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On Possibility and Pauses

I’d like to consider the pause.

It’s not a full stop. It’s not a hold. It’s a moment when you can feel the engine still running, a moment of stillness before we roll forward. The pause is, perhaps, a specifically human measure of time. We know how long a pause is: as long as it needs to be. There’s also such satisfying onomatopoetic possibility in the word itself.

Pause.

I’m starting to think that the goal of my work as a teaching artist is to advocate the pause.

Teaching in the humanities, I like to think that we teach people how to connect to, use, and master their own humanity. This might mean helping them to express themselves, to fill the negative space around them or funnel their energy in some creative way outside their body. Or it might mean helping them absorb the culture or energy or expression outside their bodies. It might mean simply getting them to pause.

I recently spoke with a colleague about the goal of arts classes. There is a pressure to teach students about the way the world works, to prepare them for the job market. There is also a (perceived) opposing pressure to encourage their artistic selves, and help them find their voices. I wonder if you can’t do both.

In 1983, Zbignew Cynkutis, a Polish theatre artist, was a visiting professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Following his time in the college’s theatre department, he wrote back to the chairperson of the department in an essay titled, “To Be and To Have,” advocating a drastic restructuring of the department’s theatre pedagogy. He begins his remarks:

“Personally, I feel that we have entered a historical period of extreme danger not only to life but to culture and society as well. It obligates us to use time creatively. Rejecting what is inessential, we should concentrate on the source-values from which life-carrying processes draw their energy. By investigating and creating educational programs from them we may activate a development of consciousness, discipline, responsibility, courage, and independence on the part of our students.

What I am saying will no doubt be controversial, but the time has come for plain speaking. Hard times need wisdom. Lack of wisdom, in such times, leads to social catastrophes on a global scale. Today we are facing not only social catastrophes, but also the threat of ecological cataclysm. It is a time which demands our greatest efforts, both as artists and as teachers“ (51-52).

Of course, his sentiment rings timely now, over three decades later. (And though he was writing specifically about theatre training, his thoughts apply to all arts training.) It is impossible to escape the world and impossible to shut out the realities that await our students when they leave our classrooms. Hope is sometimes difficult to corral, even though, as educators, our task is to constantly look at and to the future. Often, the hope comes from the students themselves.

To that end, Cynkutis continues his manifesto, describing how students use their time in school to both educate their minds and hone their identities. Arts training, “[…] allows the student to search, not just intellectually but through the senses, for harmony in a world bristling with conflicts and contradictions.” Students must test themselves against the woes of self-consciousness, failure, and peer pressure. Through these tests, they develop their own perspective and refine the facts of their experience.Т  This experience, this declaration of self then seeks an outlet in whatever form it can find. Cynkutis writes, “At such moments, an actual meeting takes place between their expectations and the source-power of art in which personal experience becomes translated into creative expression. But it may only originate as an act of freedom” (52).

Whoa. Freedom?

I’ll admit, to think of what we do as teaching freedom rocks me on my heels a bit. Freedom is a tricky concept in our schools. We want students to dream and to realize their full potential but always within the strict confines of a school system, a classroom, or a lesson plan. How do you teach freedom while still meeting the metrics the system demands? How do you teachТ possibility?

I wonder if Pages doesn’t do both.

Pages offers an incredibly unique opportunity for its students and teachers. Each time I enter a Pages interaction, I’m confronted by creative expression bubbling in the students I get to meet. By this point they are well-trained in the discipline of being a student. They know how to perform as students. But Pages invites them to perform as themselves. They might express themselves in laughter, questions, confusion, shrugs of shoulders, or dialogue. By just engaging, perhaps they key in to their brilliant humanity, they peek their potential, and they can name the terms of their own freedom and the scope of their possibility.

Or is that reaching too far? Cynkutis throws down a gauntlet with urgency that I feel compelled to respond to as an arts educator. I can hear myself screaming, “Art can change the world!” Yes, it can.

But…

The thing that Cynkutis doesn’t acknowledge is that our interaction with our students is but a moment in the grand scheme of a school day. And art itself doesn’tТ do anything. ItТ doesn’t build buildings or write legislation. Art happens when it arrives, but it’s not something we can force and it certainly doesn’t arrive all at once. Instead, as I’m reminded, time and time again with the Pages students, this work happens in the tiny moments, the pauses. Creation happens incrementally. We can’t force their creativity or open their minds to the art we put in front of them. Instead, we hope for a moment when nothing happens, a moment of “huh.”

That’s the moment they control. That’s the moment of possibility.

 

Reference:

Cynkutis, Zbigniew. “To Be and to Have.” The Drama Review, vol. 38, no. 4, 1994, pp. 50-59.

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