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 goodness...seven? 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 about...it’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.
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.
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.
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!
|Vickie Tanner teaching a Play Solo Workshop at Craigmillar Community Arts, Edinburgh, Scotland