Working as a Teaching Artist at Memorial Preparatory for Scholars and Athletes… I’ve learned it all comes down to the “Magic of the Chalk Circle”:
In the fall of 2015 I started a new school year as a Teaching Artist for San Diego Opera. I came in excited to get the students involved in music and theatre. When I attended Memorial as an adolescent, I loved my experience with the San Diego Junior Theatre outreach program, and thought for sure my students would also be excited for the opportunity. I was wrong. Immediately I noticed there were some key differences that shaped their perspectives vs my own.
Whereas I enrolled in the theatre program after school voluntarily, these students are enrolled in a daytime class that requires a grade. Another key difference is that most of these students have had little exposure to live theatre, music or art. My family took me to free concerts, live theatre and museums my whole life. I was trying to engage them from a place of, “Yeah, we all love this so let’s focus and make some art!” Whereas I came to learn they were approaching it from a perspective of “Damn. Something else I HAVE to do… this makes me feel uncomfortable, and NO I don’t feel like participating.” (Even if maybe they couldn’t have verbalized it as such.)
The initial classes consisted of students complaining about having to participate, not wanting to stand, chatting with each other, being disrespectful in any number of ways and indicating a general discontent. As a teaching artist I was frustrated and disappointed, and as students they were completely disengaged from the process. It was my first week on the job and I already felt like a failure.
The turning point was a conversation I had with John Gabriel, the Director of Education for School Programs for San Diego Opera. We talked about ways we could get the students engaged and thus committed to their own learning process. It clearly wasn’t going to happen (their participation) unless they felt invested. Over the course of that conversation I was struck by a memory I have from when I was a kid, involving the Fern Street Circus. They are an organization that opened shop in pre-gentrified Golden Hill (before the term South Park even existed) who put on a circus every year in our local park and taught circus arts.
(A picture of Grape Street Park I found on “yelp!”)
The first year they performed it was a simple, yet fascinating production. The actors were people in homemade costumes, clowns, ventriloquists, contortionists, and dancers. Their performance was tied together by a very loose plot that allowed the show to flow. The stage was set in Grape Street Park (now known as THE dog park in San Diego), and was literally a chalk circle in the grass. You bought your ticket at the ticket booth (a thin wooden facade of an old style box office), walked into the roped off area where there was the “stage.” It was an engaging show, and I remember (as a budding singer who loved performing) sitting on the grass and feeling inspired by how accessible it all was.
However this isn’t actually about the Fern Street Circus… it’s about that chalk circle in the grass. For almost a year after the circus packed up and left the park, that circle remained. My mom and I would walk the dogs at night in the park, and every time we passed that circle, its pull was irresistible. It was located in a far corner of the park, and lit up by a single yellow(ish) park lamp. With every lap I would HAVE to hop into the circle, do a little routine and then step back out as if nothing had happened. It was MAGIC. That line in the grass indicated a special, almost sacred space where art could come alive. Time and space were suspended and I could become someone else ON STAGE.
It suddenly hit me- this was the missing link. This is what didn’t click for my students. They haven’t been exposed to theatre, art and live music the way I had been as a kid. They haven’t had the chance to understand the magic or power of theatre… the ability to re-invent oneself, escape, create a new world, suspend time, and tell stories. Middle schoolers are dealing with any number of challenging circumstances, I think it’s part of the awkward “teenage” experience… wouldn’t they love to be able to escape, re-invent themselves, or speak their minds? I firmly believe the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” However over the course of that conversation I realized they had to understand the process first.
From there my job and the focus of the program went from “teach them how to sing and tell their stories”, to first we need to expose them to the power of theatre. I started to show them performances on youtube, including some of my recitals, we had Macedonio Arteaga Jr. from Teatro Izcalli come to tell stories and encourage them to tell their own stories. The whole Teatro Izcalli crew even came and performed in the Memorial Prep theatre, showing the students how their own space could come alive with just a few simple props, a little music and some lighting.
(Macedonio Arteaga Jr. and some of the other talented actors from Teatro Izcalli onstage at Memorial Prep.)
The transformation has been palpable, and “buy-in” from the students has shot up. The disruptive and disrespectful behavior has subsided (let’s be real, they’re middle schoolers there will always be disruptions). However the more they are experiencing this world of music and theatre, the more I see them lighting up with all the possibilities. For some it’s the excitement of being backstage, or helping with front of the house responsibilities, whereas others clearly have been bitten by the onstage bug.
Just recently I was working on an arrangement for one of the songs for their holiday concert. I thought, no… let them chose what they want to do with this song. It’s the 1950’s classic, “Quizás, quizás, quizás” (Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps!) and there are many ways to play with both the music and words. I figured we could experiment with singing in English and in Spanish, or maybe with small groups of boys and girls… little did I realize how limited my vision was! With minimal prompting, the students came up with the idea of acting out a small scene before singing (using the dialogue from the song), then going into the Spanish text, singing an English verse where the boys and girls argue back and forth, and to tie it all up at the end with a repeat of the Spanish lyrics. Consider my mind blown.
(With Mark Lamson getting ready for the Winter Concert.)
They get it now. They are invested. They are officially taking it to the next level and their ideas are officially better than mine. Today is their final performance at the holiday concert and their final rehearsal last week was a complete joy. Yes they were squirrely (they are middle schoolers on the verge of winter break), but their enthusiasm and work ethic tell me they are different people. They stood the entire rehearsal with no complaints, they listened and improvised right along with me to make improvements to their songs, and most importantly they joyfully sang their hearts out!
(They’re into it now! And singing!)
I could not be more proud. I hope that some day they too can see the potential, feel the excitement and recreate the magic of something as simple as that chalk circle. Then music and art IS for them, not just the elite. It’s accessible and it becomes a realistic outlet for whatever they are dealing with in their lives. I know it has been for me.
Keep listening and reading,
Anishka (aka Nishi la Tremenda)