to your peers and impressing dudes/chicks? DOUBLE HECK yeah. Over time, the safety and comfort of the class structure brings a freedom and joy not available elsewhere. One of the joys of performance for anyone is the opportunity to relinquish yourself to the script, to say things and do things that are completely new because you are pretending to be someone else. A perfect place to test drive a response to a social moment for anyone, or to work through, via a character, a problem or fear.

Fabulously enough, targeted performance skills are targeted performance skills, regardless of whether the workshop participants are professional adult actors or children with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Working on a stage-sharing Ensemble, creating and understanding dialogue, unpacking meaning, developing a gesture repertoire or honing gestural language are things ALL actors must constantly revisit, which means that ‘Going to Acting Class’ is something an eleven-year-old boy can talk about at school with pride. It is also a context that can comfortably absorb people with a wide range of social skills, including typically-developing children.

We had two groups, one for children from four to seven years old, and one for children (who turned out to be all boys) from nine to thirteen years old. The younger group had children all over the Asperger-Autism map (I have found that ‘spectrum’ implies a linearality that is not really helpful or accurate in a performance context), and the older group was made up of boys with various manifestations of Asperger’s Syndrome.

With the younger group, I chose the theme of Weather, specifically wind and snow, because it was late fall/early winter, imageand kids ‘on the spectrum’ in particular respond well to themed structure. I knew that they would need the space and a variety of concrete visual, sound and text clues to guide implicitly, so I created a circle with one “opening” made up of soft blankets with differing colors and designs, folded to create a large ‘mat’, knowing the children would gravitate toward them a places to be, lie down, watch, etc, and that they would choose the design and color best for them.

In the middle of the circle were picture books (fiction and non-fiction) and some magazine photographs about winter, as well as crayons, markers, and paper. As children drifted in, they were given the opportunity to draw, listen, read, look, or talk about the weather and the coming winter. Once we were all there, we shifted from drawing, etc to recounting to imagining we were going to go outside and play in the snow.

Each child in turn (the idea of waiting to take your turn and knowing what the appropriate social cue is for that is HUGE) imagesuggested something we had to wear or bring in order to go outside and play (reinforcing life skills). Once we all agreed we were ready, we got off our mats and pretended to do snow things—skate around the circle to music, sit on our mats and go ‘sledding’, make snow angels, and even rip up paper and throw it into the air for it to fall.

The last snow activity we did was make imaginary snow beings and snow creatures in the air, as though the air was the snow that we rolled, stacked and shaped. The children took turns explaining what their snow creature was (“Bunny”) or what their snow man was doing (“throw snow!” or gesturing a pose, sometimes with help). We then took a BIG step. After taking off our pretend outdoor clothes, everyone got a partner.

I demonstrated how I was going to gently turn my partner into a sculpture, we brainstormed some movement ideas and then each child had a turn to turn their partner into something. They could touch, gesture, use words, whatever, but it had to be gentle and it had to be more than one action (we encouraged both arms and legs with optional silly face). The receiver had to wait and then only take the pose suggested. All sculptures were applauded, and then we had quiet music movement time, where children had the option to enjoy the music on their blankets or move around the room to the music as they wished or as the elements of winter I offered (“What if you were a snowflake?”).

imageI try to think of a class plan as being full of the patterns of breathing, inhale and exhale, collect/focus in and expand/focus out, with the pattern of such changing tempo depending on whether I want the ‘heartbeat’ of the group to quicken, steady, or slow. This kind of planning is especially important in working with these children, and one must be constantly on the lookout for when it is time to slow down in stretching ebbs, like mathematical ellipses. The movement-to-music time was necessary to break free the intensity of having to focus on and touch (!) another child, but it had to be gently controlled up to a release and brought ebblingly back to a sweet quiet, each on our blankets after only about 5-7 minutes (which is less than other populations might need).

I then skim-read them Jan Brett’s The Mitten, mostly focusing on the next animal, the actions, and asking things like, “Wow! Look at the bunny’s face! How do you think he feels?” or “Oh no! The prickly hedgehog will be squished inside too! What would it be like to be in the mitten with a hedgehog?” or “What do you think will happen next?” targeting reading expressions and gestures, putting oneself in other’s place, and predicting outcome.

Then we started over from the beginning and everyone’s blanket was a mitten! We could be whichever animals we wanted in our mitten, yelling out “Ouch” or “Move Over!” or “Please let me in!” if we chose. The most fun, of course, was exploding out everywhere at the end when the bear (also in the mitten) sneezes. We finished up with me reading/gesture-performing William Steig’s Brave Irene, with all of us chiming in with movements and sounds and phrases as we went along through the story (sort of participatory street-theatre style), and stopping to imagine how the characters felt or what they wanted or what they would do.

With the older boys, we targeted many of the same skills, but in different ways. We began with shadow puppets, and after imageencouraging them to experiment with design and create whatever characters they chose, they had to tell a short story (it could be silent) using the shadow puppets and the other boys as puppeteers. Each child had an opportunity to be the boss, but was not required to be in any one else’s . If they chose to be, however, they had to take direction and not take over the narrative. It was an interesting challenge for them, as the idea of hiding behind a screen and seeing the shadows appear in the dark room is pretty compelling, although the idea of doing what you were asked and not your own idea until it was your turn was daunting indeed. The ‘cool’ factor won out!

From there we progressed to me reading/showing a book with paper-cut illustrations of the Japanese legend The Warrior and the Wiseman. We unpacked the story as we went as well as afterwards, and then created masks of the characters to wear to act out the story. Mask-making was such a hit, we didn’t have a chance to perform the narrative, although the boys would put the masks on and act out as they developed their masks. Boys with Asperger’s are usually well aware by the time they are 10 or 11 that the language of facial gestures, expression, and subtextual meaning is pretty easily interpreted and used by their peers, but still a murky, seemingly disconnected gobbledygook to themselves. They are therefore, very sensibly, generally resistant to taking risks with face/gesture/subtext/meaning; that they spontaneously took risks and played with this crazy alien language is remarkable, and I believe the masks/mask-making made that possible.

Having explored shape a bit with the shadow puppets, they had to think about color and expression and feeling as it was established in the strong characterizations of the Elemental ‘Demons’ and two main (and diametrically opposed) characters. It’s a great book for pre-teens in general, as it is about what the longer term consequences are of taking what you want versus being generous, and what it means to be a man. It’s even more appropriate for pre-teens with Asperger’s Syndrome, as the Demons respond immediately and impetuously to their circumstances and the Wiseman has to deduce from their actions, dialogue, and expressions how they feel, what his brother the Warrior has done, and what he himself can do to set things back on the right path.

Theatre is always an effective and exciting medium in which to explore, discover, and practice emotion, relationships, and social meaning, but it is especially beneficial for children for whom this kind of stuff is like an alien landscape. The main difference is that the ‘steps’ between one idea/practice and the other need to be closer together and more carefully illuminated.

Helpful links!

http://tajaltspace.com/post/25861086620/arts-and-udl-part-7

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/08/14/autismcamp/

http://www.autismsupportnetwork.com/news/getting-past-blame-and-worry-help-your-autistic-child-39382922

http://www.autismbrainstorm.org/

IMG_0449These past weeks have held plentiful reminders of the horrendous things we do to each other as people and societies. In the face of large darknesses, we often for get that ignorance and intolerance are bred and cultivated in much smaller arenas long before they grow into mass malignancy. I myself have found it difficult to find anything to write about of late, and I am one of the most pragmatically action-oriented people I know.

With this in mind, I have decided to devote this blog and the next to arts-based projects that are creating opportunities for connection and knowledge. The texts about the three projects are directly from the blog articles themselves, and the title is linked to the original. Here’s an added bonus– you can become involved in these yourself, in one way or another!

Women Artists and Wikipedia

“Many women’s arts organizations have worked to increase the visibility of women artists online.

Women Arts logo

WomenArts created our online directory of women artists, the Women Arts Network, in 2003 because we wanted to encourage women to increase their presence on the web. Any woman artist can create a free profile page on our site, and we currently have about 1,600 active profiles. We have also compiled a list of other directories of women artists. If you know of a directory that should be added to our list, please contact us.

It is important to keep adding information to our women-controlled websites, since Wikipedia has rules and a culture that will be challenging for some women artists, but we agree with the founders of Art + Feminism that we need to make sure that women artists are fully represented in this online encyclopedia that so many people are using.

Documenting women artists worldwide in all art forms is a huge task that will require input from thousands of women, but it is something that all of us can work on – either on our own or in groups. If you are looking for something to do with your friends this year on SWAN Day, this could be a great choice. If you are a teacher, this could be a great project for your students.

Art + Feminism has created some excellent Wikipedia articles to help you get started. There is an article about how to organize an edit-a-thon MeetUp group, and their own Wikipedia Meet-Up page has links to upcoming events and helpful articles about creating and editing Wikipedia listings.”

Raven promo pic

From Raven Brings the Light, with Kakeru

World Theatre for Children and Young People

This is from a Huffington Post blogpost by Lauren Gunderson.Not to sound overly grand (too late), but so much of the toxicity in this world comes from a collective draining of empathy. We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us — no, forces us — to empathize.

As my friend Bill English of San Francisco’s SF Playhouse says, theater is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice sitting down, paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.

Kids need this kind of practice even more than adults do. This is going to be their planet and they’ve got more time to apply that empathy and make a difference. Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax challenges us to actively and specifically teach children (and vote for presidents with) empathy. Why not take your child to the theater to do just that.”

“Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here”

This is holly again, speaking about this book that shares with us the incredible work of artists and performers of Muslim faith striving against the oppressions of fundamentalism. I first became aware of this amazing book and the work of some of the people profiled in it when I read a published excerpt in Theatre Without Borders newsletter. I quote from the book’s description on Amazon: “From Karachi to Tunis, Kabul to Tehran, across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and beyond, these trailblazers often risked death to combat the rising tide of fundamentalism within their own countries.

But this global community of writers, artists, doctors, musicians, museum curators, lawyers, activists, and educators of Muslim heritage remains largely invisible, lost amid the heated coverage of Islamist terror attacks on one side and abuses perpetrated against suspected terrorists on the other.” IMG_0728 (1)

So there it is. Read the book, or add Women Artists, or support incredible theatre for children— it is with these small actions that we change the shape of a landscape or the course of a river.

Booo!! Hisss! You must pay the rent!

I admit I LOVE melodrama, the true stuff, the new stuff, and the mustachioed tongue-in-cheek stuff. That being said, I weep copious tears, gnash my teeth and rend my garments when folks use ‘melodrama’ in solely disparaging ways. In truth, melodrama grew from a dance hall, peoples’ cheap entertainment (thrills, chills, and crazy love stories!) into a means to forward a progressive a social agenda and large-scale cultural and system reform.

WHHHHAAAAAT?!?!?! NO!!!

Yes, my friends, yes.

In Victorian England, if you were poor, ‘ill-figured’, dark, ugly, ‘uncivilized’ on the outside, that was because that’s who you were on the inside. You were made that way by God, because you deserved it. If you were enslaved or in servitude, it is because you were meant to be, and if you were a ‘fallen woman’, you were as the fallen angel and should be cast out to hell, where you belonged. Towards the end of the 19th century, the rise of the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the existing poverty and disparities, in addition to creating new ways for the rich and powerful to use ‘disposable’ people for personal gain.

How to create large scale awareness and promote change?

Hello, melodrama!

It is here that we see, for the first time, suave, smooth, rich, handsome VILLAINS. Men of society and culture, who, in a private moment on stage, reveal a purely evil heart with no sense of honor or compassion. We meet ill-figured, ill-fated common folk with a heart of gold, women forced to steal or ‘give themselves away’ to save their children, street urchins who do a kindness and come through in the moment of truth, and even people whose souls are ‘lost’ committing an act (an often dramatic, final act, or course) of love or valour. Inevitably the villains are mill or mine owners, land grabbers, railroad tycoons, et cetera, and the inhumane practices in their acquisitions, mines, mills, and so on, are revealed. By the early 1900s, there were even—GASP!– FEMALE HEROES!!!!!!!! Women who saved the day and the play, after being downtrodden, who faced down the rich, scheming, handsome male villains! Holy cannoli, right?

Of course, the ‘regular folks’ loved these plays and were emboldened by them. The plays themselves mark a growing rise in ‘regular joe’ action. But wait! There’s more!

By this time, even people (mostly women) of the upper classes might also watch plays of melodramatic style. Such plays fueled the rise in women of the upper classes working to address hardships women and children of the lower classes had to face.

Cool, huh?

Sure, melodrama came from a time of heightened performance styles (often called ‘the realism of our dreams’), stark right and wrong, and plots drawn in black, white, and red (yes, like a comic book or certain graphic novels, a lovely and telling legacy), and tying Sweet Polly to the tracks seems outrageous and ridiculous…… but they are nonetheless an important part of rising social awareness and action. And HEAPS of fun!

from Johnson Art MuseumI am having one of those days when I know what I should be doing, but I keep circling around it, nibbling on the edges of the project, but not really diving into what I know I need to do—the core work. I notice that for some reason, I am afraid….afraisd of what? Of success, of failure? I love doing this work, but I am avoding it and dreading it as though it were horribly painful to do, as though I would be risking my very self. Yet the act of ‘saving’ myself from this ‘terrible experience’ will actually sabotage my success and bring actual suffering to my life.

I find I must coax myself, not bully nor command myself (that makes it worse) and I think (I HOPE) I am picking away at it enough to tip the scales so that what remains is smaller somehow, less terrifying.

But really, what the heck?!?

Like many other people, I am susceptible to the doldrums of a northeastern North American March, when the sky is slate grey nearly incessantly, and it might be raining or sleeting or hailing or snowing…or all of the above in any given day. But I think it’s more than that. My fear of diving into this project, wherein I must breathe beautiful life into someone else’s words, someone’s dream, is (yes) partly

by Balkhovitin Dmitriy

neurotic “I’m not good enough” artist-thinking…..but it also fear of being too vulnerable, being nearly subsumed by the tempest of the text in the sea of characters as I struggle alone in my fragile little boat.

And that and a pony will get me a pony (sigh).

I will now fortify myself with hot chocolate and dip back in to this work, sending out a “halloooo” to all you other artists out there having a blue grey work day….soldier on, friends. What else is there to do?