Remember when summer wasn’t a total bummer? Remember when it was filled with adults asking you what grade you were going into and not what your plans were once you graduated? Remember when your parents helped re-direct all the creative and intellectual energy not being burnt off in homeroom to other (read: “fun”) educational pursuits involving yarn, glue, and nature?
You know what I’m talking about (I see you there, smiling nostalgically). The opportunity to participate in continued, alternative summer learning still exists for those of us who crave that outlet, and that magical position is called a teaching artist.
I teamed up with my bestie Francisco to help him teach a creative writing workshop he designed for 826CHI called, “Stories from the Deep: The Nautical Adventure Novel.” 826CHI is the Chicago branch of the non-profit company started by Dave Eggers that offers free writing workshops and after-school tutoring year-round.
I also spent a great deal of time interning for Barrel of Monkeys Theatre Company. BOM is an ensemble of performers teaching creative-writing workshops in Chicago Public Schools and then adapting stories written by children into a sketch-styled show, That’s Weird Grandma, which is performed every Monday night.
I had forgotten how rejuvenating FUN can be, until I participated in the activities Francisco had developed for our class of 3rd-5th graders at the 826CHI workshop. The activities we offered functioned as both brainstorming activities for their final project (a nautical adventure story) and as ways to teach them about elements of a story. Day one was dedicated to setting. After watching a clip from the movie The Life Aquatic where Captain Zissou walks you through his custom-made boat, the kids had a chance to design their own ships using a blank template. But not before they mastered their nautical jargon by playing a game of Captain Says (“Point to the stern of our imaginary classroom boat!”) Day two was dedicated to learning about conflict, and the activity of the day was designing a sea monster nemesis. Day three was spent helping the students craft their ideas into a narrative that was then typed up, printed, and bound in a “captain’s log book” with their other activities and drawings.
It strikes me now that more energy was invested into the process of writing then the final written product of this workshop, but then again, both teaching and dramaturgy are processes rather than products. It has been valuable for me as a dramaturg to re-evaluate what skills I bring to facilitate an artistic process that is both educational and fun. Working with kids this summer at 826 honed my skill of validating creative inputs. As a young ‘turg (ew, I’m never using that phrase again) I often struggle with the part of my job that demands I be a critical fact-checker at design meetings and rehearsals. You know, the pretentious part that declares, “I know best because my title is hard to pronounce and I can use libraries better than you!” Well this summer, that part has been softened by this patient, curious, observant dramaturg thriving off the energy produced by the creative process.
A teacher does not write your story, and a dramaturg does not dictate what your production will be like. Both help offer some perspective and ask important questions that facilitate the artistic process. Like, “How will your sea monster defend itself if it has no claws?”
That’s what working with BOM has given me perspective. Some perspective on how there are many different perspectives on the world. And that entire plays can and should be dedicated to how much fun your cat had at Six Flags, because if that’s your reality as a seven-year-old, and you put the work into expressing your sense of reality in words, than it deserves to be validated by other artists on the stage. It deserves to be appreciated by an audience who will find the truth and joy in it that they do.
Being a teaching artist this summer rejuvenated my love of dramaturgy and my belief that that learning and amusement need not be opposed to one another.