When I went off to graduate school at the tender, early age of 52, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I felt that if I learned more about education, then I could be a better arts educator and/or make my program stronger. What I realized, once I started taking my graduate studies core classes, was that it would take a lifetime that I didn’t have to explore the wealth of possibilities, and that I would have to quickly narrow my choices about what I hoped to accomplish.
The thing was, I didn’t set out to go to graduate school; it was just something I settled on, when I realized that a continued life of performing in my tour with Teatro Milagro was having a profound effect on my arthritis. It was time to bring in some new talent, and I would need the skills to train the new talent. Also, I wanted my team to be able to really know their material inside and out, not just regurgitate what we told them, so that they too would become teachers. This all sounded like an easy plan, but when you layer the need for everyone involved to be bilingual, then you’ve added another layer of complication. That leads you to think—was keeping the program bilingual really necessary?
So many teachers and other artists have asked, “Why bilingual?”, because it was how I wanted to share Latino culture through language, my personal mission as an Artistic Director. Then the old lightbulb exploded and for two years of graduate school I started (and continue) to work on my case study. Working in two counties and several schools, I have set out to quantitatively measure the percentage of higher comprehensive learning from students who have participated in one of our bilingual arts-integrated residencies. It has been exciting research for a data nerd because it is a unique study. I really thought California would have had it all figured out, but no hard data study there, nor in New York. I had to piecemeal it together: studies in arts integration, studies in bilingual integration, and all the other forms of both in between—for example, arts-learning does not necessarily imply arts-integrated.
After I graduated—which cost a LOT of money, my husband, who co-founded our non-profit, likes to remind me—I had to figure out FAST what I was going to do with all this information I had trapped in my reports and studies. So, I did what any scholar would do: I set-out to put it together in a book, a workbook of sorts, for teachers to use in their classrooms. The workbooks are quite great when we are able to get them into teacher’s hands, but I have discovered that even though we have made a super, easy to follow format, most teachers still appreciate the hands-on approach, where we come into the classroom and we do it together. I guess theatre still has that small aura of mystery around it, that convinces some they might not have the talent needed to give it a try. In the schools where we have taught, teachers are more than happy to carry on from there.
Now that I have realized all my hopes and dreams about theatre and education, what now, you ask? Some people ask me if I miss being on the stage, but I say that teaching one class is like putting on a show, and that’s my joy. Besides, my actors are so busy now, I don’t think I could keep up! In March alone, the touring company did eleven performances of three different plays, taught a residency in Southern Oregon and flew to Connecticut for a few performances. I guess having a unique program makes us popular. But we as educators all wonder, what do the students gain from the experience?
Lately, Milagro’s teaching artists have been exploring boundaries of gender orientation, sexuality, and identity. Lead teaching artist Ajai Terrzas Tripathi uses the technique of metaphor to comment on societal issues of intersectionality and ask “how we break from the binary to embrace identities that are contradicting.” Themes are introduced by students, and then are utilized as foundations for the students to develop skits facilitated by the actors. Teaching artist Justin Charles emphasizes that theatre is “...a piece of fiction that exposes reality.”
Students are prepared by the actors through the scene-making process, but students produce the work and create the conversations, often using a form of “Spanglish” to facilitate the bilingual dialog. Milagro frequently works with English language learners, and the code-switching creates a comfort zone for the participants. Many themes introduced by students focus on gun violence, bullying, social media, sexism, and identity. Students, through the storytelling workshops, exploit the concerns, explore the themes, and expose societal injustice. One student reported: “I enjoyed being pushed quickly out of my comfort box.”
Milagro’s workshops are often paired with a performance. Experiences with college students vary from those with high school students; college students tend to connect to the text, while high school students see themselves in the characters. Milagro’s teaching artists play multiple roles in the current touring production of Bi-, characters that explore a range of power dynamics and reveal how characters can be multi-layered. Overall, students across the board have found the performances of Bi- to be enjoyable, and the workshops to be a unique and needed. One student expressed: “I learned from this experience that there is so much more work we can accomplish through collaboration and putting ourselves out there.”