Thoughts for a sunny, windy March day in Ireland from an artist, researcher, and global citizen

Are online communities and social media responsible, in part, for the decline of democracy? The impression we are given is that it has helped to democratize and lift up voices  – though this is done with individuals isolated in their physical space and acting, often times, anonymously into the interwebs. The online platform has so inundated our society, that it is almost impossible to discern fact from opinion. It has created the perfect void for people to shout into without a care whether or not people are actually listening or engaging – so long as it gets “hits” or “views”…a simple click to provide credence to the thought expressed – no way to discern the level of engagement of the receiver.

It has sought to replace dialogue that takes place live, person-to-person. In live settings, we are able to take in so much more information regarding the information exchange: facial expression, body language, tone, pitch, volume, inflection, and that unnameable energy ever-present in live exchanges. We are able to sense each participants’ level of engagement and we are able to clarify our points. We are often much more civil because we are representing ourselves in the flesh, rather than a digital persona for whom there are little to no consequences for incivility. It is easy to name-call and insult when your physical person is alone sitting in front of the computer, far from whomever you are insulting.

As “connected” as we are today – I have the sense that, as a community, we have become more disconnected than ever from one another. Look around when you’re out in public – on a train, subway, or in a restaurant or café…how many people are engaging with those around them? How many have their phones or laptops out and are ignoring the people in their company? I’m reminded of a phrase I heard almost 10 years ago now – I honestly can’t remember where – but it was “give those around you a give – be present” …I think we could all work on that more. I think we NEED to work on that more if we are to work through this current crisis in democracy we are experiencing…

Recognizing and Embracing The Other

The TYA Blog

The transcript of a conversation between

Courtney Helen Grile and Khary Jackson. 

In thinking about this idea of otherness in the classroom and what we as teachings artists can do/should do to address it, I had the great fortune to spend a little bit of time on the phone with Khary Jackson, an old colleague of mine from when I was working in Minneapolis. Khary is a teaching artist that I greatly respect and looked up to in many ways when we were working together for his ability to use his great artistry in the classroom with young people in a powerful and effective way. We only had a short time to chat together, but our conversation has given me many things to think about going forward not only as a teaching artist, but now as an administrator as well.

C: I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately of how…

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The Process AS the Product

The TYA Blog

There is a lot of talk about process and product when we plan theatre/drama activities for young people. I’ve always aligned myself with the “process” way of thinking – in that I strongly feel that a focus on the process of creation and exploration is far more important than putting young people onstage, under bright lights, and in pretty costumes. Being product-oriented is focusing more on putting young people into a show and selling tickets to an audience; there is a product to view. This approach definitely brings in much more money for the theatre and often gives that immediate gratification of wanting to be in a show! Though I have often witnessed young people being turned off from the art of theatre by being placed in such a high stakes situation too soon.


What benefits does the “process” approach provide? Through the process of theatre/drama activities young people are…

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“You can’t fake passion.” -Barbara Corcoran

Today I had the opportunity to speak with a group of high school students studying theatre. My goal was to motivate them to get involved! To audition for a show, to spent their required volunteer/service hours at the theatre, to participate in ARTiculate, a youth performing company that I am in the process of forming that focuses on building ensemble and developing their voices as artists and creators of theatre.

After leading them in a rousing game of Bippity Bippity Bop, I began my little speech……during which I veered off somewhere to talk about the merits of TYA and its importance, validity, and great artistry.

THAT is what this blog is about. I’ve identified for quite some time now as a strong advocate for Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), but never fully understood how profoundly deep my passion for TYA is. The reason for this? Because my passion for THEATRE as an artform is so strong. Advocating good, high quality theatre for EVERYONE of every age, place, profession, race, culture…ALL people of this world. That is precisely what makes me such a strong advocate for TYA. Theatre is not innately “better” or “worse” because of the audience it targets or the professional or amateur status of those creating it.

It is the ATTITUDE with which the art is approached by a Director, Actor, Producer, Designer, Technician, ARTIST, audience that can make something higher quality or lower quality.

Where do these attitudes come from – that a piece of theatre isn’t deemed “good” unless it graces the Great White Way or the West End? Where do these presuppositions come from that theatre created for younger audiences is inferior? Perhaps some opinions are formed based on experience of lower quality performances by/for young people – they’re out there….but lets be honest, there are examples, pro and con, of lower quality theatre in every single genre/subset of theatre…devised, theatre for social change, musicals, TYA, TVY, Theatre for Mature Audiences, and so on and so on…I’ve seen a lot of bad performances of Shakespeare (intended for a wide range of audiences) that were poorly done – I don’t blame Shakespeare.

Okay – enough of that tirade.

Here is what I propose – ARTISTS! Theatre Artists! Take pride in your work – push yourself to create high quality performances that continue to experiment and honor your art form with any type of theatre you CHOOSE to be a part of. Give it your all, create work of a high caliber that you are proud to put your name on no matter who the audience is. If you are lucky enough to make a living in your passion – BE PASSIONATE! Don’t “accept” a job you feel is beneath you and then cheat yourself, your ensemble, your audience by only giving 30% or 60% – put yourself 100% into your work! …and if you participate in the art of theatre as a hobby because you are passionate about it….why would you waste your time by not producing the best you are capable of?

Theatre has the power to create dialogue, inspire empathy, spark debate, delight, amaze, and connect us all. ALL types of theatre. So…be an advocate for your art please – lets stop with the attitude that some genres are innately “better” – sure, you can have a preference, thats human 🙂 …but lets stop with the talking down and patronizing…lets do what we all started out to do when we first began walking this path – lets create good art. lets share the stories of the world we live in.

How To Change the World: A discovery & Questions

Instinctively I’ve always felt that theatre has the power to change the world. Theatre being collaborative, reflective, and capable of teaching and inspiring empathy. I am constantly referring to practices of applied theatre to seek answers, solve problems, and generate awareness of issues/ideas. Sometimes I am told when I go in to work with a group that this group is “stubborn, unwilling, uncooperative, etc.” and I just smile…because I know, that while it may take time…given time, the groups I work with become cooperative and invested in working together to create, question, and explore. They can’t help it! Thats the power of theatre! While the exercises and games we utilize may look on the outside like silly games, they are truly complex and deserving of more time and thought. I also walk into those rooms with the firm belief that people are inherently good and want to contribute to the communities they are a part of. I’m often labeled optimistic and naive for this belief, and once again, I just smile…

This writing is prompted by some reading I have been doing recently for an online course through Coursera entitled How to Change the World. A great task to be sure. I’ve been reading about the commons and the tragedy of the commons…and a great deal of about the philosophies of Hobbes and Smith regarding the selfishness of mankind. It’s been a tough pill to swallow as I read through and learn about the systems and organizations over the past hundred years or so that are based on the Leviathan or Invisible Hand models. Thats not to say that there aren’t philosophers like Rousseau that make cases for the human capacity for empathy that inspire cooperation and selflessness without the need for incentives or punishments. Needless to say, its all been very educational.

This morning I read the first chapter of The Penguin & The Leviathan by Yochai Benkler and while reading his introductory arguments for social/political/economic/educational systems based on the practices of collaboration built on trust and cooperation I thought, “this is what theatre for social change/applied theatre does best!” He goes on to talk about the overwhelming evidence that the idea that human beings are inherently selfish and act purely out of self-motivation is incorrect! Accord to Mr. Benkler, the studies show that only 30% of human beings act MORE out of selfishness than not (again, more – not SOLELY out of self-interest) and that more than half of the population in all of the various studies and experiments acted MOSTLY in the best interest of others and the larger community. That is significant. Firstly, it is not so black and white. There is no clear-cut and simple answer. We all act out of self-interest at times, we all act out of a self-less desire to help others and the communities we are a part of. According to the research compiled by Benkler, however, more often thank not human beings tend toward serving the collective good. So, why are most of our systems and structures based on a theory that is incorrect? What can we do to change the current systems we are working in…and more importantly, how can theatre for social chance and applied theatre contribute to this shift in the way the world functions?

Another Op’nin, Side by Side and Day by Day

Recently I began teaching a Musical Theatre class for 3-6th grades, so young people around 8-12 years of age. The idea to create the class for this age group was simply inspired by the fact that in the community I am in, this age group showed GREAT interest in the subject. Perhaps inspired by the recent skyrocketing popularity of Frozen, and Idina Menzel (a well-known performer who has graced the Broadway stage for well over a decade.) At any rate, when you’re in the position of creating programming – give the people what they want, right? The class was created and is our most populated class – well…it ties with the Creative Dramatics class with the Frozen theme 😉

Being that my initial interest in the arts was music – I’ve been singing for as long as I’ve been talking, and my first experience in theatre was in the musical Gypsy at the age of 12. Musical Theatre is at my core being. I love it! – and I LOVE sharing it! Thus I began my lesson planning…and suddenly I hit a wall. How would I focus this class? Would we simply focus on the singing, dancing, and acting part – developing those skills? That in and of it self is a BIG task…but something felt lacking to me. You can learn about singing, dancing, and acting in other classes – why take a MUSICAL THEATRE class?! It struck me in my thinking and planning, that this could be an opportunity to also teach these young people about the art of Musical Theatre. This idea, that this class would not just be about singing, dancing, and acting (all things I love dearly), but would also incorporate knowledge of the art form pierced right through me and I was immediately charged with my new responsibility.

I put together lessons that would cover 3 well-known Musical Theatre composers over the course of 10 weeks. For this first class (I am hoping to have many more) I chose Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, and Stephen Schwartz – making sure to pick someone from the early 1900’s and then spanning to current composers. The truth is, I’d love to make a class about each of these composers individually, but I also liked the idea of giving the students the opportunity to compare/contrast the different sounds and styles.

As we are only 3 weeks into the course, I cannot accurately speak to the success of my decision to include these educational components – and not just as a mention. In teaching before, I’ve always made sure that I let the students know the name of the person who wrote the song they were to learn and to mention the name of the show…but in THIS class, the students knowledge of the composer, song, and show are given EQUAL weight and importance. For the first 2 classes I was doing more of the sharing of information – after conversation around What is a composer? Why are they important? – which I’m happy to say the students eagerly engaged in dialogue and when one of their own was able to define composer it became that much more exciting – for me and them! We have conversations about Cole Porter and talk about how the music makes them feel, other shows he wrote, the plot of Kiss Me, Kate, etc. (They are learning “Another Op’nin, Another Show” from Kiss Me, Kate)

I was a little dismayed that yesterday, when we checked in at the beginning of class only ONE of them had looked up an interesting fact about Cole Porter and remembered it to share; that he had written over 800 songs! (I’ve since gone back to look into that fact discovered that he is credited with 881 compositions! WOW!) While I was delighted that this one student had brought in a fact to share, I began thinking of ways to get the other students as excited about their “homework.”

Next week they are all supposed to share an interesting fact about Stephen Sondheim as we begin our exploration of who he is and I’ve decided that its time to engage the parents as well! Emails have been sent out encouraging parents to help their little artists in this endeavor. I’m very interested to see what outcome this will have! I’m hoping, of course, that it not only further engages my students, but that it also further engages the parents to take part in learning about the arts…fingers crossed!

What happened to sitting out on the porch?

I had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman today who has no email, no cell phone, no TELEPHONE at all, no car, no cable television. He lives in St. Augustine, Florida in the home his family has been in for more than 50 years.

I had been trying to meet him for some time as I’d like to have him involved with a project I am working on.  The theatre company I work for was putting up a production of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris ( a spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) which deals with issues of gentrification. I had only been in St. Augustine for about 3 months, but I had heard about an area of town called Lincolnville and I knew that it was going through this very thing! I was determined to set up a panel discussion to take place prior to a performance in order to increase awareness and relevancy of this show – and to highlight that St. Augustine is dealing with many of the same issues. In my research, the same gentleman kept showing up in news articles over and over. A man who was born and raised in St. Augustine, in Lincolnville, who still lived in his family home and was very vocal about the community and all the issues surrounding it. I knew he had to be on the panel.

For a couple weeks I scoured for his phone number/email address…and at long last the only option I was left with was to show up at his door. Based on everything I’d read, he sits outside on his porch, usually with a great deal of his neighbors every evening. Talking. Sharing Stories. Laughing. Taking in the beauty that is his neighborhood and St. Augustine. From reading it seemed warm and inviting – as if, it would really be okay for me to pop in!

So…I showed up! And I WAS welcomed! I’m happy to say that he has agreed to be a part of my project.

The reason I am writing this blog is because he got me to thinking….about how I grew up. About community. About engaging and interacting with neighbors and those who lived on the same “block”…in the same area. I remember when I was younger that, where I grew up in Savannah/Pooler, GA – people used to sit out on their porch. All us kids would be out running around, playing – dashing from porch to porch. Our parents would sometimes stroll down to the neighbors a few houses down. Everybody knew everyone elses businesss! Hahaha…which was sometimes good – there was always someone to help if you were in trouble or needed a hand….sometimes bad – it could feel invasive and gossipy at times…but for better or worse, we were close.

I don’t see a lot of that in the US anymore. Not anywhere I’ve lived in the past 10-15 years….but in this little neighborhood in St. Augustine, here was a community where they just….ENJOYED each others company. Listened to each others daily trifles…

I think, that is one of the things that draws me strongly to Ireland. There IS that sense of community and socializing….granted – it takes place at pubs/bars…but it DOES take place, and while drinking does happen I truly believe that at the core of it…its about building community. It seemed in the small town I lived in last year there was that same sense of “everyone knows everyone” – for better or worse! Haha, but you knew you had a community you could depend on…a community that cared because you had shared stories and laughed and taken the time to truly engage, to truly be present in the moment you were living in. I think I yearn for that…

As wonderful as social media is for “connecting” us all…(and I use it A LOT – my best friend lives in NYC…I NEED to keep in touch with her!)…in a way it also keeps us disconnected. By checking my phone or clicking away on my computer…yes, I’m keeping in touch with friends and I’m able to read about what they are doing….is distracts me/pulls me out of the moment I’m living in to a certain extent.

Now, I don’t want to do away with social media 🙂 …and I don’t think I’m ready to go without cable, internet, phones, etc. – but…I sure do wish that there was a way to incorporate some of that porch conversation…as a community, as a society…for everyone…I’d like to see it return…neighbors talking to each other…empathizing with each other…sharing and giving just by simply BEING present.