I’m a student again!

One of the things I’ve noticed about my post-PhD life — especially since I started an alt-ac job about 10 months ago — is a strong desire to learn new things and be a student again. I don’t want my penny-pinching, whoops-there-goes-my-grant lifestyle back, but I really miss the luxury of just sitting back and learning something.

Of course, I’m always learning for my research: reading new things, meeting new people, writing different kinds of proposals or projects. But I’m always in the driver’s seat with stuff like that. I’m setting the work schedule; I’m creating the “assignments” for myself; I’m responsible both for the organizational side and the getting it done side of things.

In addition to missing the feeling of being a student, I was also longing for a creative outlet that went beyond the academic writing that I do after work almost every day — and almost every weekend, too.

Plus, my husband (!!) is 3000 miles away, waiting on the results of a visa application. I was staring down the barrel of a very, very long summer if I didn’t find another way to be with people and keep my mind occupied.

After unsuccessfully auditioning for a local drunk Shakespeare company, I started looking around for other opportunities.

And then a work colleague/friend who also does improv mentioned that she wanted to take a sketch comedy 101 class.

I used to write sketches for a Catholic theatre troupe that I was involved in as a teenager, and then for the Jewish summer camp that I worked for in college. I wrote a couple sketches for a Shakespeare-inspired show during my PhD. But I’d always written to a clear stimulus: a story from a text that needed to be explicated and made accessible for a broad audience. I had never learned how to write sketch just for the sake of it, or to draw inspiration directly from the world around me instead of from a given text.

Probably no one will be surprised to learn that it is ridiculously fun.

I wrote a sketch this week about a germaphobic preschool teacher during flu season for our “fish out of water” week. I’m drawing inspiration from a particularly frustrating email chain at work for this week’s “escalation” assignment. I’m learning, for the first time, the formal conventions behind sketch writing and comedy writing in general: why a particular scenario is funny, and how to replicate that in my own work.

For two and a half hours every week, I sit around a table with twelve other students and our hilarious, kind, wicked smart teacher Emmy and just make shit that’s funny. We read each other’s sketches; we talk about what’s working and what’s not; we watch and analyse vintage SNL, Key and Peeleand Monty Python. It’s awesome.

I think I love this class so much for a few reasons:

1. It’s amazing stress relief. Yes, we have assignments, but it’s super chill. And in class, we just sit around and laugh, and then talk about why we’re laughing, and laugh some more. It’s dedicated laugh time.

2. I get to write stuff that isn’t academic. Don’t get me wrong — I love what I’m working on academically, and where my research is going right now. But research can be exhausting, and having to generate stuff that is good and well thought-through on a tight time budget isn’t easy. Weirdly, having another writing assignment in my week has helped me stay focused, be more productive, and think more clearly when I’m doing academic stuff.

3. I always learn a lot about how to be a teacher by being a student. Emmy’s pedagogy is inclusive, compassionate, and rigorous all at the same time. She’s got a way of delivering critiques that always feels constructive, and she’s very generous with praise. I’m taking mental notes for the next time I get a chance to teach.

There’s not really a message or any deep analysis in this post. I’m learning again. I look forward to Thursday night class all week long. I wanted to share my joy!

I hope your summer brings you something that makes you as happy as sketch 101 has made me 🙂

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Lessons from Teenagers

My friends and I spent today today teaching drama workshops to 120 fourteen-year-old students.

Meanwhile, Boston is on lockdown. I’m horrified by the seemingly pointless violence perpetrated there and by the images of the city as a ghost town. I’m saddened by the idea that someone taught those men that it’s acceptable to kill people for a cause. I’m broken by the knowledge that the country issuing my passport authorises drone strikes that result in similarly needless deaths. I’m equally sickened by the knowledge  that people all over the world experience what Boston is experiencing–and much, much worse–every single day.

But my friends and I spent the day teaching kids about drama. I always feel good about teaching drama because I feel good about the values that it teaches. And today I was reminded of why I really like working with kids.

At the start of each session, we split the students into groups and forced them to work with kids they didn’t know, from schools that were not their own.

In my workshop, I asked them to create a short movement sequence based on an image of their choosing. They were working in pairs, and I purposely paired people who were not friends or classmates. These pairs–most of them strangers before the workshop– worked more openly with each other than most postgraduate students I’ve worked with. Every idea was met with approval; not a single suggestion was shot down. Each and every pair created something worth watching, and much of the work was highly creative. They were able to play together really wonderfully.

There was a beautiful moment when I asked them to talk about the inspirations for their movement pieces. One pair, who had done some excellent work, commented that their piece grew out of disagreement between them about whether their chosen image communicated strength or lightness (in Laban’s sense). Rather than fight about which was ‘right’, they incorporated both into the movement in order to reflect the apparent ambiguity in the image.

When it came to devising a slightly longer performance to present back to the larger group, everyone has something to contribute, and no one’s contribution was devalued. Nobody was devoiced. By and large, they were able to take each other’s ideas and run with them, build off of them, and create something great.

(Okay, so my first group’s presentation was based on Harry Potter, but it was inspired by the ‘magical’ experience they had doing drama with us all day! And it was adorable.)

When it came time for the groups to feed back to each other about their performances, not a single cruel or harsh comment was made. They critiqued each other intelligently and asked great questions, without the bile that so often can be felt in peer-led critique at higher levels.

My point is that these students were able to do something that I’ve seen very few adults able to do in the past few years: work together peacefully. No heads were bitten off, no one was mocked, and no one was devoiced ALL DAY LONG. I’ve only experienced one devising process that even approached that level of cooperation. And I know the skeptics will say that it’s good to question everything and it’s best not to take the first idea that comes along in process and that disagreement creates healthy debate and variety, and they’re absolutely right. Critique helps us to grow. But it’s also important to take others’ ideas into account, to disagree without hating, and to critique with empathy. These kids were able to do those things. They weren’t perfect, and there were times when their insecurities and immaturities definitely showed. But they weren’t cruel to each other.

So in the midst of chaos in Boston and drone strikes God-knows-where and threats from North Korea and who knows how many corrupt governments, maybe the lesson from these students is that it’s okay to disagree and still be friends–that it’s possible to communicate effectively and passionately without bombs or threats or cruelty.

I mean, come on–if 120 fourteen-year-olds can manage it, what’s wrong with us?

Why I still need parents

‘Gosh, it’s been a while since your last post! You must have been busy lately!’

Understatement of the century, right there.

I’m fully aware that this is the definition of a first-world problem, but there are simply not enough hours in the day lately. Between Set Me Free, Stone No More (an adaptation of the Winter’s Tale and the Masque of Oberon), and my MA dissertation, I’m swamped. Add to that the extra-curricular Wars of the Roses project for RSC Open Stages, prepping for my summer job in America, trying to sort out my student visa for next year, and maintaining my job as a private tutor, and things get a little bit insane. Is it back-breaking physical labor in the scorching heat of some god-forsaken desert? Nope. Do I have some kind of terrible disease that I have to physically fight every day? Negative. Have I ever experience true, soul-crushing hardship? Definitely not.

If I’m being brutally honest with myself, I love every second of my life lately. I’m doing work I love, with amazing people, in an amazing place. And I get to go back to America to work in an amazing place with more amazing people in a few weeks. Then I get to come back to Exeter and continue doing amazing work with amazing people at one of the best drama departments in the UK. Some days, though, I get unfairly negative about it all, and that’s when my dad steps in to help.

When we were kids, if we complained about something not worth complaining about, my dad used to say, ‘I’m sorry, but did you walk to Syria today?’ See, the twelve-year-old version of great-grandfather, after seeing his family home blown to bits and his parents annihilated, had to escape from Lebanon with his baby brother. So they walked to Syria.

Besides proving that the blood of rock-solid survivors who make tough decisions and get shit done runs thick in my veins, my dad’s old question never fails to help me put things in perspective. At the end of the day, if I can honestly say, “No, I did not walk to Syria today,” then I’m probably doing okay.

My great-grandfather walked to Syria with his baby brother. I’ll definitely survive my MA.

Thanks, Dad.

Ars artis gratia?

Here’s a daydream I’ve been developing for some time: every artist in the world takes a month off.

Imagine: if everyone who is either self-defined or societally defined as an “artist” stopped working for 30 days–and also pulled the usage rights to any of their previously existing work for the same amount of time. This would include people who have ‘day jobs’ and are artists on their own time. This would include actors, dancers, musicians, photographers, painters, graphic designers, poets, novelists…the list goes on endlessly. Anyone who considers himself an artist or is considered by her peers to be an artist would be included in the global strike. If that happened, I don’t think anyone would ever again argue that art is not important ever again.

There are several reasons why this would never actually work (and why I don’t support actually doing it!!). Chiefest in my mind is the fact that we’d have an awful lot of insane or suicidal artists at the end of the 30 days in which they vowed to make no art and to allow no consumption of art. I know I’d be ready to jump off of something by the end of the first week!

But what would be great about it (besides a temporary lack of terrible pop music…) would be the awareness it would bring of just how much art and artists permeate our day-to-day lives.

It’s just a fantasy…but gosh darn, wouldn’t it be nice?

“I am not a slut…

…though I thank the god(des)s I am foul.” ~As You Like It

I’m not a hardcore feminist by any means, but I still don’t think it’s okay to call someone a slut, especially when you don’t know her personally and especially when you’re being broadcast for an awful lot of people to hear. I would apply this stance to other derogatory terms (for both sexes). I would further apply this stance to anyone, anywhere, no matter what his or her politics. That’s a long way of saying that there was certainly a better way for Mr. Limbaugh to voice his objections–but he is by no means the only one who uses this kind of language.

Just to dispel a few myths I’ve seen floating around FB:

*The Pill is NOT available over the counter (at least not in the US, Canada, or the UK!). The Plan B or ‘morning after’ pill IS, but this is explicitly not meant to be used on a regular basis.

*There are lots and lots of reasons that women take the Pill. Most of these have nothing to do with sexual activity.

*A Catholic doctor / hospital / institution can prescribe birth control in good moral conscience if it is being prescribed to treat a medical condition (ie, debilitating cramps) rather than for contraceptive purposes. I do not know if this applies equally to other sects of Christianity or other religions that oppose the use of birth control.

Let’s all think before we speak.

Priorities

In the run up to the 2012 US presidential election, there has been loads of controversy cropping up regarding various politicians’ positions on various issues. The most recent and perhaps the most far-reaching example is last week’s birth control/insurance hearing at which no female witnesses were called to testify.

In a world where economies are crashing, regimes are collapsing, and wars are raging, some in America have expressed the feeling that the US president (whoever he or she may be in January 2013) should be chosen based solely on those ‘bigger issues’. They argue that it’s entirely justifiable to vote for a candidate who doesn’t match their own views on, say, birth control and insurance policies if said candidate ticks all their boxes on the (perceived) bigger issues of domestic (read: economic) and foreign policy.

I’m not by any means arguing that a presidential candidate should not have a solid plan for the economy and America’s place in the world–both are hugely important issues. But I’d like to ask this question: when do the ‘little things’ become important? When does birth control or school curricula or the environment matter enough to be something that we choose a president by? In any global scenario I can imagine, there will be war and poverty and turmoil; those things never go away. Looking at ancient art tells us that those things have been around at least since humanity was capable of making cave drawings. So if the big things will always be issues, at what point do we decide to care about the other stuff? And how do we prioritize the other stuff once we start thinking about it?

Christmas Music

DISCLAIMER: I love Christmas music more than I love ponies and rainbows. The frustration expressed via comedy in this post in no way reflects my general attitude toward Christmas music.

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Now that (American) Thanksgiving has passed us by, it’s officially normal, acceptable, and even desirable to begin playing Christmas music!

There is a playlist on my iTunes specifically for this time of the year, but I learned today that the “shuffle” feature is never more necessary than when listening to Christmas music. Why? Well…

There are no less than eight versions of “Silent Night” on my Christmas playlist. EIGHT! Now, I don’t know about you, but I enjoy all the verses of “Silent Night” the first time around. Harry Connick’s version is significantly different from Sinatra’s, so the second time’s okay, too. But by number three, I’m skipping past all the other “Silent Night”s on the list and frantically clicking “shuffle.”

The experience made me wonder, however, and I checked up on how many versions of other Christmas favourites had made their way into my playlist:

There are three recordings of the “Twelve Days of Christmas”…just imagine thirty-six days of Christmas that repeat themselves every twelve days, and the calling birds and French hens and turtle doves that come in between, with the last set of twelve being sung by the Muppets.I love the Muppets desperately (and can’t wait to see their new film!!!!!), but after twenty-four days of Christmas, I’m ready for a break.

“The Christmas Waltz” gets four repeats, which shouldn’t be so bad since it’s a relatively short song with only one verse. Having only one verse, however, significantly increases one’s awareness of that verse’s repetition, causing “The Christmas Waltz” to become “The Christmas Waltz of Sheer Insanity.”

But let’s not forget my favourite: the six variations on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town!” An hour later…Santa Claus is STILL coming to town. If you haven’t written your list and checked it twice by then, there’s no hope for you, my friend. You either don’t believe in Santa, or you’re way too lazy to deserve presents.

Needless to say, I will be utilizing the “shuffle” feature on my iTunes at all times in the future–or at least until after Christmas!