I’ve worked as a teaching artist in many different locations and communities. I’ve worked in public schools, private schools, charter schools, and religious schools. I’ve worked in schools where the student body was primarily black, Hispanic, and white. I’ve worked in liberal schools and conservative schools. I’ve worked in schools where parent involvement is common, and schools where I was lucky to get three parents on conference night.
Each school has its own culture, its own set of norms and values. Sometimes I am lucky enough to work in a setting in which my values and the surrounding community’s values are perfectly in sync. More often, there is dissonance. Friction. Discomfort.
In all teaching, there are limits imposed. There are things you cannot say in front of young people. Some of these are universal – no teacher should use her influence to try to indoctrinate students into her own beliefs, and no teacher should privilege one religion over others in a public school setting. Other rules are less black and white.
Here are some of the things I’ve been asked to do as a teacher:
- Refrain from any mention of pop culture in the classroom, including movies, music, television, and comics
- Remove all instances of bullying in a play about bullying
- Eliminate anything scary from a student-created play about fear
- Limit my performance material to works written more than 50 years ago
- Cut swear words or sexual innuendos from specific works
Some of these requests, I complied with happily. Others, I did less happily. In some cases, I decided I could not work within the limitations imposed on me.
In any classroom, there are taboo topics. Sex, violence, politics. Some of these cause more outrage than others, and all teachers must be careful when discussing anything remotely controversial in the classroom. All teachers must decide whether the worth of a controversial topic is worth the cost. Is bringing a classical painting into the room worth dealing with a parent upset that their child was exposed to nudity? Is reading a specific play in class worth a hearing with the school board? Is performing a specific play worth potentially losing one’s job? These are the questions other theatre teachers have faced, and I love what I do too much to take them lightly.
I believe that theatre is important, and that important things are worth discussing. How can I live within the limits of my community, and still do work that is important, that is real, and that is worthwhile? This is a difficulty question, and one I’m still trying to negotiate, but I have figured out one thing.
You get nowhere if you vilify your audience.
When doing difficult work, you must, above all else, approach your community with love.
When I was first starting out as a teaching artist, I was dead set on “changing the world through theatre.” I viewed those with opposing viewpoints as ignorant, wrongheaded, even evil at times.
I found myself frustrated, at odds with the other stakeholders in my community, wondering why “those people” couldn’t just see sense. Sometimes I left.
And I missed out on the opportunity to create meaningful dialogue.
Since then, I have tried to approach all difficult conversations in my classroom with an open mind. Sometimes this is a difficult line to walk. There are no easy answers, but here are some of the questions that have helped me in the past.
- Is what I want to do worth any potential backlash?
- Am I being respectful of the students’ desires and needs?
- Am I being respectful of the other stakeholders?
- What do I stand to gain?
- What do I stand to lose?
- Where is my community – will I be helping the conversation or turning people off?
- How do I approach people who disagree – with love or judgment?
In spite of the fact that this election season has exhausted me with sound bites, name-calling, vitriol, and scapegoating, I believe in the power of theatre to create meaningful dialogue. I have seen my young people discuss race, gender, abortion, and gun control with respect for each other, and without name-calling. I have also seen them create meaningful art around these issues. I’m still not sure what the best approach is, but I think coming into the room with love and respect for all is a good way to start.