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.
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.