The Teaching Artist as The Other: Questions Regarding Community Engagement, Clashing Perspectives, and How We Use Our Art to Connect with Young People
by Sara Brunow–Theatre Under the Stars
One of these things is not like the other…and I think that other is me.
Every teaching artist has at least one anecdote about the brutal honesty of their students. Sometimes the honesty comes from a place of observation, sometimes it comes from a place of realization. What becomes interesting is when students openly acknowledge something different, realizing through observation. It is even more interesting when the thing that is being observed is you:
Me: OK, let’s dance to the carpet! Make sure all of my friends aren’t on the white tile!
Student 1: That tile isn’t white.
Student 2: Yes it is!
Student 1: No, it isn’t!
Student 2: Then what is white?
Student 1: Ms. Sara!
Me: (blinking a beat and moving forward) Yup, now let’s sing our song!
When we as teaching artists step into work in the community, how important is the idea of The Other? How do the differences with our students allow for greater questions, and when can it be a hindrance?
This blog-post is my way of posing questions to the TYA community, to our teaching artists, to myself; questions that have picked at my brain with each and every residency, community engagement project, outreach program in which I have been involved. But so often I have found myself an outsider looking in, needing to find a place of trust, of safety, of sameness with my students. I find myself as The Other.
What is The Other?
When discussing this nebulous idea about identity, sameness, and difference, I could pull out a theoretical passage about Jean Genet or recite Helen Nicholson’s Theatre, Education and Performance. I could construct a diatribe about race, gender, sexuality, religion, age, ability, etc. and how we as artists and educators handle our differences within the safe spaces we create in our theatre bubbles. Instead, what I want to put out into the world is that being The Other can simply mean being different, or being perceived as different. It has to do with the perspective of our identity.
I walk into a classroom and know that the students automatically perceive me as an outsider to the culture of their classroom. Therefore, I am different.
Who is this chick with the electric red hair?
Why is she so energetic?
Oh no, why is she making me leave my desk?
WHY ARE WE SITTING IN A CIRCLE?!?!
The students’ perspective of what is about to happen is totally different from mine.
Now, add the fact that in Community Engagement situations, not only am I an outsider just by being new to the environment, I may be different in other ways. I have had experiences where the majority of my students are African American or Hispanic. I am white. My general perspective may be different from the participants’. I have worked in classrooms with individuals with disabilities. I am not an individual with a disability. My general perspective may be different from the participants’. I have worked with LGBTQ+ groups. I am a straight ally. My perspective may be different from the participants’.
In these situations, whether it is spoken or not, I am The Other.
Some things to ponder:
As theatre artists and educators who often have contact outside of our theatre-bubbles, how can we use community engagement practices to examine sameness and difference with our students? In our tumultuous society how can we change the conversation about being different? How do we use our own experiences to foster connections with young people, employing the idea of The Other? When does The Other become part of the conversation when we choose Teaching Artists for our Community Engagement Projects? And should it?
In the end, the actual Otherness doesn’t matter; how we handle it does.
In the TYA community, we have the unique opportunity of reaching audiences of young people in multiple venues, and to have their voices be heard along with our own. We have learning objectives, standards, teacher expectations, personal expectations, etc. to uphold, but how do we push past obstacles in order to make greater connections with our students?
- When do we use Otherness as a tool?
- When does Otherness become about privilege?
- When do we look at the perspectives of our students and make the choice to recognize differences?
- How do we become more aware of the differing perspectives of our students in order to achieve our artistic and learning goals?
- When does Otherness become about comfort and about cultural responsiveness?
There are enough questions in my mind to write yet another graduate thesis. But here, I believe, may be the most important:
At this point in our society, where individuals feel more and more divided, how can we, as theatre artists and educators, reach past perceptions of difference to make connections with our students in the effort to help them accept and appreciate the idea of The Other?
This post is part of an ongoing series about The Teaching Artist and The Other: Exploring Perspectives in Community Engagement