It’s been a minute since I ventured into the What’s My Line? blog world. That’s partly because I’m been waffling on this particular post. It’s likely to upset some folks, though that is not my intention.
This topic means a lot to me though. This conversation means a lot to me…so…
…I’m going to go for it. I’d like to start with a poem that long ago popped up on my feed and to this day I can’t seem to track down who the author is. If any of you out there know…please help a tired teacher out!!! 🙂 So to the person out there who helped clarify some unspoken deep-seated emotions for me all those years ago, thank you. For those of you reading this now, it’s where I’m choosing to start this conversation.
We don’t need a revolution
Revelation will suffice
The battle won at every turn
By honest souls rejecting lies
Some power feeds on truth denied
Compassion turned coercive brute
The vileness of the mean predicts
The vileness of the fruit
So only speak what you find true
Let falsehoods never cross your lips
Let poisoned, social echoes starve
For lack of clicks and bits.
Abandon acquiescent mind
Guard truth without relent
Each day, awake, to “ob portu”
Resolve to make a dent
What choice have I to turn the tide?
What act can save what’s lost?
To wake each day and live in truth
No matter what the cost.
Being a theater educator is difficult. I don’t say this with a sense of exhaustion and resignation. I say this as a statement of truth. Like so many things in life, especially the things worth doing, the things that matter, theater is difficult.
Whether its a matter of self-indulgence or narcissism, I tend to add to that daily difficulty by infusing it with another hot button word.
What is my legacy? Not what will be my legacy; but what is my legacy, every class, every rehearsal, every day. If it were to all go away tomorrow, was today worthy of being the last day? And if I’m being honest the answer isn’t a resounding, “yes!” as much as I’d like it to be.
So we try again the next day.
And the next…
You get the picture…
One of the ever present challenges for theater educators is the tension of always “performing”. Of always “putting on a show” of being the center of attention, of being interesting, funny, outgoing, the “life of the party”. Whether folks outside of theater actually expect this is another story. We, the folks in the theater, tend to expect it of ourselves. For many theater educators, especially high school theater educators, the structure in most institutions expects the theater teacher to be a recruiter. The program begins and ends with you. The program thrives or dies with you.
This isn’t a complaint. Simply a matter-of-fact. If you intend to become a theater educator you are taking on this expectation. Every day, every class, every rehearsal, every walk through the hallways is a chance to engage. To convince. To badger, to bet, whatever the case may be, to fill your own classroom seats and the auditorium seats.
Because so much of the job hinges on students being interested enough to show up, we have a tendency to revert to what we do best, what we feel most comfortable doing. Performing. And doing a great one at that!
It is exactly what my high school theater experience was like. Ms. Smith [I’m changing her name because I’m writing this without first having a chance to connect with her to ask if I could share this,] was the coolest adult I knew. She was hip, she was edgy, she used curse words and…to date myself…played Jagged Little Pill during work sessions in the class room. She made theater feel safe. She made it feel like the work we were doing in it mattered AND that we mattered.
Though I was late to whole theater scene, the theater became a home for me in high school. In large part because of Ms. Smith. The coolest adult I knew.
And I fight the urge every day to try and be that for our students. To perform. To dazzle. To be the “coolest adult they know”. Why? What’s wrong with being the “coolest adult” the students know?
AND I still fight against my people-pleasing tendency to try and be that person…BUT for the legacy I seek to exist, I have to be something else.
Theater, like so many things in life, maybe even more so, is exclusive. It’s built brick by brick, by design to be that way. No matter what #equityinthearts, pops up on on social media; the fact of the matter is that the current structure is intended to keep power in the hands of the few and to be exclusive.
Why are Broadway tickets priced the way they are? Because art is viewed as a commodity, a business and a business can only survive by making money and as is often the tendency to make as much of it as possible. The price of tickets reflect the values of those creating and curating the art. Why isn’t it standard operating practice to host low-income, underserved schools even if it’s just ONE performance out of the entire run?
Because art, at least commercially, isn’t meant for everyone. It’s meant for those who can afford it.
Hold up, Shelton…what does this soapbox, which I don’t necessarily agree with, have to do with what you’re talking about?
High School Theater is a great case study in this. We, collectively, tend toward the cult of personality. We tend to follow the alpha, type A, funny, engaging, attractive, talented ones among us.
I’m not criticizing it. It is what it is.
BUT…this is what allows the exclusion, the harmful, institutional structures to remain, at least in the theater world. We’ll put up with all kinds of inequality and injustice because after all so and so is AAAAAAMMMMMAAAZZZZIIIIINNNNGGGG!!!
Ms. Smith forever changed my life and I’m forever grateful. She is still the coolest adult I know. Yet, when she left the school, the theater program faded into nothing. There was nothing there to sustain it; because the entire structure was build on, “I’m choosing to be a part of this thing because the coolest adult I know is part of this thing! I love theater, because I love Ms. Smith!”
Theater, this magical, beautiful, ephemeral thing, maybe the only thing outside of faith, that can change hearts and minds; lives and dies with the personality at the head.
And I get it. It’s hard for me not to go there. It’s hard not to desire to make it about me. To create a place in which I feel valued because it only exists because of me. To create a place in which I receive the credit, the adulation, the thank you’s, a place in which others value. A place they want to be a part of and maybe, a place they want to put my name on.
But that can’t be what we are about. That can’t be what I’m about.
I desire to create something different.
I don’t want my legacy to be, “Look at how amazing Mr. Shelton’s theater program is!”, “Look at how brilliant his shows are!”, “Look at Mr. Shelton up there…the coolest adult I know!” Because in those compliments, this thing we’re doing has become about me.
Instead I strive for, “Look at how amazing OUR theater program is!”, “Look at how brilliant OUR shows are!”, “Look at those PEOPLE up there…the coolest people I know!”
So what must I do? I must de-center myself. I must make myself smaller so everyone else can be larger. I must continue to lead through service, through authenticity, through transparency, through doing what I can, with the gifts and talents I have, even if that sometimes causes harm to myself, to contribute to building a healthy, vibrant, excellent community of artists and humans.
I must work to create an environment in which students want to be in theater NOT because of me BUT in spite of me. They want to be in theater because of everyone else who is in theater. Because of the healthy community. The authentic relationships. The pursuit of individual and collective excellence. The magic and the joy of telling stories, changing hearts and minds and living into our best selves.
I must work to build meaningful relationships with everyone who comes through the program. I must work to build trust. To build accountability. To build agency and ownership.
For those of you who were able to experience Artists’ Aiding Artists and Night on Broadway this month, those are student organized, developed, designed and produced events!!! 🙂 These are examples of what I’m talking about. A place that is healthy and strong and vibrant and excellent because of the “we” not the “me”.
I must work to create a space in which folks don’t know what it is that I do because we’re all doing this together.
I must work to create a place in which we are deeply committed and rooted in a strong foundation, a lasting and vibrant foundation because of ALL of US.
And maybe just maybe enough hearts and minds will be changed that when they leave our community they will take what they’ve learned out into the world and slowly but surely effect change. To help bring about structures that value EACH and EVERY person. That honor our unique contributions. Structures that love, accept and help hold each of us accountable to living into our best selves.
I refuse to be a theater educator viewed by others as a brilliant artist and, “look how lucky those students are that they get to work with Mr. Shelton.” I reject that. It has no place in this community. I’m not trying to teach students how to artistically do what I want them to do. How to tell stories the way I want them to tell stories. How to act on stage the way I want them to act.
I want them to artistically learn HOW to be EXCELLENT on their own. How to tell the stories THEY NEED to tell. How to act on stage the way that’s best for them. How to love, to build healthy relationships and to be excellent in all we do.
As an educator, my ultimate goal is to become ill-relevant to the students. It’s not about making them dependent on me and my artistry. It’s about serving and uplifting them so they zoom past me. So they soar beyond what they ever thought capable. So they grow beyond me and what I can offer and are empowered to move mountains and change the world!
Shame on me if I pursue anything other than this.
So that is how I feel. That is why I believe the cult of personality is dangerous. That is why I refuse it and try, even if I ultimately fail, to build a community built on we…
…and NOT on me.
Thanks for indulging,