Monday, February 20, 2006

Building Community with Art

Each spring and fall for the past five years, I have been a teaching artist with a program called Building Community Through the Arts. My job is to help create a feeling of community among high school students in the Bangor, Maine area. Since the shootings at Columbine High School, BCTA was created to enhance the social environment in our states’ schools. The idea is that by ushering high school students through a creative process in the area of performing arts, they invest in one another as people. To whatever degree I am successful at bringing these strangers closer to one another is beyond my control. What I can do is to help these students create and perform art. It’s a powerful relationship between art and society that I am here to engage. And by the time we are finished, a community will be created from the stuff of imaginations.

On the first day of these residencies, I like to perform for my students. I might dance an excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird or tap out Bubba, the Tap Dancer, a thinly disguised autobiography. As a teacher, I need to give them a reason to do this scary thing I’m asking of them. As an artist, I demonstrate skills but more importantly, by performing I open myself to them. This is a smaller version of what they will be doing themselves. By performing, the energy in the room rises and I’ve found that this is the best space in which to begin. My art work combines dance and storytelling. This is not a common combination of talents but a pretty good match for the creative abilities of high school students. They can all talk and move around.

We begin by pushing the desks to the sides and stand in a circle. We say our names. We look at each other out of the corner of our eyes. Even though we are strangers, I know from experience that that will change very soon. I open my bag of creative tricks and immediately, we are laughing. We run and trade places. We pass imaginary balls and heft invisible suitcases. We mix ourselves up in a scramble and freeze when iceberg is shouted. We balance with one leg in the air; with our arms around each others shoulders. We touch. We fit ourselves together like puzzle pieces. We turn each other into showers and lamps and bananas. We float across the room holding each others gaze. With broken legs, we run from dinosaurs and chase the moon.

Essentially, we play and we remember how good it feels to play, but these are young adults. With so much change happening physically and emotionally, their defenses are strong, especially to the kind of openness I‘m suggesting. Resistance is completely understandable if not entirely expected. It‘s not a surprise. Enthusiasm is unfashionable among teenagers, and as we work on creating, my major battle is not with the creative stuff but with the toxic fear that is released before creativity can happen.

Often, these are English classes I’ve invaded. One assignment I might give is to pick a favorite part from the books they’ve been reading or a line of poetry that appeals to them. Whether it’s Boo Radley or Robert Frost, these positive responses to their reading holds the key information for this project succeed. For whatever speaks to us in art, tells us a little bit about ourselves. By creating art from these fragments of these students, a very personal expression is formed. They create gestures from the text and teach them to each other. The movement and the words may stay attached or music may be added to bring in a new dimension. As our time together draws to a close, we spread their creations out like jewels on black velvet. After examining each one, we string them together like Christmas lights. On the last day that we meet together as a class, the performance piece is rehearsed again and again until the bell breaks us apart.

At the same time that my groups are turning and twisting, there are other teaching artists like myself working their own brands of magic in other high schools nearby: actors, playwrights, mask artists and physical comedians. On the conference day, we all meet in a church in downtown Bangor; artists, teachers and two hundred high school students. Every fifteen minutes over the course of that day, dancers make their debuts and original plays are premiered. Art reigns supreme.

To create is to open oneself. It is to dare and to choose. When we create we are saying I thought of this or this touches me. In performance, this part of oneself is offered as a gift to whoever is there to receive it. When that part is received by an audience, it becomes part of them as well. When two hundred high school students give each other little pieces of themselves, the barriers that divide them come crashing down.

At the end of these conference days, when all the dancing is done but before the buses have taken them away, I see these students shine. For me, these are moments when the world seems to transform just for an instant. Time stops and the atmosphere rings with a high frequency. As I make my way among them, their enthusiasm fills me. They look years younger than they did just a few weeks ago. Or is that just because they’re smiling? A few of the boys who were the hardest to convince say thanks and goodbye. Every pair of eyes I meet is like an open door to the beautiful part inside each of us; no longer hidden but visible for all to see.

Then the buses are moving and they are gone. And the fullness I feel is a complete saturated happiness. By creating art, we arrived together in a single moment of union, communion, community, perhaps heaven. That reward is not just for these students, but for all of us to feel good about. And please remember, we did this by creating art.


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