Friday, November 13, 2015

I Interview Teaching Artists #3: Gaetano Vaccaro

Gaetano in action, working on a recording.

I'm excited to expand my Teaching Artist interviews outside of New York City this month!  My first "out of town" interview subject is Gaetano Vaccaro, a skilled musician, video artist, and of course, Teaching Artist based in Albany, NY.

How long have you been a Teaching Artist?
This will be my ninth year as a teaching artist. I actually began teaching music right out of high school when I was nineteen, focusing on private guitar instruction. It came on the suggestion of my former guitar teacher who mentioned to me one day, “Why aren’t you teaching lessons?” I was slightly taken aback as I didn’t see myself as old enough or skilled enough to teach lessons, but once we sat down and talked about it, I found that I did actually have the skills to teach up to a fairly intermediate level. Given that the majority of my guitar students were beginners, I found that teaching the lessons greatly helped my own playing and was forcing me to practice and to listen to music I wouldn’t normally listen to. That experience is really what drove me to further pursue teaching arts. It also is what allowed me to get away from the trope that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I began to gain a greater empathy with my own teachers who pushed me along my path of becoming an artist. I also began to see that teaching did not automatically mean that I couldn’t continue pursuing my own artistic passions.  I have always been tied to being a musician and it is one of my primary art forms, but in order to make a living as an artist I found that I needed to diversify my art forms. Part of that has meant exploring teaching opportunities in the arts, but also expanding out into various artistic mediums. As I already had a grasp on audio production and music composition, other digital arts came fairly naturally to me. When I got started in Youth FX (which I'll discuss more about below) I didn't really know much of anything about film production. Yet, because of my previous experience, I was able to easily pick up most of the basics from YouTube and then get more in-depth learning from video training courses, which are honestly a great resource for professional artists. From there I again continued to learn and continue to learn by doing. I would film, and take pictures and experiment until I knew what I was doing. I also spent a lot of time learning graphic design and web development. I took those classes at Goddard College where I got my BA in Gender Studies and Web Design. To me, each art form only helps to expand the other and what I learn in one tends to have some kind of overlap into the other. Bringing it back to teaching, I find that my insatiable desire to learn is really fueled by my ability to consolidate and summarize new things in order to teach it to others. Teaching really helps me continue to learn and be a great artist, no matter what medium I am currently practicing.

What organizations do you work for?
The two main organizations I work for / with her in Albany are Youth FX and Proctors MediaWorks. The best way to explain these two is really through video as it far better captures the feeling of what these programs actually do. Rather than writing out a description of both, take a moment and watch these videos:

Proctors MediaWorks -

What are your current or most recent teaching projects?  
First I’ll start with a little background info on Youth FX. Currently, Youth FX is one of the premier youth media organizations in the US. Our films have been screened across the country and beyond. Youth FX films have won well over a dozen awards at film festivals in almost every major city in the US including the LA Film Fest and the Independent Film Festival in Washington D.C. (see for a full ist of festivals and awards). To me, the success that the youth have experienced has stemmed from two really special parts of the program. First, we have very dedicated youth, some of whom have been with us for the entire nine years the program has existed. These youth become very skilled in various aspects of media creation and storytelling and are able to be mentors to incoming students in the program. This mix of new ideas, youthful exuberance, and skilled peer leadership creates absolutely stunning displays of creativity and collaboration. The second piece is that the “leaders” of the program such as myself act as guides who provide the resources and the training, but never dictate what video or artistic projects the youth create. Youth FX aims to empower youth to tell their own stories and receive real world professional arts training. Many of the youth are employed for the six-week summer program through the city of Albany’s summer youth employment program, which in essence acts as a paid internship opportunity in digital media arts for youth in Albany.

My other main project is teaching at Albany High School with the MediaWorks program. I was recruited for the position by Proctors, a large arts organization and performance space in Schenectady, NY, to help to develop a program to integrate video into a common core ninth grade English class. MediaWorks at Albany High School (AHS MediaWorks) began as a two-month pilot program in 2011 where I was working three to four days a week in five different ELA classrooms integrating video using project based learning (PBL) methodology. The pilot received rave reviews from participating teachers and administrators at Albany High School. Most importantly, the participating students showed noticeably higher engagement levels throughout the pilot. Based on the success of that first program, Albany High School decided to give the go-ahead for MediaWorks to grow into a full-year integrated program combining media arts and media literacy with the Common Core ELA curriculum. I have focused the curriculum of the program over the past four years with the help of the English teacher I am currently working with. Students throughout the year learn all aspects of media production including creating short movies, documentaries, and PSAs. In addition, I have integrated core concepts of media literacy so that students can hopefully become more critical of the media-rich world around them. My goal is always to have my students leave ninth grade with more-developed critical thinking skills, an awareness that they are creative people, and hopefully more confidence in their abilities to communicate their thoughts and ideas to others.

What's the most memorable moment you've had recently?
It is so difficult to choose a moment. It feels that every day is filled with unique moments that continue to make what I do worth it. Every time I am able to see one of my students being creative in whatever way feels rewarding to them, it adds to the feelings of pride that I take in the work I do.

What other creative projects of your own are you working on right now?
In order to remain a relevant teaching artist I am always working on my own creative arts. Over the past few years I have put out two albums with my band Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde ( My partner Taina is the primary person who handles many of the day to day responsibilities of managing our music career. In addition to the obvious creative work of being in a musical group such as composing and arranging, I step in to assist in the research aspect of booking and marketing. I also utilize the multimedia skills I have gained over the years as a teaching artist focusing on film to help create videos, graphics, posters, and more for the band. The most recent project I have been working on is a music video for a single off of our 2014 release “Fruit of Hope” called “Freedom”. It’s super-rewarding work as it really taps into all the visual media such as filming, editing, and design, combined with my music.

How do you find balance between your teaching and other creative work?  What systems or strategies do you have for balancing the many things that you do?
Really, this question is crucial not just to creative professionals, but to anyone who needs to balance aspects of their life such as family, work, hobbies, self-care, etc… Personally, the biggest responsibilities I am balancing are raising two children, having a loving relationship with my partner, helping to manage / create with my band, managing my finances and household work, my full-time teaching role with MediaWorks, and my part-time teaching role in Youth FX. After taking care of those top-level items, I get to watch a movie and maybe eat something and sleep sometimes. My biggest strategies are to constantly review and evaluate what is working and what is not working. I utilize Google apps, specifically Google Calendar and Google Drive, to manage the ever-changing and ever-full days of my life. It helps to be able to share documents and also work on them from wherever I may be at the moment, which could be anywhere since we tour with the band consistently throughout the year. It is critical that the calendar is shared amongst any of the people I am working with on a project, so that we can all easily see what we have coming up. I have a shared calendar for MediaWorks, Youth FX, home life, band work, etc… Being able to see all of those calendars in one place and also see when other people put in events is super-important to balancing what I do. Although it can seem overwhelming at times, color-coding really makes life just that much better.  

Describe the overlap between your teaching work and your creative work.
As I mentioned before, in order to stay relevant as a teaching artist, it is important to me to always be somehow involved with the creative arts at a professional level. My work as a teaching artist helps to elevate many aspects of my art and allows me to practice by teaching, which really is one of the best ways to learn and keep your skills sharp. Having to break down all of things I teach into small step by step instructions makes me look at my own creative process and lets me really think out how to create and revise my work.  

Do the organizations you work for actively support and encourage the connections between your teaching practice and your creative practice?
I think that so much time is required to make the magic happen within the organizations I work for that there isn’t really time to give active support to my own personal and creative work. It is certainly recognized and celebrated, but in many ways I need to wear different hats when dealing with the nitty gritty logistics of making the programs run day to day. Sometimes there is overlap, such as when some of the youth from Youth FX shot a live concert my band performed at or helping with our first-ever music video, but typically the two worlds are somewhat separate.

If you could change one thing about your life as a Teaching Artist, what would it be?
It would first be getting payed more! Of course there are many things that could change to improve what I do and make it better, but many of those things are external, such as support and finances. Even the organizations that I work for are limited in their capacity based on how much support and resources are dedicated to the arts. Ultimately, it is not on one small nonprofit or another to provide those resources, but rather a shift in the way that people at a higher levels distribute and prioritize resources and money. On a more personal level, it would be to further integrate my personal creative work with my teaching arts so that one more directly fed the other.

Do you have any plugs for upcoming teaching/creative projects of your own or of people you admire?
Here is a lovely list of links to peruse at your leisure. All of the following are either creative projects that I am directly involved with, or are people I know personally who are doing such absolutely incredible and vital work in their communities.

Projects I am directly involved with:

Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde
Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde combine powerful vocals with an energetic fusion of Afro-Latin, reggae, and rock. The six-piece ensemble from Albany, NY, led by Puerto Rican vocalist Taina Asili, offers a sound that spans continents, exuding a strength of Spirit, inspiring audiences to dance to the movement of rebellion.

Youth FX
Bhawin Suchak (Founder and Director) | Gaetano Vaccaro (Program Assistant)
Youth FX seeks to inspire and empower youth in Albany’s under-resourced neighborhoods through an understanding and hands-on exploration of the creative and technical aspects of digital filmmaking.   We aim to foster and grow a community of young people who have a voice in shaping the destiny of their personal lives and their communities by telling their stories and acquiring media skills in emergent technologies.  

Proctors MediaWorks
Gaetano Vaccaro (Teaching Artist and Curriculum Developer)
MediaWorks is an Arts-in-Education program designed to integrate media arts with Common Core curriculum to create new pathways for student success. Proctors is working with Schenectady High School and the Discovery Academy at Albany High School to integrate media arts into English Language Arts curriculum. A professional media artist works with a team of teachers to develop and implement new learning pathways, based on Common Core standards and Project-Based Learning, to increase student engagement, attendance, and success.


Projects I am inspired by:

Samara Gaev (Founder and Artistic Director) & Alixa Garcia (Technical Director)  
Truthworker Theatre Company is a social-justice-based, hip-hop theatre company for high school and college-aged youth in Brooklyn, NY. We are intent upon providing free programming and professional stipends for young visionaries & performers to receive rigorous training.

Victory Bus Project / Sweet Freedom Farm
Jalal Sabur & Nadia Alexis
Sweet Freedom Farm  provides  educational  and   local  food  resources  for the Hudson Valley and New York City as  part  of  our  commitment  to  building   urban/rural  relationships. The goal of the Victory Bus Project is to provide affordable transportation for families in urban areas going to visit their loved ones in rural prisons. Families are provided with the transportation for just the cost of a box of fresh fruits and vegetables, making farm produce accessible. During the rides we engage families on how we collectively address the prison industrial complex and food sovereignty, pushing folks to demand FARMS NOT PRISONS.

Kite’s Nest
Nicole Lobue (Co-director of Education and Culinary Arts)
Kaya Weidman (Co-director of Operations & Community Engagement)
Sara Kendall (Co-director of Programs & Communications)
Kite’s Nest is a learning resource center dedicated to curiosity, inquiry, and social justice in Hudson, NY. We are committed to creating an extraordinary environment for children and teenagers to learn, play, and grow. Together we generate experiences that spark the interests and passions of young people, and offer a supportive environment for children and teenagers to pursue and develop their interests within their community. We believe that by supporting young people to develop a passion for learning, we are building a generation of young adults with the skills, abilities, and confidence to create meaningful lives and make positive social change.

Soul Fire Farm
Leah Penniman & Jonah Vitale-Wolff
Soul Fire Farm is a family farm committed to the dismantling of oppressive structures that misguide our food system. Soul Fire Farm is a Certified Naturally Grown family farm, community resource, and vessel for education. We raise life-giving food and act in solidarity with people marginalized by food apartheid. With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system.  We bring diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, cooking, and natural building, and contribute to the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.  

Also check out the promotional video I created for Soul Fire’s fundraising campaign (that has helped to raise over $60,000 so far!!!) at their fundraising page:

Gaetano facilitating a workshop.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I Interview Teaching Artists #2: Emma Alabaster!

One of the best things I did this summer was sit down with musician and Teaching Artist, Emma Alabaster, to talk about creativity, teaching, and much much more.  Check it out...

Emma inspiring some of her students with her bass.

So, here I am with Emma Alabaster, amazing musician and Teaching Artist, who I’ve had the pleasure of teaching with…so Emma, first of all, how long have you been a Teaching Artist?
About eight or nine years.
Cool.  You’ve been doing this for a while.
Who do you teach for?
Most recently, Brooklyn Arts Council, where we taught together.  I have worked for other organizations.  BAC is the only arts education organization I work for right now.  I also work for the Midtown Workmen's Circle School; I'm the music and arts teacher there.  And then, right now I’m also giving educational tours at Snug Harbor Cultural Arts Center and Botanical Garden on Staten Island.  And that’s sort of Teaching Artist work.  We do craft projects as well as educational tours and whatnot. So, it feels like part of the same spectrum of work.
Very cool.  So you’re not teaching this summer, correct?
No.  Taking a little break.  And well-deserved.  So tell me about your most recent teaching projects from the spring.  Who were you working with, what were you working on?
Sure.  So I had two residencies with the Brooklyn Arts Council.  One of them was the one we did together at a Catholic school in Bensonhurst, and I was working with third, fourth, and fifth graders, doing music with them, after school, once a week.  And we did some songwriting together, and we also learned some other songs that we sang at our final performance.  And then I was at a public elementary school in Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, working with first and second graders, also doing music.
Songwriting with the little ones?
I did some songwriting with them, yeah!  And also just general music.  For their performance, they sang some different songs and did a little bit of percussion.  Yeah, and they sang one original song and two other songs as well.
So tell me, what is the most memorable moment you had teaching music this spring?
One thing I can think of, and I told you about this moment, one of my students at the Catholic school where we taught together, a fifth grader, after the kids were dismissed, she came back upstairs and she said, “Miss Emma, can I sing something for you?”  And it was myself, and the intern that I was working with, we were like, “Okay, yeah, sure.”  And she sang this whole song, completely heartfelt.  It sounded like a pop song, and it was all about being stuck in a ditch.  (Laughter.)  It was like (singing) “I’m stuck in a hole.  And I don’t know how to get out.”  (Laughter.)
Did she write it?
And afterwards, we were all laughing and we said, you know, “Did you write that?”  And she said “Oh, I just made it up.”
Right on the spot?
Yeah, totally.  (Laughter.)  So that was really interesting.
She’s the future of music.
She’s the future of music.  And she was really into it.  And it made me feel really good that she felt like she wanted to share that, and she felt safe with us in that way. Yeah.  It’s pretty incredible.
Very cool.  Very cool.
Very inspiring.
So what about your own creative projects?  What are you working on right now?
I work with this band, Cornelius Eady and Rough Magic.  Cornelius is a well-known poet and playwright.
I know his work.
And he’s one of the co-founders of Cave Canem, which a retreat for African American poets.  And he is an amazing songwriter, although he’s not known as well for that.  So the past couple years, he’s been putting more attention on that, and I work as a musical director for his band and I play some bass and do some back-up vocals and whatnot, and that’s been kind of an ongoing gig that’s been really great.  Amazing to work with him, great to learn more about certain kinds of administrative band stuff, not just for my own band.  So that’s an ongoing thing.  We have an album coming out in the fall that is all poems by the poet Sterling A. Brown, set to music, which I’m very excited about. 
Recording on Sunday our last couple songs for that.  So…
Very cool!
Yeah!  And then I have new band that is a duo project that is not out in the world yet either, sounds like it’s at a similar place to your band.
Mmm-hmm.  (Laughter.)
Although we’ve been doing a lot of recording and haven’t figured out yet like how we want to do it live.  I think we are going to have to bring more people into the project.  We’ve been doing a lot of songwriting and recording, which is different for me in terms of the process.  I haven’t really written through recording in this way before, but we definitely have a lot of material.
Are you playing upright bass for it?
Not very much.  Yeah, so it’s my partner, Leo, and I.  I’m primarily a bass player, he’s primarily a drummer, and I sing, but we’re at home, so we’ve been putting in keyboards and guitars and all different kinds of stuff in Logic.
It’s been really fun, and I’m super-excited about that band.  And you know, you should hear from us sometime soon.
I would love to!  And a project with your partner, too, which is like a…have you done that before?
Nope.  (Laughter.)
I always imagine either that’s going to be absolutely wonderful or it’s going to be frightening in that if anything goes wrong, there’s a lot at stake.
Well, he plays in Cornelius’s band too, actually.
Oh, okay.
So, we’ve worked together a lot, but we haven’t done a project that’s really both of us taking ownership over it in this way, so that’s new.
Very cool.
And you just got done with Sara Lyons’s bio-cabaret!
Yeah!  So with other random projects, I just did that piece with Sara that was the Margaret Sanger bio-cabaret, did a little performance piece for that and wrote a song as well.
Did you write the performance piece part?
So was it like a monologue with a song or?
Well, it was partially…so another job that I do, that I don’t necessarily consider Teaching Artist work is I work as a gynecological teaching associate.
I’ve talked to you about this, right?
Yeah, yeah.  Yes.
So I teach medical students how to do breast and pelvic exams.  So, shockingly, I have this job where I use a speculum all the time, but I’ve never used it for art…up until now!
Right!  Excellent!
I was really amazed that it took me that long.  (Laughter.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah!
So it was sort of interspersing some knowledge that I have from that work into, you know, I don’t know what you know about Margaret Sanger, but she’s really interesting.
Not a whole lot, besides what everyone knows, about Planned Parenthood.
Right.  Founder of Planned Parenthood.  But, you know, she invented the term “birth control.”  Also, a eugenicist.
Oh.  Huh.  Didn’t know that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.  So a lot of people that we may consider elders or idols in different ways, also can be like really complex fucked-up characters, that did a lot of amazing shit and also….so you know, it’s interesting, the way that Sara did the piece, she had a really cool process, she just kind of gave us the dramaturgy.  She had a timeline of Margaret Sanger’s life and she asked everyone to pick a moment and to make a piece under five minutes about one piece of the timeline.  So, I chose this moment sort of late in her life, when Planned Parenthood was giving her an award, and she had actually founded this award.  She got up and gave this speech and there was all this eugenicist shit in her speech.  And it was post-World War II, and that wasn’t really cool anymore and everyone was kind of like…hmmmm.  So, to me, it’s a really interesting moment in thinking about like intergenerational work and again the ways that we interact with and think about our elders and our predecessors in this way.  So I did a song and a monologuey-thing about the speculum.
It was fun.
I want more art about speculums.  Speculi?  Speculi?
Sure!  Speculae.  So, yeah, there’s random music and performance stuff, too, here and there.
Cool.  So, I know for me, this is my big important question, what I struggle for a lot is finding a balance between teaching and creative work, when I am teaching a lot.  So how do you find balance between teaching and creative work, and all of your other work?
Well, I think struggle is the word.  It’s definitely a struggle.  I think I’m constantly trying to reevaluate how much time I want to give to various things, and how much money I need to be making.  You know, there have been years when I do less teaching work, where I feel like I need a little bit of a break.  I’m always doing something, but sometimes I’m doing less.  There is, obviously, some built-in balance just in the timing of things, like summers are slower.  With the BAC work, a lot of it starts in January, so, it gives you time to kind of build up to that and then when I’m doing that, I know, January through June is going to be really intense, but I know I’ll have more time in other parts of the year.  So, that helps.  I think as I’ve taught more, having certain kinds of lesson plans that I’ve built up and different things I can use so I’m not starting from scratch all the time because I think lesson planning is like, it’s like being an artist.  You can always do more.  You can always spend more time tweaking and improving and coming up with new ideas and something I’ve had to learn and that I’m still learning is how to let things go.  How to trust that a lot of it is improvising anyway and you can plan and plan and plan and then you’re not going to do what you planned.  So, yeah, trusting in my skills such that I don’t have to put in tons of time outside of when I’m teaching.  Also, we know that lesson plan time is often unpaid.
Uh huh.  (Laughter.)
So, you know, having good boundaries about that so that you’re teaching “x” number of hours and then you’re lesson planning tons more, you know, the hourly wage can get a little bit bleak.
Yeah.  Do you have any systems or strategies specifically to make sure that you get enough time for music and creativity when you’re in the craziness, the busy times?
Well, something I’ve tried to do, and I haven’t always been successful, is actually scheduling that in.  I think so often when we become over-scheduled, the things that you don’t have on your calendar just don’t happen.  So, I think like, yeah, scheduling that in and being like this is the day and time I’m going to do that is very helpful.
Cool, cool, cool.
I think also I’ve gotten better at figuring out what kind of Teaching Artist gigs to take.  You know?  Like certain organizations that I used to work for that I felt were not respectful of my time that I don’t work for anymore.  One thing I like about BAC is that I think they don’t give us a lot of unnecessary paperwork, which is something that can be really time-consuming.
Also, feeling like, as I’ve gotten more experience, I don’t feel as desperate for work.  I feel like I can be more choosy and think about which gigs I really want to take, how far I want to travel, what schedule is really going to work for me.  It’s hard not to operate out of scarcity when you’re a freelancer and an artist, but I try to remember if I get offered something, it’s not the only thing that will probably come my way, and if it’s not a good fit for me, don’t take it.  You know?
It’s worth waiting for something better.
That’s a hard lesson to learn.
It’s really hard.
If you’ve mastered that, I applaud you.
I would not say I’ve mastered it.  (Laughter.)
If you’re improving in that area, I applaud you.
I’m working on it.  (Laughter.)
Would you describe for me the overlap between your teaching work and your creative work, in any way that you would like.
Well…I think teaching work helps me remember why art is vital.  Beyond just my own survival and enjoyment.  You know, I think I’ve never been interested in being one of those artists that is just creating art for other artists, you know?  So I really like working with young people because it reminds me why art matters and it makes me feel that in really visceral ways.  It also is a way for me to think through various things that I’m thinking about in my own work.  I’ve seen, even certain kinds of things that I’ve taught again and again over the past eight or nine years, the ways that I’ve changed them based on my own thinking about art-making.  The students inspire me.  You and I know each other originally from Rock Camp (Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls—K.B.).  Rock Camp is a really important place for me as someone who came from really formal music education, both in high school and college.  And I come from a family of artists that are very serious about art-making. To be reminded that art is also about self-expression and empowerment and the ways that people in general, and young people specifically, can make really powerful and amazing things without a lot of technical skills.  Seeing that happen with young people has really freed me up as an artist.  I would never have been making this album that I’m making right now, where I’m playing the instruments that I don’t really know how to play, if I hadn’t really learned that through teaching.
And then there’s also just silly things like playing guitar is something I started to do through teaching because it’s easier to accompany kids on guitar than on bass.  And now I’m using some guitar a little bit on some of my own songwriting and playing, so there are also ways that it’s helped me like that.
They bleed into each other.  That’s cool.  Do you feel like the organizations that you work for actively support and encourage connections between your teaching practice and your creative practice?
If I had to answer in one word, I would say no.  (Laughter.)  I think some do more than others.  Again, one thing I like about Brooklyn Arts Council is they’re thoughtful and respectful of our time.  They’re more likely to compensate you for a little bit of planning, or for coming to a training, or the Mannes Mentorship program you and I just did.  So that makes me feel respected as an artist, for sure.  And I remember when I first started working at BAC, I remember that they said, “We used to do all of this other paperwork.  But the feedback we got from our Teaching Artists was that it wasn’t working for them.  So we eliminated most of it.  And here are some sheets that you can use if you like to do weekly lesson planning.  Otherwise, here’s what we need from you.”  And that, to me, shows real respect.  But I think even there, they have all of this other work that they do, they have their grants department and everything else, and it feels very separate from the Teaching Artist work, and sometimes I wish that there was more of a relationship there.  I think that would be a way to support us as artists, to kind of make connections between their artists that are doing Teaching Artist work, and the other things they have going on. 
Right, right.
For me, on a more personal note, my parents are both artists.  My father’s a musician, and my mother’s a writer, and they both were New York City public school teachers, full-time teachers.  And so I think, growing up I saw the ways they struggled between teaching and being artists, and they really seemed counter to me, it really seemed like teaching was something that pulled them away from being artists.  And I think Teaching Artist work has this promise of not doing that because it’s not full-time…
And in some ways, that’s absolutely true, and I would not be making as much art if I were a full-time teacher, no question.  But I also still really feel that conflict sometimes.  And I don’t know.  I think the expectations for the work that we do are very high.
Mmmhmm.  And they should be.
They should be!  They should be.  Yeah.  But…
But it’s hard to give all you need to give to your teaching work and your creative work and…
And I feel like even on the more generous end of how much these gigs pay, you work it out to the hourly wage, it’s not that great, you know?  It’s not something that for me allows me to put aside anything.  You know?
It’s pretty hand to mouth.
Exactly.  So, you know, I’m in a place right now where I have my own concerns about the long-term sustainability of this work.
Yeah.  I mean, I know for myself, I’m trying to think a lot, and part of the reason I started this interview series was to think about what are other ways that some of the organizations that we work for can, if more money is not possible, what are other ways they can support their artists?  To connect the teaching practice and creative practice more, whether that’s space or access to special grants or…
But so many of these organizations, the people in administration, they’re stretched really thin.
Yep, they’re over-worked.
So, they don’t necessarily know about everything that we have going on, and they are not necessarily taking advantage of everything we could offer.  And, in a way, that would also support our art-making.
Along that line, if you could change one thing about your life as a Teaching Artist, what would it be?  You’ve brought up a lot of different issues…
I’m actually going to go in a different direction and say that I think the one thing I would change is that in so many of the schools that I go into, I am the only art teacher that I see.  And that’s what I would change.  One thing that really disturbs me about Teaching Artist work is the way that it has become woven into the privatization of public education, so full-time public school music and art and theater teachers do not exist in, it seems like, the vast majority of the public schools in this city.  And instead they bring in people like us, which is awesome, but it’s not the same.  Having me come in once a week for ten weeks is not the same as having a music teacher in the school.  And I think it’s wrong.  I think they’re doing the students a disservice, and I think they’re doing us a disservice as well, in terms of the expectations that people have of us and in terms of, you know, the work that we’re doing with the students as well.
I so often wish that if there were full-time arts teachers in all of the New York City public schools, then we would have the opportunity to really focus on being Teaching Artists, meaning things like creating more specialized projects that really connect to our own creative work.  I mean, thinking about this project you have with Cornelius and the Sterling Brown poems, you could come in, you could play, you could have the band take part, you could have Sterling read his poems.
Sterling has died.
Oh, I’m sorry!  Well, then you couldn’t have that.  But you could perform some of it and form a curriculum around that work and have a residency that would be about the relationship between poetry and music which is something that you’ve been thinking about anyway, instead of, so much of the time, we’re doing work that’s very general, because they have to have the basics in order to be able to do anything.  And you can integrate stuff, but especially with the little ones…
And how much, even if you’re talking about doing foundational work, giving the students the basics, how much foundational work can you do in ten weeks?  (Laughter.)  For an hour and a half each week?  You can’t!
Even if you go in there every year, year after year after year, and then you go away and you come back, and there’s a lot of time in between…
And that almost never happens, too.  That’s another thing I would say.  I have never, ever had the same teaching gig twice in a row.  I know that people get that opportunity.
It’s possible.
It almost happened to me this year, and then it didn’t.  I think it seems like there are a lot of reasons for that, part of it is like the work being grant-based, things don’t get renewed, you know.  There are still certain teaching gigs I think about that I’m like, that was so dreamy.  I loved working at that school.  I loved that particular residency.  And it will never happen again.  And you spend those ten weeks getting to know the school and the administrators and the students, and how to get there on the subway or whatever, you know, and then by time you’re like “Oh, I have this down,” it’s over.
I’ve had the opportunity to have quite a few ongoing residencies from year to year, where I return to schools I’ve taught in before, but I think it really depends on the organization.  But yeah, I feel like too, if you want something, you have to make that clear.  You’re your only advocate.  Or you’re your biggest advocate.  You have to be.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Sure.
Last thing is, any plugs for upcoming work, either for you or your students or friends?  What should we look out for?
The Rough Magic stuff that’s coming up.  If you look up the Cornelius Eady and RoughMagic Facebook page or website, that’ll be out there, and we’ll have some upcoming gigs, too.  And I’ll be posting stuff on my website about this other band, the duo.
Does it have a name yet?
We do, but it’s not on the internet yet.  I don’t know if we should unveil it on your website.
Tell us!  (Laughter.)
The name that we’re working with is Decibelists.
Nice.  I like it.
Do you?
We will keep an eye out for Decibelists.
All right.
Thank you so much, Emma!  This has been a wonderful conversation!
Of course!  Thank you!
Emma in concert!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Blackout03 Wins Audience Award at DUTF!

Blackout03 won the Best Audience Award at the 2015 Downtown Urban Theater Festival (along with Shonali Bhowmik's Bedbugs and Hot Pockets)!  Whoo-hoo!  A big thank you again to Marc Newell, DeVante Lewis, Sara Lyons, Keri Landeiro, Lindsey Austen, Alex Major, LaTonia Phipps, Chinaza Uche, our Indiegogo supporters, and all of the wonderful people that came to see the show!  Here are some pics from the performance:
"You know who always cared that I was black?"  Chinaza Uche in performance.
Lindsey Austen in performance.

"Lori, get over here!" LaTonia Phipps, Lindsey Austen, and Alex Major in performance.

"This is a dragon eating the bunny." LaTonia Phipps, Chinaza Uche, Lindsey Austen, and Alex Major in performance.

"He died for you." Alex Major and Lindsey Austen in performance.

"You're beautiful when you're pissed, but you pretty much knock me to the ground when you smile."  Chinaza Uche and Latonia Phipps in performance.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Alexa and Cecille's Amazingly Fearless Adventures: The Final Chapter @ Gallery Players Black Box New Play Festival THIS WEEKEND, June 11th-14th


I'm honored to have one of  my new ten-minute plays featured this weekend in Park Slope as a part of Gallery Players Black Box New Play Festival!

Alexa and Cecille's Amazingly Fearless Adventures: The Final Chapterby Kate Bell
Featuring Montana Hoover and Katrina Klein
Directed by Sara Lampert Hoover
Thursday 6/11, 8pm
Friday 6/12, 8pm
Saturday 6/13, 8pm
and Sunday 6/14, 3pm
at Gallery Players, 199 14th Street (between 4th and 5th Avenues in Park Slope, Brooklyn)
You can purchase tickets online at or by calling 212 352 3101.
More info at:

It's the first day of school, sophomore year, and Alexa has discovered that the pool in the basement is real.  But her best friend Cecille might not be as ready for this adventure as Alexa hopes.

Montana, Katrina, and Sara have been a pleasure to work with and I'm always amazed with Dominic and all the wonderful people at Gallery Players!  Hope to see you there!  (I'll be in the audience on Sunday, 6/14.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

All Things BLACKOUT03!

I have been busybusybusy getting all systems go for the first production of my play Blackout03 in this year's Downtown Urban Theater Festival.  It's SOLD OUT, but we still need support for our Indiegogo campaign.
Check out the fantastic video about the project that my dear friend Manny Bocchieri put together for us:

A pledge of any amount helps us cover costs, and the support will also help me to develop/produce my entire series of BLACKOUT PLAYS over the next couple years.  THE BLACKOUT PLAYS: a trip through forty plus years of New York City history and an imagined future, exploring how NYC race and class tensions have evolved (and how they've stayed the same).

Blackout03 in DUTF is a jumping-off point for the larger project and being SOLD OUT for the first production is incredibly exciting!  My director Sara Lyons has been a joy to work with, along with our extremely talented cast: Lindsey Austen, Alex Major, LaTonia Phipps, and Chinaza Uche.  And a big shout-out to Keri Taylor Landeiro who's signed on as our stage manager, and is making my life much, much easier.

Here are some pictures from rehearsals...more updates to come!

Lori and Tiffany (Lindsey and LaTonia), the Moon Nymphs, "doing things with their feet."

Tiffany (LaTonia) and Sam (Alex) playing Tug-of-War with Lori (Lindsey) with Sara looking on.
Sam (Alex) and Jonathan (Chinaza) taking a "bro moment."

Monday, April 6, 2015

I Interview Teaching Artists: Vickie Tanner!

I've been meaning for a long time to begin a new project interviewing other Teaching Artists.  I was inspired by the playwright Adam Szymkowicz and his "I Interview Playwrights" series on his blog.  It's been a wonderful resource for me as a playwright for years, and I thought that it would be really cool to have a similar interview series about Teaching Artists.  Adam was very generous in letting me "steal" and evolve his idea, so thanks Adam!  And here we go...

I Interview Teaching Artists #1: Vickie Tanner
Vickie performing her one-woman show Running Into Me.

Hello Vickie Tanner!
Hello Kate the Great!  How are you?
I’m good!  So first of all, how long have you been a Teaching Artist?
I was just thinking about that yesterday, and I couldn’t place the number of years, it’s been so long.  (Laughter.)
Can you give me a ballpark figure?
Okay...since nineteen ninety...oh my  Nineteen ninety eight?  Almost twenty years.  Wow.
Awesome.  Very experienced.  (Laughter.)  So tell me about all of your present teaching projects.
I have a lot of them!  Or maybe it just seems like a lot because they’re so involved.  I have one project that I’m doing with a group of—I hate this term—“underserved youth.”  Just a group of African American girls, basically, and guys, at Fort Greene Prep, creating what was a play based on the TV series “The Yard,” which is Canadian.  So we were going to do a little devised play based on that, but because our attendance has been kind of wonky, we’ve decided to turn it into a film.  We’re going to devise a short film based on that TV series, that kind of speaks to their own experience.
And that’s through Irondale?
That’s through Irondale.  It’s pretty tough-going.  They don’t have any ensemble skills.  They have a tough time focusing.  They don’t really understand what acting is, not enough of them, but they really do want to do the project and so far we’ve written it so now we’re going to get to acting for the camera and shooting it.  It’s very challenging, but, I think it’ll work out.  I’m excited.
And that’s after school?
That’s after school.  Two days a week.  And really exhausting, but there it is.  I have another residency with Symphony Space, spoken-word poetry, helping them create poems about social issues.  It’s a middle school, so we’re hopefully going to get them to the point where they’re comfortable performing what they’ve written.  They’re really great, really game, a bunch of boisterous boys.
Is that in Brooklyn too?
That is in Brooklyn.  Yeah, yeah.  And I’m doing a couple of residencies with Roundabout.  One creating a play based on some of the themes in Animal Farm.  Oh my god!  And that’s wonderful!  I’m working with this fantastic teacher!  Very hands-on.  Wonderful teacher.
An in-school residency?
In-school, and then I’m doing another in-school residency, I just started, with a group of high-schoolers, creating some scene work around some of the themes in Emily Dickenson poems.
Cool!  And are those two projects in Brooklyn also?
Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn mostly.  Isn’t that great?  That never happens.
It’s made my life a lot easier since I live in Brooklyn, so there’s less traveling.  But, like I said, one of the residencies is really hard, so it balances out, since I don’t have to travel so much.  And I really...I think that’s it!  I feel like I’m doing so much, but that’s it.  There it is.  And, you know, there’s also Park Avenue Armory, creating...oh my gosh!  So there’s this dance company there now!  FLEXN!  This urban, very creative, stylized dance, using isolation, I can’t even describe it, but their piece is speaking to social issues.  And I’ll be doing pre-and post-show workshops around that.  Right now I’m in the creating stages of that.  Oh my god, that’s it!
That’s a lot.  So tell me what other creative projects of your own are you working on right now?
I’m writing what is either another solo play or a webseries.  And I haven’t made up my mind what it is.  I decided to just start writing and I’m going to let it tell me what it wants to be, how it wants to be told.  I’m very excited about it because I’m just starting to realize what it is.  Not in terms of how it wants to be told, but what it’s about.  And really, it’s about female relationships, my relationships with other women, and how I revere women, really, and how my own need to be isolated informs those relationships.  It’s also’s inspired by a lot of shows that I see that focus on women’s relationships on TV, like Girls, like Sex in the City, even Broad City, which I don’t really like, but you know, I keep seeing these great shows, but everyone’s always white.  And in my world, my friends, I hang out with women of all ethnicities, and I don’t understand why that’s not reflected more, especially in like a webseries, since that’s so cutting-edge and new, there’s no reason for it (a lack of diversity—KB).  So I wanted to do something that really reflected my life and the many many many different kinds of people that I know.  So that’s part of it as well, the whole racial aspect.  That’s where I’m headed.  And I’m very excited about it.
Very cool.
So that’s one project I’m working on.  And the other one is a possible production of a solo show that I’ve been doing for a long time, and that’s doing it’s own thing.  I have a literary agent reading it, and I’m hoping he’ll help me submit it, because I have a grant out for it and it would be great if I had some interest from a “real” theater that actually wants to do it without me totally producing it.  So, that’s kind of happening.  Other than that, I’m just auditioning.  I’m back out there on the audition circuit.  And oh lord!  That’s like...laugh a minute, that.
Excellent!  So that’s a lot of work on both the teaching and creative fronts.  And I know for myself, one of the most pressing questions as a Teaching Artist is how do you find balance?  How do you find systems or strategies for balancing your teaching and creative work?
I’m still looking for that balance.  You know what?  What I think it’s turning out to be, what I’m looking to try out next, because I keep trying things and they’re not working in terms of balance.  I’m either totally working on my show or I’m working too much as a Teaching Artist and I don’t have enough of my own art happening and I’m having to battle to do art.  And I think what I got going now is just acceptance of the ebb and flow.  Just accept it.   You know what I mean?  I’m not going to stop doing anything that I’m doing.  I love it.  I looooove working with kids.  I’m a highly creative being.  I love creating workshops, coming up with something new that’s going to knock their socks off, and that requires time.  So I’m always going to put that time in.  And because I don’t feel whole unless I’m creating something artistically...I’m always going to be writing something or performing something or acting in something, that’s just who I am, I think for me it’s just embracing all of it, and accepting it.  Okay, right now?  I’m mostly teaching, and a couple of months from now, I’ll probably be doing something artistic and mostly working on that.  This summer, I’m going to write and write and write.  And be very happy.  So I guess it’s that.  Where I get into trouble is, I don’t really always get enough rest.
Right!  (Laughter.)
And that’s where I’m all out of balance.  You know, I’m a runner, so I have to keep that going, so I’ll be tired, but I’ll run if I’m tired.  And I haven’t quite figured that out yet.  How to...
Always feel rested?  If that’s possible?
Yeah.  I think it is, though.  I think it is possible.  I think I’m learning...I’m studying a lot of philosophy.  Like I really have time for that, but I do.  So I’m learning philosophy, and I’m learning how to be more present, and that’s helped me a lot too.  I’m realizing that a lot of it is not the actual thing that I’m doing but the noise around it that makes me tired.  All the mental noise in my brain having its way with me.  It’s very exhausting.  And if I can really get into where I am at any given moment, I don’t feel anxiety and I don’t feel tired most of the time either, I just need to be present enough.  So I’m working on that.  It’s helpful.
Wise, Vickie!
 Thank you!
Can you talk a little bit about whether there’s overlap between your teaching work and your creative work?
Yeah, so I did a solo play that’s based on my experiences working with kids in an inner-city school.  The solo play is that.  And I’ve been performing it all over town, and overseas, and out of that, I also created a company called Play Solo, in which I help kids to write and perform solo plays about their own lives.  And so there’s overlap there, and it’s really fulfilling because I’m helping them create solo plays and helping them be artists and express themselves.  It’s a very creative, artistic experience for me, to help them write, and then direct what they write.  And so there’s overlap all over the place when it comes to my own company and my solo play.  Whenever I do my solo play, like I did it in Scotland over the summer and I worked with a group of young people there, a little drama company, and I taught them a little bit about solo performance.  So I’m always doing that.  I’m always doing that!
Do the organizations you work for support the connections between your teaching practice and your creative practice or has that been pretty much of your own making?
That’s been of my own making.  Roundabout, though, has supported that connection.  They asked me to come in and teach a workshop for other Teaching Artists around creating solo performance.  And they allow me to go out to schools and use my solo-play technique in order to help kids write and perform, not so much solo plays but scene work, too, because they know that I can do that so they use me for that.  I don’t know how many other people they use for that, but they’re always using me for that, even though Roundabout teaches a very different thing.  So they’re very supportive in that way.  I hadn’t really thought about it before.
They know what you do.
They know what I do and they love it, and they go, yeah, we want you to do that thing that you do.  So that’s something really cool.  Park Avenue Armory also encourages teaching artists to use their artistry in creation of lessons... they’ve even gone a step further and produced work written by one of their teaching artists which was truly beautiful... deeply inspiring. Both the work and the fact Park Avenue produced it. Other than that, it’s just me, it’s me, kind of forging new territory and trying to go out and meet people and trying to sell it.  And still, I’m working on it.  I’ve taught upstate a couple of years in a row.  And I’ve taught at Union College in Saratoga, and I’m just looking for more opportunities to do that.
So here’s the big head scratcher...if you could change one thing about your life as a Teaching Artist, what would it be?
That’s huge...what would I change?  You know what?  I’d be doing more of my own work, more solo play workshops, because that’s what’s really close to my heart.  I’d do mostly those workshops, teaching kids to write and perform solo plays about their own lives.  I would do more of those, and I would work for a precious few arts-in-education companies.  I’d farm myself out to maybe two or three.  Maybe not all year long.  Just do two or three residencies a year.   I think my life would be much simpler.
What would need to happen for that to be a reality?
I would need to market my Play Solo workshops more and I would have to get more people to buy it.  For that to happen, I have to take the steps, and this is what’s hard, because I’m already working so much doing all these residencies, I’m not able to, everyday, work on marketing, work on making connections, going to meet administrators.  Pounding the pavement, if that’s what I have to do.  The simple things, the steps it takes to even get a vendor number (for the Board of Ed.—KB), hitting colleges, sending out materials to them, those are the things that need to happen for my own company to take off.  And I think it will.  I think it will, actually.  It works.  It definitely works.  And I have work samples and all of these different things that you need to show people, I have that, but...I need to be able to spend more time with the business for that to happen.
Do you have any plugs for either your own teaching/creative projects or projects of people you admire?
Irondale is always doing innovative and really engaging theatre. And they are constantly having workshops and residencies for young people to keep them part of the theatre community and conversation.   Also, Ruddy Productions is a new theatre company in NYC, comprised mainly of  Maggie Flanigan Studio ex-students and other practitioners of the Meisner Technique. Their work is thoughtful and inspiring. Be on the lookout for a showcase this spring.   And finally, next fall I’ll have a reading or showing of Vickie Tanner’s new piece (whether it’s a web series or solo play).  The working title is “Leave Me Alone.”  (Laughter.)
Awesome!  (Laughter.)  Thank you so much, Vickie!
My pleasure!

Vickie Tanner teaching a Play Solo Workshop at Craigmillar Community Arts, Edinburgh, Scotland