By Carrie Hage, YPT Resident Artist Educator
I was delighted when I got the news that I was accepted to work as a Resident Artist Educator at YPT, and couldn’t wait to start off the new year working in schools and communities. With the popular production of James and the Giant Peach on YPT’s mainstage this past February and March, a big part of my role was to deliver pre and post-show workshops in schools across Toronto. Over the years, I have done a lot of workshops in schools as an artist-educator, but have always worked with classes over a period of time, and had yet to experience a “one-off” workshop with students. I was looking forward to it!
For these workshops, planning started with a group brainstorm with fellow RAEs, and YPT’s Education & Participation Department (Amber, the School and Community Programs Manger, and Aimee, Interim Member Schools Manager.) We looked at the themes from the musical production of James and the Giant Peach, such as power and agency, status, building family, and discussed what our objectives were for the workshops. For me, I was particularly interested in addressing power dynamics in society with the primary grades, and wanted students to find ways to show how someone can change a situation and have their voice heard. These are big concepts, and I found it exciting and challenging to find appropriate games and exercises that would make these ideas relatable to young students.
During this same planning session, it was mentioned that another good objective for these workshops is to remind teachers that loud and active sessions do not necessarily equate chaos. I took this advice to heart and set off to deliver workshops that asked ‘what does a family look like?’ to kindergartners and ‘what does it mean to have your voice heard?’ to primary years.
A month into delivering workshops in schools, I was surprised by the teachers that would comment to me about the students’ ‘silly’ behaviour. Yes, the volume would often get louder, and the students would get more excited, but what I was always interested in was the fact that all the students were engaging with the exercises, and trying something new. I found myself in a tricky position at times in which I was a guest in the classroom, but part of my intention in being there was to change the relationship the students usually have with the space both physically and perhaps emotionally. I wanted to alter space so students would look through a different lens and become open to making new discoveries. A workshop would entail moving the desks and chairs to the side, asking the students to use the whole space for the warm-up, which often called for moving around like insects and working in groups at a fast pace to create 10 second tableaux that would then be shared.
Ironically, I found myself at times in my own power struggle because I was questioning my authority in the room, and thought maybe I wasn’t modelling the leadership I was asking of the students when I accepted comments like ‘silly behaviour’ from some teachers.
The more I witnessed different class dynamics, the more I came to really appreciate that my asking students to jump into an activity with trust and vulnerability demanded students to be brave and curious. This leap into the unknown is where creative risks can occur, and where students can build qualities of empathy, listening and self-confidence. What some teachers called ‘silly’ behaviour, I would call a sense of play. I left the one-off workshops with a better understanding of what my role as the artist in the classroom can entail: In order to get to the social topics that I want to address, I have to not only ask the students to take a leap with me, but the teachers as well. Working in partnership with the teachers is key, and finding a way to communicate intentions and objectives in a short period of time does not only become a goal I have with the students, but something I am learning to develop with teachers. Let’s play!