What is your primary artistic medium?
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
When my first child was a baby, I was a professional actor but most of my jobs were out of town and paid very little. I couldn’t travel like that anymore with a baby and I definitely was at a cross roads in my career. I always thought teaching might be something I would be good at. I liked kids, and I wanted to continue to use my skills in theatre. I also thought being a teaching artist, rather than a full time classroom drama teacher, was better for me because I still had artistic goals and passions and I didn’t want to give up my acting career. Being a teaching artist would allow me the flexibility I needed as I redefined what being an actor was for myself. I also had spent a summer working at a camp as the theatre director and also had done a couple children’s theatre tours. So, I thought it might be a good fit for me. I started working in an after school enrichment program with kids ages 5-15. It was the beginning of a long and varied career as a teacher.
What led you to Creative Aging?
A colleague invited me to co-teach with him in one of the first pilot programs Lifetime Arts had initiated in the New York Public Library. He knew that I had some experience with working with older folks in a theatre collective I was a part of and was doing a lot of ethnographic theatre with these people to bring their stories to life. I wanted to do more work in storytelling, memoir and performance in a more organized capacity and he believed I met be well-suited for the memoir and performance workshop series he was teaching.
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
The biggest surprise is how much I learn from my students. I am always blown away by their work and I am always impressed with their willingness to be vulnerable and share their stories. They often teach me more about truthfulness and wisdom than I could ever teach them!
What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?
There are lots of similarities when working with kids and adults. You need to have clear and structured instruction, universal design, and meet all students where they are at and meet each of their unique learning styles.
However, with older adults the goals for each student is always very different. There is no benchmark standard that must be met to consider that student successful. It takes a lot more time to determine what the goal is for each older adult student and determining what success will look like for them. Older adult students come in with all levels of experience, so some students may be able to write a short story in one class, while another may only be able to write a few words. However, it is the growth and quality of skill development that happens from whatever their starting point is that matters.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
The biggest challenge for me has always been making sure that all students have equal voice and get my equal attention. There have always been one or two students per workshop that could dominate the class if the class is not properly managed and structured. I have learned to use very specific techniques with structuring my class so that no one voice prevails the whole time. It is a delicate practice but so important to building trust and building communication skills and storytelling.
What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?
Watching my students grow in confidence and seeing their absolute joy in the artistic process is so fulfilling. They often say they didn’t think they had a story to tell and that through the class they discovered their voice and had a story that was worth telling. There is nothing that I have been more proud of than that in my work as a teacher.
What have been memorable/funny moments?
Just recently I was invited back to attend a session with some students I taught over two years ago. They continue to meet every week at the same time as we met when I taught their class at the library where the class met. They meet without a teacher and share writing and give assignments to one another and set goals for themselves. I attended and was so thrilled to see every one of them – all 10 students were there and all had continued their writing practice. They shared their working with me over the next couple of hours. Much of their work was about their lives now and what had happened in their lives in the last couple of years. Some had lost parents, had grandchildren, traveled, and one woman had lost her husband since I had seen her two years before. She read a beautiful piece about how she couldn’t get rid of any of his things and had left a cup of water he had last drunk from on her bedside table for more than a year/ trying to hold onto him anyway she could. Needless, to say we all teared up and were so touched by her story. It was such an honor to listen to their stories and I was humbled by their gracious sharing. And as I walked back to my car after the session, I was so proud of the work we do. I realized these people have formed a family of artists, writers, and friends, and they are there to support each other now through all of life’s challenges and triumphs. To think, that I had a small part in helping to establish this community was so gratifying.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
Compassion, listening and flexibility
How does this work inform your own artistic process?
I have recently acted in several projects and I feel more connected and grounded as an actor. I think the practice of true listening and being constantly aware of sharing voice in a room has made me a stronger more connected actor. I listen better than I used to and I am much more present than I used to be. I remember I used to be more in my head. Sometimes, I would be pretending to listen but really thinking about my next line. I’ve noticed that I don’t do that as much anymore. I listen to my fellow actor’s words and have faith my line will come bubbling back in a more real connected way if I just allow the space for connection.
What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?
I am going to go to the Edinburgh fringe festival next week with a play called Splitfoot with The Piper Theatre Company http://www.pipertheatre.org/.
This fall I am performing in the Untied Solo theatre festival with the one woman show Walking Toward America http://walkingtowardamerica.wordpress.com/
I will direct A Space Between’s production of The Red Dress at University Settlement in November. http://www.a-space-between.org
I am also busy with a couple of creative aging trainings through the fall months
Thank you Annie for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.