The theme of this year’s American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) National Conference was: Empowerment Through Artistry and Advocacy. The four-day conference certainly lived up to its name (though that didn’t stop me from suggesting an alternative title later on in this post), and I’d like to share my reflections through an advocacy framework I’m borrowing from Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, who was a panelist for the opening keynote of the conference.
Rachel provided us with four key parts of arts advocacy that she uses in her work at PCAH, and they are:
- Choose an argument
- Tell a story
- Support the ripple effect
- Keep your eye on the big picture
Together these four parts make arts advocacy specific, personal and accessible undertaking. It’s easy to run into the problem of spewing too many stories or too many facts to convince my audience of the value of the arts and arts education. Rachel reminded us, the arts are not a silver bullet. They cannot and will not fix everything that’s wrong in American schools. But they are a good place to start, and this four-part framework can help artists and educators articulate why.
Part One: Choose an Argument
To make my argument really straightforward: if you work, teach, act, direct, design or have a remote interest in theatre for, and particularly WITH young people, AATE is for you. This conference is like a magnet for the incredible artists and educators in the field. Though this was my first AATE, I discovered that I knew a lot of people at the conference. I attribute this to the sheer number of collisions I experienced between the many worlds I’ve inhabited in order to grow my teaching artistry. With that said, I would like to retroactively rename this year’s AATE National Conference to: When Worlds Collide. Some key examples to support this retroactive re-naming:
- I co-facilitated a session in which we explored teaching artistry and how to advocate for ourselves as legitimate artists and educators in the city where I first discovered what a teaching artist was and that I might be one.
- The playwright’s slam event featuring the work of mentors and friends, including Jeremy Kisling, who encouraged me to write my very first script for a performance workshop class at Lexington Children’s Theatre.
- I reconnected with Diana Young who was my co-teacher from my intern year at Trinity Rep!
- Celebrating Suzan Zeder and Dr. Coleman Jennings with my UT Austin colleagues in the classroom I taught my first creative drama lesson in at Imagination Stage.
Part Two: Tell a Story
Even though this week was saturated with familiar feelings and nostalgia, there were also many moments of surprise. One of the biggest surprises happened during the closing keynote address of the conference. Thomas Schumacher, producer and president of Disney Theatrical Group made his way to the stage, and I crossed my arms, put my braced myself for what the next moments would hold. What could this corporate man who embodies the epitome of for-profit “theatre” have to tell me, a teaching artist with two feet firmly planted in non-profit and community-based work? It wasn’t long before his words completely disarmed this skepticism. I lowered my crossed arms, leaned in and listened. Really listened. Because one of the first things he talked about was the drama teacher who “saved his life.” Yes, he works for Disney, but he also deeply understands the work of the non-profit artists and educators he spoke to. He gets us. He sees us. I’m glad I listened.
Keep an open mind because you never know what surprises are waiting for you.
Part Three: Support the Ripple Effect
You never know who you’ll meet at AATE or what kinds of existing connections you’ll discover when so many artists and educators gather in one place. I discovered that Rives Collins was a supportive mentor to Cara Gabriel, my mentor and advisor in college who famously predicted that I would end up working professionally in theatre for young audiences. Cara said that Rives gave her opportunities that no one else would, and she extends similar support and commitment to her students. That’s ripple effect of great mentorship. Thank you, Cara, and thank you, Rives!
Part Four: Keep Your Eye on the Big Picture
AATE embodies everything I love about this field: connection, inclusion, encouragement, celebration, artistry and the hope that drives my practice. Our work makes a difference. We know this to be true. I imagine each person attended AATE for a different reason, but whatever the motivation, we all benefit from connecting with each other. Each collision of my worlds blew my mind, but this is how it should be. Our worlds need to overlap and intersect. Theatre is not a solo endeavor. Theatre is collaboration. It’s connection. And when the conference comes to a close, these connections support, challenge and inspire us to do our very best work in the separate worlds we inhabit.
And speaking of the big picture as far as teaching artistry goes, here is some of the poster dialogue our participants created in our Reflection, Action and Advocacy session for teaching artists: