photo Brian Pounds, Connecticut Post
In a decade of leading workshops for kids and adults I've figured out that though I might teach adults sometimes, kids are really my teachers. I can show them some things they didn't know about, but I always come out of schools having gotten schooled myself.
Last September I joined the teaching team of After School at the Klein (ASK), a performing arts program free to public high school students in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Brand new, thanks to a grant from the Board of Education, we were building from scratch and I was lucky enough to be invited to create a puppetry class.
Bridgeport is a rough and tumble city. Walking home isn't necessarily safe, much less self expression. Arts classes in public schools are not usual. The ASK program was made to bring students together with artists working in theater, expose them to all aspects of the performing arts, and be a safe environment for artistic and self exploration.
One of the first orders of business was to carve out some teaching spaces with very little budget. We turned an old office into a dance studio with a sprung floor thanks to some materials donations.
It was down to the wire, teachers and interns found themselves in the midst of construction during orientation.
Puppetry happily made its home in the Trap Room, the basement under the stage. Here we could make every kind of mess possible. We started the first semester with an exploration of materials, all easily found and often discarded, to discredit the notion that you can't make art unless you can afford expensive things from art stores. Then we played with every type of puppet: finger, hand, shadow, rod, bunraku-esque. And then moved into making large papier mache puppet heads.
There were a couple of natural born puppeteers. Anthony had a love for fabric that surpassed even my own, and could pull a puppet together out of anything. I once found him in a stairwell listening to someone practicing violin. "Brahms," he said. "I really love Brahms." Anthony! This is him discovering his phoenix.
And Tameika, a blossom of ferocious artistic determination. More like myself than any student I've yet met, but a hundred times braver and more sure of herself. She knows what she needs in order to do what she loves, and doesn't put up with anything that gets in the way of it. She came to my class because she had a dream of herself as a puppet. Here she is working on her Ghost Girl head.
It wasn't always easy-- the concept of sticking through for the long haul was new to many, and no small obstacle to overcome was the keen aversion to cornstarch papier mache paste.
But by the end of the semester they were looking at junk and puppets in a new way, and we put a foot in the doorway opening to the limitless possibilities in their own hands.
But true to my theory, the biggest revelation was mine. Somewhere along the way I realized how lucky I had been to have art given to me through my family, and how it empowered me to create a world of my making to be in when the outside world was less than ideal.
Some of these students are living in a world that is failing them all the time. Art isn't going to sustain all of them, but for the ones which it can, ASK is determined to make a space for them to be able to find it.
In puppetry, it might just be the introduction of a new tool, or instruction on something as simple as how to angle scissors to get a good point cut.
And in other cases, maybe it was more. But with this work, seeds are planted for trees you don't expect to ever sit under. You just keep planting and planting because someone planted for you.
But puppets were just a fraction of the program which also included acting, stage craft, hip hop, Shakespeare, flash mob, film making, singing, and drumming. A great article about it in the CT Post is here.
We went bigger in the second semester, so big it needs its own post! That's coming next.