Last week I traveled to New York to teach at the TAM Conservatory. This is an annual Arts Conservatory put on by the Eastern Territory of the Salvation Army. The Conservatory is for young people from 14-25 years of age and allows them to gain experience in such disciplines as drama, dance, acting for the camera, technical production, mime, video production and worship. In addition to a “major” area of study, students choose an “elective” area of interest, with options such as improvisation, script-writing, hip-hop dance, musical theatre, piano, play-back theatre or filming with a mobile device.
The schedule is demanding — starting at 8am each day and oftentimes going until 10pm or later — but the experience is also deeply rewarding. I am constantly blown away by the talent (and humility!) of the students and only wish that such an opportunity had been available to me at their age. The instructors are equally amazing, and sometimes I wish I could sneak away from my own teaching responsibilities to glean from them!
This was my fourth time teaching at the Conservatory, and each time I have come away with a deeper love of the arts and their ability to move us and speak to us on a deeper level. During the week, I enjoy the camaraderie of other Christian artists who are navigating the same waters as I am, those of being an artist and a person of faith, which can be a challenge at times. It is always refreshing for me to see how each artist uses their art form to speak hope into a broken world and does so in a way that is uniquely theirs.
One of the traps that many artists fall into, and one that I’ve been in myself at times, is that of comparison. Comparing oneself to other artists. This can be comparing one’s ability or even one’s level of success. Whatever it is, it’s not healthy. In recent years, I have come to embrace my own unique journey as an artist. I don’t do things the way that “Artist X” does, and that’s a good thing. This is not to say that I can’t learn from other artists — I certainly can and want to as much as possible. It is to say that I have to be true to myself and create the art that I feel I am uniquely made to create, instead of trying to be someone else.
Fittingly enough, the theme for our week was “The Role of a Lifetime: No Acting Please!” In addition to studying the different artistic disciplines, students (and instructors!) were invited to take an honest look at themselves and determine where they were being inauthentic in their lives. We were challenged to remove our “masks” and be our truest self — the self that God created and not the one that we have carefully constructed for the public.
I had the privilege of teaching a drama major class and with my group of four young women, we created a devised theatre piece called “Who Am I?” based on this theme. I had my group begin with a free-writing exercise where they wrote about themselves, answering such questions as, “Who am I? What do I love? What am I afraid of?” They could write as plainly or as poetically as they wanted.
From their writings, each member of the group choose four statements about themselves. These became the basis for our script. Together the students worked to create tableaus (frozen images) and living tableaus (moving images) of each other’s images. While I oversaw the process, I gave each student directorial rights over their own “story.” They were able to tell the others if the tableaus they had created had captured the essence of their words or not. If not, we allowed the writer to clarify their vision and began the process again. I was amazed by some of the discoveries we made along the way!
I loved watching the way the piece evolved and grew to reflect each human’s frantic search for identity in a world that sends us mixed messages about who we are and who we should be. I was proud of my students for their willingness to share from their hearts, believing that through their honesty others might have the courage to be honest with themselves as well. Certain “closed doors” or technical ideas that could not be realized ended up leading us to even greater creative choices, and this reaffirmed one of the things I most love about being a creative artist.
There is always risk involved when choosing to devise a script rather than start out with one, and this is the first time I had gone that route for TAM Conservatory. I am so glad that I took that creative leap and equally grateful that my students were willing to make it with me and to encourage me along the way. Most of all, I am thankful that over the years I have continued to learn the lesson to be myself, both in my every day life and in my work as an artist. Here’s to continued growth in that department for all of us!