Un-uniquely, I sit in a swivel chair at my desk at work. It’s a new chair, thanks to the thoughtfulness of one of our student’s parents, who bequeathed a lot of office furniture to us recently. About 8 months ago, I decided that the visual stimulation from our office, which is a shared space between production management and props was too distracting for me to stay focused during zoom meetings and work. I’ve always contended that I am a self-diagnosed unmedicated ADHD… hmmmm…. what is the word? Not sufferer, because I think it is the root of my superpower, but…. well it doesn’t matter. Time to move on. Anyway, I pivoted my position and turned to the wall, rotating my desk and keyboard and monitors so that I was facing into the corner, rather than out into the room.
This was, I acknowledge now, an error in judgement.
In general, we don’t turn out enough. I spend a lot of time in that cockpit of concentration, delving through and responding to the devil’s work, aka email, about 80% of my days (and were I to be truthful, evenings and weekends). The email begets tasks which bilge more email. The university has given us Slack, no, not slack with a small s, which would be well-deserved leeway from engaging full tilt with academic tasks, but Slack, the equivalent of work texting. I actually am a big fan of Slack, because many of the questions engendered by long threads of email can be answered quickly, unequivocally, finally, in Slack.
The politics of email are fraught. There’s often no way to win. I went down a path in my desperate attempt to stay concurrent with the questions this week, and wrote an email intended as a genuine inquiry, which because of the timestamp and the number of people on the thread, created a feeling of call out. Which got me to thinking about intent vs. impact.
I thought about the times in the past few weeks when I turned out from my cockpit of concentration, removing the literal headset from my ears, and turning to “visit” with the musician’s contractor who came to pick up the scores for our next musical. Yes, he may have stayed a little too long, but we had a conversation about life outside of work. The things that really matter. Big questions like “what comes after work?” “How do we build the time to live our lives outside of work?” These are the questions that make turning out and turning up so critical. I think these are the conversations we are supposed to be having with our students as well, by the way, the types of conversations that create a generosity of spirit and reduce harm. And we are constrained by the tasks and timetables from having these big picture conversations with our students, as well as our colleagues. These conversations are not peripheral to their education, nor to their experience of that education.
Turning out means hearing the subtext of what you are talking with people about. Underlying issues of self-doubt, figuring where in the grand scheme of things one belongs, standards of self-measurement; all these things factor into issues that are stressing the students, staff and faculty with whom I engage daily. I feel so fortunate to be teaching this GESM each fall, which exposes non theatre students to the process of playmaking and producing plays, through examining closely the texts and the processes of producing. A few weekends ago, with the opening of our first production, Wedlock of the Gods by Zulu Sofola, there was a lot of joy and belonging experienced by everyone who has been engaged in the rehearsal process, as well as my students in the GESM, one of whom sent me photos of her and several classmates who attended the opening night.
We’re in the position as instructors to students of this pandemic-closing era, as we lower our masks, reduce the frequency of our testing, and watch the detritus of the past three years of isolation and uncertainty and loss wash up around our feet on the beach of education/theatre/life, to truly engage with the question how have we changed or been changed by what we’ve been through? What matters to us now, versus what mattered to us before the world sickened and found through our sickening the vast shortcomings of so many of our systems?
Everything we do as educators is filtered through this lens. Both our productions this weekend, a minimalistic, tight reexamination of Carrie: The Musical, and a visually fractured exploration of Nora: A Doll’s House ask us to look at ourselves and the impact of forces on life as a high-schooler in a bullying culture, or what constitutes appropriate wifeliness through three different eras.
I love working in the theatre. Always have, probably always will. The opportunity to make theatre that has been examined by creative directors to answer “what was important about this play when it was written?” and “why is it important to look at this play now and how is it still relevant?” When Carrie was written back in 1988, we were strangers to the possibility of a classroom littered with the bodies of dead students. We didn’t have the internet to imagine the possibilities of how bullying could impact a student not just in the classroom, but also in the isolation of a “social” environment through social media. Similarly, the adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by Stef Smith invites us to see how much and how little our lives as women and wives has really changed.
In my GESM, I ask my students to look at those questions, as well as probe deeply about what matters to them as current students. I ask it in terms of “What are the things that keep you up at night?” This is my somewhat sneaky way to find out why these plays that we spend so much energy and time putting together and bringing to life truly matter. I turn out a lot to engage the makers of these experiences to come to my class to talk with my students.
Friday I had the opportunity to showcase the design and production teams for both the above shows during our Trojan Family Weekend. We met for a 50-minute session and the students talked about their creative processes, challenges and triumphs to a rapt body of parents numbering close to 100. I was so proud of how each of them discussed their processes of collaboration honestly, authentically, and sometimes critically. But I’m even prouder of what they’ve executed on stage. You can see photos of their work here for Carrie: The Musical, and here for Nora: A Doll’s House.
It behooves us all to continue to swivel out and evolve and examine what truly matters as we continue to make theatre and educate our students.
Wonderful reflection, Els. Thanks! xoxo
Turn out, swivel out, cockpit of conversation – !!!👏
So honored to be featured!! I loved both plays so much 😀