Three years ago, I made a significant shift in my teaching artist career. After a decade of TA’ing in K-12 settings, I felt stuck in a rut and wanted to try something new…I just wasn’t sure what that was. I threw a lot of new options up against the wall, and the two that stuck were an unlikely pairing: working with older adults on memoir-writing, and leading creative play classes for babies, toddlers, and their caregivers.
My days are now a mix of encouraging parents to get down on the floor and create acrobatic tricks or dance routines with their one-year olds, and nurturing the creative impulses of older adults who have always believed that they had a story to tell – but until this point, never felt ready to pick up a pen. While the energy, laughter, and frequent tears in these two settings are very different, one common theme ties them together:
We are all artists, and we can help each other create art.
In my baby/parent classes, which I teach through my artistic company Spellbound Theatre (New York’s only theatre exclusively for ages 0-5), I frequently meet parents who want to hand their child’s creative development over to me as an artist, because they feel like they are not providing enough creativity at home. Little do they know that our classes are mostly for them. I teach parents to become free with their own creativity, to value their own impulses and expression and physicality as they play with their child. We dance, make puppets, tell stories, always with the reminder:
We are all artists, and when we play together, we create meaning together.
Of course babies and toddlers learn through play, but it is often a discovery for the adults in the room that they, too, still have the capacity for fun and play and can learn something from letting go and getting messy with their baby. I hope that these classes can help to establish a routine of play for these families; that they see art not just as a skill or technique which must be mastered, but also as a means of creating community and meaning within their family. And, of course, creating fun.
Similarly, in my classes with older adults, I often encounter an attitude of, “You’re the artist and I’m not, so you show me how to do this the right way.” Over the years, my teaching partner, Annie Montgomery, and I have developed an approach that is less about the specific techniques of memoir-writing, and more about fostering a small community. This community values the challenge and risk of engaging in the artistic process with one another, and who use one another as inspiration, accountability, and a safe audience to try something new. This community generally outlives the 8 weeks that Annie and I work at each site, and the groups continue to meet after we are gone because they have taken on the challenge:
We are all artists, and we push each other to try something new.
In this spirit, Annie and I have recently taken on a new challenge ourselves. With support from the Brooklyn Art Council’s “Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide” grant program, we have begun work with a group of older adults in Brooklyn who are writing stories about their childhood. These stories will be used to create a play for intergenerational audiences: seniors, and young children with their parents.
Using the images, sense memories, and stories of childhood that continue to resonate with these adults 70, 80, even 90 years later, we are creating a performance that will be meaningful for audience members of different ages for different reasons. This June, parents, children, and seniors will gather to share stories and images together and hopefully, to play.
In sharing our stories, we share meaning and community.
Of course, there is the terrifying possibility that creative aging programs and Theatre for Young Audiences are not frequently paired together because there will be very little that will connect these two audiences together, and the play will end up being meaningful for neither. But as my students constantly remind me, art and play and risk and meaning are all connected together, and it is the challenge of something new that brought me here in the first place.
You can follow the progress of this project at http://spellboundtheatre.com/sparc.