Monday, April 7, 2014

What a Line Can Do: Reflection on a workshop with Paris-based Arts Education Non-profit Peekaboo!

By Billy Schultz, New Victory Teaching Artist

Blue prints, bench marks, Common Core, budget cuts, polished performances, oh my! These are the parameters within which I, as a teaching artist, often work. Here at The New Victory Theater, one of my primary goals is to enhance students' theater-going experience in their classrooms -- and this is a joy. Partner schools and teachers are already participating in our programs, so there is less pressure to prove the value of arts education.

But even though every Teaching Artist has a story of a child that they connected with, a child who came out of their shell and thrived in the wake of an arts workshop, arts budgets continue to get cut. So, I always find myself wondering, “What do we have to do to make legislators believe?” Moments of discovery, growth, expression, trust, and changing kids’ lives are tough to quantify.

Even as an adult, I continue to experience the magic creative collaboration among a group of people. I experienced it recently, and profoundly, on a winding Parisian backstreet this past October. While on vacation visiting some friends from school, I was exploring the city and came upon a diverse group of wide-eyed adults holding dangling pieces of tape. The groups were intermittently skipping, pointing, staring, holding hands and doing some seriously detailed architectural and stuff-in-the-street-based investigating. A woman with a sparkle in her eye whispered to me, “We’re looking for lines.” I surveyed the area and indeed began to notice lines of neon tape in unusual places.

I soon learned that the group called themselves Peekaboo!, an arts-education organization, created in 2011 by ex-pats Selena McMahan and Coline Irwin. Together, they host workshops to “create, invent, and play.”

They’ve teamed up with Les Trois Ourses (The 3 Bears), a non-profit organization that focuses on the artistic education of children by putting the “book at the center.” Combine Peekaboo's approach with source material from Les Trois Ourses -- in this case, a book featuring a symphonic exploration of a line entitled “D’une Rive A L’Autre” (“From One Bank to the Other”) by Milos Cvach -- and you have a one-of-a-kind experience like mine on that winding backstreet.

I was given a piece of tape. “That fire hydrant,” I noticed, “has a line on it!” I ran over and stuck my tape to it. Nothing within reach was spared: cars, construction barricades, street signs, and last by not least, lest no line go unnoticed, a port-o-potty. Neon tape highlighting lines all around me brought my surroundings to life in a new way.

Then, in groups of three we travelled along this winding street, connecting the lines. These lines had become a new map. We had redefined the street and now became line-hungry Lewis and Clarks making our way along this new cityscape. We were instructed to find different ways to travel from one line segment to the other. Some groups skipped. Some hopped. Some flew. Some carried a member of their group.

We’d changed the street. And during this 15 minutes we’d gone from being total strangers to trusty co-conspirators.

Ten minutes later, we were inside a classroom gathered around a table. Our source material, the book “D’une Rive a L’Autre” was laid out on the table. It’s about a line. And there are no words, so we “read” the book with movement in our fingers and hands. Sound effects began to accompany the movement. We all took turns in front of the book, then we laid the book out and walked past the page with the quality of the image on the page. There was no clear narrative to the story of the line. However, when you have a line and then turn a page and don’t have a line, you wonder where it went. The book is a beautiful manipulation of expectation and form.

We finished the book and were then given an 11”x17” piece of paper. “Begin your line at the left side of the page...”

The thought that I’m not a graphic artist, and have never, not once, drawn a straight line without a ruler never crossed my mind. With colored pencils scattered around the table we took our lines on a journey. Some of them were direct and geometric, others twirling and whirling into flowers and faces. Some exploded into fireworks. I felt the urge to fill up every square inch on my page and thought about how I do the same thing to my calendar. I resisted and left some blank space. We sat down in a circle and laid our drawings out in front of us. Selena, looking down at the drawings asked, “Would anyone like to elaborate-- to say anything about their line?”

We went around the circle and in the same manner we had “read” the book, we read our lines to the group. Sound effects, hand dances, a few brave souls got up and arm danced, and then a performance artist blew the whole thing open by dumping water all over the floor. We laughed and cleaned up the mess and then it turned more verbal. We began talking about our lines and the qualities of our lines and eventually, as we neared the end of the time in the workshop, we began hinting at even more personal things in our lives. The simple instruction and manageable form had given us the platform to do so. It had expanded the personal into a public sphere and in the course of 2 hours there was a tangible intimacy in the room. We were connected and invested in the activity, and the activity had become about each of us.

Dialogue sets the stage for transformation, and whether it's a child speaking up for the first time or a group of adults sharing their personal lives, that’s an incredibly authentic assessment of learning. As a teaching artist for the New Victory Theater, I’m part of a team that introduces students to an art form. We want to share as much as we can in those short forty-five minutes. After taking this workshop with Peekaboo, I’m challenged to find the simple things I can do to open up this territory where the aesthetic experience becomes one that can’t help but inspire personal investigation and rich social interaction. Investigating beauty with personal investment in the context of others never gets old.


Billy Schultz is a New York City-based visual theater artist. He has trained at the International School of the Comic Actor in Reggio Emilia, Italy, Dell Arte International School of Physical Theater (Blue Lake, CA), Michael Howard Studios, Movement Theater Studios and with many masters of the Physical Theater art form, Norman Taylor, Richard Crawford, Jango Edwards, Nikolai Terentiev, Gregg Goldston (mime), Virginia Scott and Orlando Pabotoy (Chris Bayes Clown Technique) and John Towsen (physical comedy) to name a few. He has performed at theater festivals in and around Italy, France, Spain and Germany. Here in NYC he has performed at the Triskelion Arts, Dixon Place, Galapagos Art Space, The Kraine Theater, The Guggenheim Museum, Webster Hall, and various other dance and variety theater venues. He is currently directing a 13 person ensemble in a live performance and dance film entitled “The Red Gloves.” He teaches for The New Victory Theater, Brooklyn Arts Council, and Metropolitan Opera Guild.

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