Jamie Gahlon has asked theater artists from around the country to talk about their personal search for an artistic home. Ashley Forman continues this series.
What is an artistic home? The dictionary leads me to believe that a home is a place of residence and refuge. Ideally, a home is also the place where you are always welcome. It is where you go to hang your hat, to recover, to develop, to heal and to experiment. Like your childhood home, your arts home will leave a mark on you and will in turn be influenced by your unique voice. And like any home, an artistic home can be complicated—troubled, supportive, broken, or stable. Ideally when artists are at home, particularly young artists, they feel safe enough to take huge risks, knowing that if they fall they will be caught and if they fly they will be supported.
I am not sure that every artist finds that, or if every arts organization strives to be that for its artists. I do think that being a Director of Education, and specifically of Voices of Now, I am in a unique position to create a feeling of belonging and inspiration to scores of young artists. I worry daily if I am succeeding. There are infinite ways to nurture and inspire. What works for one may not work for another. Certainly everyone has a unique view of home.
Where and how did you find yours and what does it mean to you? Many of us have a golden memory of our first, formative arts experience. It is the story arts educators frequently have to share at professional development workshops. (I often suspect a fraction of those stories are made up). For me, I was eleven years old and my parents took me to see M. Butterfly and of course, I was changed forever. (That is absolutely not made-up by the way) I remember everything about it, the color of the seats, my too-grown outfit, my Father’s shock and then delight when the secret was revealed. I believe your first magical arts experience can set you on a path. That night, after M. Butterfly, I fell in love with surprise, risk and audience address. In my third or fourth year at Arena Stage we mounted productions of M. Butterfly and The Goat in the same season. I should have known then that I was in the right place.
Arena Stage’s Voices of Now, a devised theater program for young artists began as a terrifying and rickety venture. Like many arts education programs it started out feeling like a leap into a chasm filled with equal parts bleakness and opportunity. My partner teacher, Psalmayene 24 and I wanted to put artists on stage who had, in many cases, never seen a play. We asked them to be generous and prolific writers, knowing full well that they were products of a failing school system and reading years below grade level. We demanded they develop into disciplined and expressive movers, abstract thinkers and generous collaborators. We had absurdly high standards for the final product, and still do. And all the while we asked them to trust that we knew what we were doing. We worked with that first Ensemble in Southwest DC hoping to create something honest and polished that would get to the heart of the stories of the youth who were at the center of so much conflict at the time. Increasing gang activity in the Southeast quadrant of D.C. had made elder/youth relations fraught with tension. It was rocky and miraculous. Truly it took nearly a decade before the program seeped into the culture of the theater and the community. As the program grew, (from one to eleven ensembles) we realized that we were onto something substantive and provocative, and exciting and limitless. We were in the amazing position to provide a home base for hundreds of young artists and their families. I absolutely found my home in Voices of Now.
How can one create and/or build an artistic home for others? This year Voices of Now is made up of 150 artists ages 11-25. Ensembles run the gambit from suburban ensembles in Fairfax VA, to D.C. residents in their early twenties dealing with the stigma of HIV or the trauma of losing loved ones to violence. We partner with grief counseling organizations, Child and Family Services, middle schools and parents to create a community of young artists all in it for the same reasons, to start a discussion, to celebrate and transform life experiences into art, to inspire, engage and inform, to pose questions, to do something challenging. I believe I cannot ask of these young artists what I ask, without doing everything in my power to make the program and the theater a home for them. Therefore, I have become committed to doing the following things to the best of my ability:
Listen. Give. Be consistent. Be generous. Find love. Wonder. Provide the space. Be flexible. Invest in your artists. Invest in the people who support the art. Bring food.
It’s a start.
What is the artistic home of the future? Who knows? Does the notion of home really change? The world changes, technology changes, language shifts, aesthetics change but people’s primal desire for nurturing and exploration will never diminish. The ideal future home for young artists will support honest discourse and encourage bold exploration while investing steadily in the developing skills of participants and artists. Ideally, artists will be able to engage with the art on multiple levels, as audience members, creators, performers, philosophers and activists. The perfect home will nurture, feed, challenge, comfort and celebrate its artists. And of course there will be pizza.