Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Power of Travel for Educators

By Shelah Marie

As an educator, I am lucky to live in New York; it’s a city that has extremely high standards for Arts Education and the field of teaching artistry. What I love most about being a teaching artist for The New Victory Theater is that I get to take my skills as a performer into the classroom and give students a powerful experience that is both artistically rewarding and educationally sound. That said, it’s those moments when I leave New York that my teaching and artistry are informed the most.

I believe that educators who travel are the best kind. We don't just teach out of books alone, but from a very textured, nuanced experience. Throughout my life, I've worked in a variety of communities, each time learning about new languages, cultures and worldviews. It's made me a better critical thinker and generally more open-minded.

I've always been a person who likes to move. I thrive off of movement, new experiences and growing as an artist and educator. I spent most of my college career abroad—studying Spanish in Costa Rica, working for the army in Germany and studying theater in London. Those rich experiences cultivated my skills as an artist and an international educator. I enjoy the fluidity and movement that allows me to consistently make micro-communities and artistic spaces for connection.

Last March, I was leading a version of The Sustainable Theater Workshop at The United Nations Headquarters in NYC with students from Senegal, Jamaica and Guinea, Africa. There was one girl from Senegal who was so insecure about her English skills that she barely spoke above a whisper. During our session, I was constantly reminding her to speak up, “Louder, Khadijah. Remember the audience is going to be really far away from you and I want them to hear your words.”

Khadijah was friends with some of the other girls in the workshop and one day I noticed they really liked dancing. They showed me some dances they learned together with another dance instructor. It was a special moment to see the girls light up in their element.

My whole goal with The Sustainable Theater Workshop and as a Teaching Artist in general is to empower students with skills and tools to better express themselves. Sitting here watching them giggle and shake their hips in unison, I realized that I needed to be more flexible. I was really focused on them delivering spoken text in the piece and spent a lot of time trying to get them to speak—when in reality they were speaking clearly, I just needed to do a better job at listening.

So I let the girls work together and they choreographed a beautiful dance segment for the performance and in a curious turn of events, the dancing gave them more confidence as actresses too. Especially Khadijah. In one week, she went from a noticeably shy and reclusive young girl, nervous about her English skills, to a proud, exuberant performer who volunteered to perform and speak lines alone in front of 700 high school students at The United Nations.

The students did so well that some folks in the audience took notice. Particularly Malick Kane, who at the time worked at The African Burial Ground National Monument. Malick has since returned to Senegal as a Cultural Administrator at the Senegalese Ministry of Culture. Kane also has a sister with Down syndrome who is a student at ESTEL. Malick felt so strongly that this workshop would benefit some of ESTEL’s students that he spoke to the school and they invited me to teach The Sustainable Theater Workshop in Dakar, Senegal from October 27th through Nov 1st, 2014. The hosting school, ESTEL, is one of the few schools in Senegal that caters to students with disabilities. I'll be leading a group of ten students through their first performance ever!

This may be my most challenging workshop yet, as I’ll be tackling cultural, developmental and linguistic barriers -- but I am always grateful for these experiences, as they mold me into a more informed and skilled Teaching Artist. I can’t wait to see what new tools I get for my toolbox this time, so I can share them with you, back at The New Victory.


Shelah Marie is a Brooklyn-based actress, educator, playwright and dancer. Graduate of Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Shelah has workshopped with The Elevator Repair Service, she completed the artist/activist workshop EMERGE through The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and she trains regularly in African Dance at The Djoniba Dance Center. She has performed in South Florida at The Mosaic Theatre, AAPACT and The M Ensemble in Miami, and at well-known NYC venues such as LaMaMa, The Brooklyn Lyceum and Tisch School of the Arts. She has worked all over New York City and has facilitated international arts education work, The Sustainable Theater Workshop in Haiti, Jamaica and at The United Nations Headquarters in NYC. Currently, she works as a teaching artist at two of the most prestigious organizations in New York City: The Theater Development Fund and The New Victory Theater.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Ten Commandments of Watching Opera

Confession: I love opera. I try often (and embarrassingly) to perfect my rendition of "O Mio Babbino Caro" when no one's listening. I have pajamas with a Wagner aria printed on them. I tidy up my house to Bizet every weekend. Phew. That felt good to get off my chest.

It can be tough to find a fellow opera fan! When I invite friends to join me at the Met, they usually turn down the invitation, saying that they don't understand opera, or that it's a highfalutin' art form that feels irrelevant. To that, I could offer many recommendations for contemporary operas, or invigorating re-interpretations of classics (Isango Esemble's The Magic Flute is a shining example of just that!). But there are also a number of ways to make traditional opera feel fun, exciting and accessible.

If you and your family will be attending your first opera at the New Vic next month, but are feeling trepidatious about your ten-year-old's reaction to Papageno, read my Ten Commandments for Watching Opera below. A little preparation will help you to get the most out of your experience!

Remember that you might already be a fan
Opera pops up everywhere—from Skittles commercials to internet memes, so there's really no reason to feel intimidated!

Honor the music
The great part about opera is that the music says it all! Even if the set design, costuming or lighting is gorgeous, opera is first and foremost about the music, and painstakingly composed works communicate emotions and story through music alone (the rest is just extra!). As The New York Times put it, "in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first."

Thou shalt not worry about hearing every word
Many operas are in foreign languages, but even those sung in your native tongue can be tough to understand. Opera singers do their best when it comes to diction, but part of opera singing technique requires singers to modify spoken pronunciation in order to sound their best (especially on the high notes). Let the music tell the story if you're feeling lost.

Thou shalt not listen to stereotypes
"It ain't over til the fat lady sings." Ugh... When you become a fan, you'll realize that opera is way more than some stereotypes make it out to be.

Thou shalt get to know the classics
As an opera beginner, your best plan for getting to know the art form is to start with the classics. Find a playlist below that I curated, and have a listen. You'll hear favorite songs, many of which I'll bet you've heard before!

Thou shalt have an opinion
Sometimes there's the misconception that just because something is lauded as a "classic," you have to like it. Listen to or go see a few operas and decide what you like—a crisp Mozart tune is very different from a undulating Puccini score.

Thou shalt know the singers
It's hard to go wrong when seeing any trained, professional opera singer perform live. But hardcore opera buffs will go to shows just to hear certain singers. Here are a few names to get you started: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Maria Callas, Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko.

Thou shalt know the vocabulary
Here's a list of terms that will help you on your first trip to the opera (click to enlarge).

Thou shalt know the composers
Most of the famous composers that you can name probably wrote an opera, but there were a few that really perfected the medium. While Beethoven wrote one opera, symphonies were more his specialty. Who are considered the best opera composers, then? Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Rossini, and Puccini are recognized as a few of the greats.

Thou shalt avoid snobbery
When you've become an opera fan, make sure you spread the love, and help people understand that opera isn't high-brow and stuffy! There's nothing wrong with getting your Wagner knowledge from the Looney Tunes episode when Elmer Fudd sings "kill the wabbit" to the tune of "Die Walkure."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Get to Know Our New Teaching Artists!

If your kid attends one of our partner schools, if you make a habit out of joining us for our Family Workshops, or if you love TXT Marks the Spot, you have surely crossed paths with one of our incredible teaching artists! This group of talented, New York-based artists have expertise in a variety of art forms (puppetry, clowning, dance, musical theater, etc.) and are integral to our operation here at the New Vic.

For each show, the New Vic teaching artists help our Education team develop lesson plans and activities, and then facilitate in-classroom workshops, professional development for teachers, as well as our Family Workshops, Arts Express, Kids Weeks and TXT Marks the Spot events. Some of our teaching artists have worked with us for over 10 years! But with each new season, we also have the opportunity to hire new artists to join the team. Below, we've profiled the first-season teaching artists joining us this year. Look for them around the theater and get ready to learn lots from them in the coming years!

I'm Robert Stevenson and I'm a theater-maker and performer.

I'm a native New Yorker! I started doing Shakespeare when I was 14-years-old, then went to NYU and studied Educational Theatre so I could keep learning and teaching. Now I make theater for adults and young people.

As an adolescent, my favorite book was The Search for Delicious. It's about a boy who has to poll the kingdom to find what food should stand for Delicious in the royal dictionary.

One of my favorite things to do is to make things with other people. When I was a kid, my brother and I would make short movies, build forts, write stories and engineer little machines. We didn't always finish our projects, but even then we felt accomplished. I still love making things and I even keep a list of the different things I want to make -- plays, songs, puppets, lots of things! Then, when I want to start a project, I just go to the list, ask a friend if they'd like to help me, and start imagining what we could do. It's amazing what you can make if you just get started.

My name is Marisol Rosa-Shapiro. I am a theater-deviser, movement-based creator, clown, mime, performer and director.

I am a native New Yorker. After college, I went to study movement-based theater-making in Italy for three years. It was amazing--I got to live in Florence! Birthplace of the Renaissance! There, I studied movement analysis, clown, mime, martial arts, voice, acrobatic play, mask play and mask making, commedia dell'arte, tragedy, comedy, melodrama, bouffon, slapstick and much more. I completed my studies in May of 2014, and recently returned to NYC after time spent performing, facilitating and teaching in Israel and the West Bank, Jordan, Princeton and Philadelphia. It's been a delightful whirlwind!

When I was a kid I LOVED watching my VHS tape recording of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods and also used to watch The Wizard of Oz over and over again. I guess that I was always drawn to highly imaginative and slightly dark tales.

I am so happy to be working at the New Vic and I can't wait to meet you!

My name is Sam Gold. I am an actor, puppeteer, and theater artist, though I usually just tell people that I make stuff for the stage and for screens of various sizes.

I came to New York and the New Vic by way of Southern California, where I trained as a stage actor and Corporeal Mime before receiving a Watson Fellowship to travel the world exploring different traditions of puppetry. I’m still at it because I love it! And— in large part— because a not small number of friends, family, teachers, and colleagues along the way all encouraged me to keep going, to continue training, experimenting, making, collaborating and learning from those around me.

As a kid, these were some of my favorites: Book— the Frog and Toad series. Movie— Hot Shots! Part Deux. Play— The 8th Grade Musical Review at my middle school. Activity— Legos.

I’m looking forward to sharing that special kind of excitement found in making something out of nothing and in discovering that you can do more than you thought you could.

My name is Liz Parker and I am a performer, puppeteer, deviser and community director

At my hometown High School in West Windsor, NJ, I had the opportunity to direct a play about school shootings that concluded with an audience talk-back. After witnessing the impact of the production, I knew I wanted to pursue theater and use the theatrical experience to connect with audiences beyond the performance space.

As a little kid, I was fascinated by poems and a book called Geraldine's Blanket by Holly Keller about a little pig who won't give up her security blanket even though she's too old to carry it with her. Eventually, she turns the blanket into a dress for her doll! I guess I've always appreciated object transformation.

I hope to bring joy to New Vic families.

My name is Chesney Snow. I am a beatboxer/poet/actor/songwriter/producer.

I moved around a lot as a kid so it's hard to pinpoint exactly where I'm "from," but I identify mostly with Wisconsin, Mississippi and, of course, Brooklyn!

My favorite books as a kid were the Hardy Boys series. My favorite movie was Stand By Me and my favorite activity was writing short stories and performing them.

I look forward to sharing the magic of beatbox and human vibration through storytelling at the New Vic!

My name is Josh Rice and I'm a theater artist. Specifically, I am a puppeteer, physical theater-maker, clown and improviser.

I'm originally from Silver Lake, NY, and I got to the New Victory by way of Shakespeare's Globe in London, Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, NY, the Arkansas Arts Center Children's Theatre in Little Rock, AR, graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College-- all that sprinkled with some luck, working really hard, being nice, and doing what I love! I love being in NYC because it's an epicenter of arts and culture that I am constantly learning from and stimulated by. My favorite activity as a kid was playing outside, especially during the summer, because we could go swimming for hours in Silver Lake.

Something I'd like to share with kids and families is the idea that we all have an artist inside of us. We all can make, do, express and create. If I can empower an artist within someone to open up, imagine and play, then I feel like I've done my job as a teaching artist.

My name is Adia Tamar Whitaker. I am dancer, choreographer, vocalist, playwright, educator and visionary.

I am from San Francisco, California. I got to where I am today through the power of hard work, my ancestors, guardian angels, community and parents. I also made a decision not to believe anything anyone else had to say about who they think I am or should be, which has taken me far.

As a kid, The Wiz was my bible. I also loved Kindred by Octavia Butler-- it changed my life. I grew up memorizing music videos and making up dances with my friends.

As a teaching artist, I want to remind NYC kids and families that "it's a beautiful world out there," like my grandma Dot always says.

My name is Jamie Dibos Roach. I am an actor/playwright/filmmaker/physical actor.

I am originally from San Diego, California. I am here following many travels (across 6 continents) and interactions with incredible people along the way. I am here in New York to collaborate with inspiring artists, to create beautiful and fun art that asks important questions to find ways to better serve the world at large.

My favorite activity as a kid was theater! Particularly, acting. My favorite play as a kid was my first, Oliver! I loved singing out without any judgment of myself or artistic merit back then.

To families and kids, I'd like to say that I am just as much an explorer and learner as you are. I hope you can teach me things and help me to learn from your perspective, as well as allow me to share mine. I hope that we can discover new ideas together and create beautiful moments of artistry together that contain joy.