Thursday, 31 March 2011

On Learning and Making

Yesterday the amazing Stuart Silver, Andy Farish and I had the last session of the practical element of the Artist Teacher Exchange at BAC. Artists and teachers were paired up together, and learned a little bit about what each other do, and worked with students at the teacher's school on a new piece of performance. The girls in our group were wonderful performers - really generous, keen minds, and brave performers. My only complaint is that it's over.

Reflecting on this experience, I decided to go back to the application I wrote for the Artist Teacher Exchange, to see what my thinking and goals had been going in and to compare them to where we got and we achieved together. (I'm also always curious to read my successful applications anyway. I never know what went right or wrong in those things.) Reading it back I found that I quite liked what I wrote. It sums up a lot of my thinking about work and learning, and surprisingly, considering it was an application, does this very frankly.

So, for your thoughtful delectation, I've decided to post my application to the Artist Teacher Exchange, renamed -

On Learning and Making

In the four years that I have been working as a professional theatremaker, I have supplemented my income and earnings by working as a private tutor, helping students aged 8 to 18 by teaching them English, French and Chess.

I like this question about the difference between an artist and teacher very much, because the two share so much in common. In some ways I am more interested in their similarities than their differences, and when I tutor I certainly consider these similarities very carefully. My feeling on great art or writing has always been that it should take something seemingly familiar – a topic, an object, a person, a place - and describe or engage with this thing in a way that makes the audience feel as though they are discovering it for the first time – that they can imagine around it and appreciate it in a way that they normally wouldn’t. There is so much to stimulate us and so many things asking for our attention in the modern world that there is something so vital about being given time to rediscover and rethink what we take for granted - that could be as abstract as the economic system or as simple as the fact that we’re breathing. There’s a kind of magic in our lives that we have to ignore to get on with the practicalities of keeping things going, but it’s so beautiful and exciting to be given a safe space to recognize that magic and to spend some time with it.

This idea about art – a place to rediscover the magic of our everyday lives – has so much in common with how I think about education. When I sit down with a student and we try to take as much as we can from a passage from Othello, there is so much excitement in allowing ourselves the time and space to allow literature to be magical, to speak to us. I remember having the same feeling when we did labs in science class – it’s that excitement of discovery – the freedom to ask questions about what we so often have to take for granted – that makes education so valuable – and of course, sad, when we grow up and realize that the creativity of learning is not always readily available. This is probably why I became an artist in the first place. I never wanted to stop asking questions, and I never wanted to stop rediscovering the magic in the nebulous web we walk around in and, through having to ignore its magic, can somehow find boring or mundane.

There are differences between a teacher and an artist, of course there are. Teachers have a curriculum – they have to work within a framework provided by an outside body rather than choose their own subjects or preoccupations. (Although artists can have similar mandates or commissions.) And most teachers have to stick to facts – this is not to say, though, that the greatest teacher, even within this framework, is not also a great artist, and does not spark a student’s interest and imagination in a similar way, although I would argue much more profoundly. I remember my best teacher’s seemed to be artists of personality – like any celebrated artist, I didn’t just appreciate them for what they taught me, but for how their personalities and preoccupations came across in everything they said, and in everything they touched. It was the privilege of being able to spend nearly every day with them, becoming accustomed and having to engage with their unique perspective on a subject they felt passionately about, that made them able to radicalize my thoughts about the world in a way that no piece of art, no matter how great, could ever do. Both artists and teachers have a responsibility to ask questions about the world, but for a teacher, by virtue of the quantity of time they spend with their students, the stakes are so much higher, and the payoffs exponentially more powerful.

There is a quote from one of my favourite films that informs not only my practice but my life: “What the world needs are more curious minds.” Curiosity is so essential in a student, teacher and artist. My hope is that the Artist Teacher Exchange will help me build on this curiosity, and spark it off as a catalyst to create an atmosphere of discovery and magic in the programme that will extend to the work we do with students. (And students of course, having their own perspective at all ages, and through their willingness to learn, also have so much to teach us.) I am only interested in making art that somehow incorporates (or tries to incorporate) that sense of rediscovery and magic that the best moments of my time as a student and a tutor could get at – feeling like you’ve lit a fire, you’ve seen a glimmer, there’s a flame of interest, magic and learning. This is why I’d like to participate in the programme, because all I’ve ever wanted to do in art and life is to inspire others and be inspired. It started for me in the classroom and continued into what ultimately made me a performer.

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