It’s good to shut up sometimes. – attributed to Marcel Marceau
Many years ago, I was at a dinner party peopled mostly by academics (graduate students in the humanities and newbie assistant professors) and their life partners (I was one of the partners). I was relaying a set of dramatic stories about the education theater program I’d been working with, aimed at high schoolers and focused on HIV prevention. This was in the late 1980s, when teens had recently been identified as having different risk factors than adults and were identified as a fast-growing at-risk population.
Our troupe had been targeted by some local and a couple of national organizations who accused us of teaching teens how to have sex. We had humor, music, tragedy, young love, abstinence, sex, drugs, redemption, and a hero we’d come to care about who turns out to be HIV positive. Our play included an optional scene with a fun and accurate demo of how to use a condom (a dream sequence with a banana and a bagful of hundreds of condoms), but even when we cut that scene, just mentioning condoms enraged some groups. We were routinely challenged, frequently threatened, and sometimes picketed in communities around California.
I bemoaned the attitudes of those attacking our educational theater program—after all, we were just one play intersecting their child’s life for an hour during an assembly. What was their problem? Though several of my academic friends were nodding sympathetically, I was brought to a complete stop by one of the non-academic partners. “Do you think your play is effective?” he asked. “Do you think your play changes these high school kids’ minds about what they do?”
Well, yeah, sure I did, or why would I put up with all this? “So—you think your play works, and so do those who challenge you. They agree with you that your play works. It’s a freakin’ compliment. Shut up about it already.”
So I did. And almost instantly, my attitude and responses to those in opposition to our work shifted dramatically.
It’s been almost 25 years since that dinner party and I’ve spent many hours contemplating what it means to run into opposition to my work as an artist who believes that art changes people. I did not know the term Teaching Artist back in the day, and I may not have embraced it initially if I’d heard it, but I recognize now that that’s what I was. At the time, I was just a theater artist whose own engagement in theater had changed, and probably saved, my life. Dozens, if not hundreds, of other artists I’ve worked with feel the same way. We may side-step it to avoid being accused of melodrama or overstatement; we don’t lead our personal stories with the flourish “Art saved my life!” We don’t tend to talk about our soul-search for meaning and connection and belonging. But that doesn’t make it any less true for most artists I know.
And because we believe that art is just that powerful—powerful enough to change a mind, guide an attitude, open a heart, unite differences, save a life—it’s only logical that we have thrown ourselves into work that puts that power into the hands of students of all ages. For many of us Teaching Artists, our art is not separate from our intent to engage with the power of making art.
Where there is real opposition to the role of Teaching Artists in schools and communities, it is usually related to perceptions of scarcity of time, money or space. Our own experiences, however, are ones of real abundance of joy, the pleasure of deep work, the surprise of discovery, the richness of our own curiosity and the lavish wealth of our passionate engagement with ideas. Today, I try to meet opposition or reluctance from a place of connection rather than battle. And wherever possible, I open such discussions with a piece of art or art-making. It gives all of us time to reflect together that art really has the power to connect us. If I can argue with people who agree with me that art changes lives, we’ve already changed the conversation – even if we don’t agree right away what to do with that understanding.
Finding common ground drives a lot of the work I’m involved with in California today, but it is not new to me. With the shock of recognition all those years ago, I’ve come to realize that the most vehement of opponents may have a shared belief that could shift our understanding of one another. Taking time to find it is the most creative act I engage in these days.