“I don’t really know what I’m doing..” James quipped and I enthusiastically echoed the statement, both of us bursting into laughter.
A few weeks after I moved to Boston to begin teaching at Emerson College, I received a phone call from my teacher-friend from grad school James Peck. Even though there was plenty to catch up on, the conversation quickly veered into teaching…both of us were beginning new chapters.
The early days of my teaching journey were spent assisting James at my alma mater: Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. It lay the foundation stones for what I believed (and continue to believe) my role as a teacher should be: always making room for playing with generosity, intention, and awareness; creating an environment that allows folx to throw themselves bravely into the unknown knowing that they will either land on their own or be caught by others; excitedly seeing the infinite possibilities in students and being able to share that (the excitement and the possibilities) with them; and the biggest lesson, being able to admit: we don’t know what we’re doing.
But that’s not entirely true for either of us. A more representative statement could be: “I know some things that I would like to share, I don’t know a lot of other things and I have questions that I believe are worthwhile quests for the collective.”
What I would like to share with you are a handful of principles, exercises, and frameworks that I am using in the classroom. I believe this particular list translates seamlessly into the running of a theatre/arts, or dare I say any organization that comprises people, and so I will list these out in their original context. As a fun1 activity, I invite you to substitute the words “class” or ”classroom” for “organization” or “organizational” or “meeting” every time you encounter these words.
As an introductory exercise, let’s apply this idea to these lines from Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks:
“To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes.”
In this case, one must also substitute “professor” with an equivalent designation of authority, but you get the idea!
The Magic Circle and Umwelt:
In game theory/design, the magic circle is a physical or imagined space where the players of the game, and spectators if there are any, adopt rules or a way of being that is specific to that game. It is in essence, world building and buying into the very specific logic of that world. For example: if we’re playing a game of tag, the person who’s “it” is actively trying to tag someone else, and the others are actively trying not to get tagged. If we don’t buy into this way of being, these imagined stakes, this magic circle is broken and the game ceases to be enjoyable. The magic circle isn’t just a collection of rules to play by, it’s an invitation to believe in.
I was introduced to the concept of Umwelt2 in science journalist Ed Yong’s book about the sensory lives of animals, An Immense World. In the context of this book, Umwelt is used to describe a living being’s unique sensory perception of the world. I’m paraphrasing this metaphor by Ed that I found really illuminating: Consider the body a “house”. The windows of this house are our senses that allow us to experience the world. Now even though all these houses are situated in the very same world, how we perceive the world when we “look” out of the windows is different to different beings. Even though we live in the same place, our experience of it can be remarkably different.
During the first few weeks of a new classroom experience, there is a real focus on creating the magic circle and recognizing and understanding each individual’s “umwelten” so to speak (though these conversations must be ongoing as I’ll soon explain).
On day one of working together, we articulate a list of ensemble agreements that enable us to foster a brave working space. This gives us collective accountability; we check back in with each other multiple times during the course of the semester to ensure that we’re upholding these agreements, and whether they need to evolve/change. It also gives us shared values, and a container for us to play/work within.
Along with this exercise, As the person with the most authority in the classroom* I articulate the progression of the class, what our work will entail, what our goals are, support and accessibility resources available to the students, and what the non-negotiables are.
*Next semester I will also be taking a page from my partner Becca Finney’s classroom handbook. Becca takes time at the beginning of course to acknowledge the difference in authority between teachers and students. No matter how much a teacher strives to create a “non hierarchical” classroom, there is still a difference in authority at the end of the day. Becca takes responsibility for her own authority by sharing a Power Agreement with her students, which states how she agrees to use her authority in the classroom. She then leads the students to write their own Power Agreements; each student identifies what powers they hold as individual students (including the power to hold Becca accountable to her own power agreements!), and how they agree to use that power.
Each class begins with an exercise that allows us to connect movement with breath, after which we step in to form a large circle and check-in3 with each other. One by one everyone uses a word each (and sometimes a sound or a gesture) to describe how they are feeling physically, internally, and vocally. We then state an intention for the class. After everyone finishes, there is room to state any injuries or express any boundaries. The check-in is a tool that allows all of us in the classroom to work with each other in a way that is informed and empathetic. It is forward looking, brief, and for the benefit of the whole.
Similarly, we check-out of a class by stating what we’ve discovered and what we would like to reiterate for our continued work together.
We carve out time at the top of every other class for folx to share art (in any medium) that is resonating with, or moving them. This is an opportunity not just to see the individual beyond the role they are embodying (student/teacher), but to prioritize the act of sharing.
I schedule four hour-long sessions during the first half of the semester to lead the class in conversations around: consent, commitment, cooperation, and conflict4. When we do this, we practice a tool used in restorative circles5 where one listens, asks clarifying questions if necessary, and then repeats what they’ve understood from the sharing of an ensemble member. Then, through a consensus-based practice, students find common ground, or points of agreement or difference, and eventually articulate what embodying consent-based-best practices, a commitment to the work, cooperation with each other, and moving through conflict, would look like for this specific composition of people.
The overarching questions we are asking through these exercises and frameworks are: What are the principles and guidelines that we hold true to in this classroom? What do we believe in as a collective? How do we, as unique individuals perceive and interact with the world and this work, and how do we recognize and facilitate a way of working and being with each other that takes this into consideration?
In honoring the individual umwelt, the lines of the magic circle that holds the collective become more defined.
Late last year I participated in an introductory workshop on Undoing Racism by The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond. During the session, I was confronted by the fact that my role as an educator meant that I act as a gatekeeper (to information, success, and empowerment among other things). It reiterated the need for a question I pose to students: What do you need in order to thrive in this class, and what is getting in the way of you thriving?6
A reminder to myself and to the reader: thriving isn’t an innate ability, it’s based on the environment (which can be created).
My current practice is to pose these questions to students a week before I schedule a mid-semester one-on-one. Students also have the option to write a response to this question via a journal entry. I find that allowing some time to pass before posing this question creates space for students to respond to the structure of the class, my style of teaching, concepts that don’t yet make sense, the classroom climate, or interpersonal relationships. I’ve been asking this question to students for a couple of years now (my friend and colleague Nathaniel Justiniano first shared these questions with me in the context of another conversation before my time at Emerson), but the necessity for creating the room for this question feels especially potent for me at this moment in time when we are continuing to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. I constantly remind myself that the classes I teach are not about me and what I know. As the leader of this class, what do I need to do to speak to the needs of the students to the best of my ability? How do I empower them? How do I give in a way that can be received?
An emphasis on student thriving demands more transparency from me as a teacher. I provide consistent feedback on performance work that provide students with an insight into the rubric that I will be using to evaluate their graded projects; there is designated time allotted at the end of every unit to articulate the principles we’re learning, pose any lingering questions, or contextualize exercises to the larger objectives of the class; students are also reminded that they have the opportunity to evaluate my work as a teacher at the end of the semester.
At the corner of every class is a cardboard box with a hodgepodge of design contributions from students from various classes, with a slit on the top, and scraps of paper and a pen next to it. This is called a Victory Box7 Over the course of our work, students are encouraged to document their victories (I admit to documenting a couple of mine too), and at the end of our work together, we read out and celebrate all these victories. Incidentally, I read out victories this morning. They ranged from: “I made it out of bed” to “I was fully present for the first time while we played compatiball8”. I believe the power of this seemingly whimsical exercise is that it encourages self-validation and acknowledgement and there is room created to vocalize these victories and take time to applaud all of them.
At the heart of my work in the classroom is facilitating the students’ ability to play with each other. Not just developing playfulness, but actually learning to play with each other. The success of a classroom is dependent on people who can play together. You do not have to be in love with each other in order to successfully play, but you do have to be able to be present with them; be with them as they are, not how you wish they were, while recognizing that you share a common objective (or five) and have to meet these objectives together.
Yes, I am suggesting that organizations need to make time to actually play with each other.
I began with an admission of not knowing, and knowing. I also know this:
Apart from a handful of other organizations, I’ve had the good fortune of working for both my theatre alma maters – DSM and Dell’Arte. I’ve had the privilege of learning from teachers, and then learning from teachers who became colleagues, friends, ensemble members, and co-conspirators. The questions that I am asking now are sprouting from seeds that have been planted by those who came before me, and who move with me in the knowledge that we don’t have all the answers but we are asking these questions knowing that the answers will only reveal themselves to the collective rather than the individual.
Questions like: How can the leadership in theatre organizations create a magic circle that allows the workforce to thrive?
How can you build frameworks into the day-to-day that prioritize celebrating people, listening to and sharing with each other, and playing together?
Can we borrow from the theatre classroom, exercises that empower theatre organizations to openly acknowledge the power dynamics that exist within their organizations? Can we borrow exercises that facilitate transparency, accountability, and both protect and expand equity?
I may not have all the answers but I do know the answer to the last two questions are: Yes we can.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: None of what I have offered here are in their final form, this is an ongoing practice which will continue to evolve and is specific to my work in the classroom. They may be helpful, but are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse working environment.
1 Although fun is subjective, I think this could constitute fun
2 A semiotic theory coined by Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok
3 The check-in was first introduced to me when I was a student at DSM by my voice teacher Deshik Vansadia.
4 Based loosely on an exercise introduced to me in my final year as a student at Dell’Arte by Al Ricca.
5 Rooted in Indigenous practices, restorative circles center deep listening, and healing, over punitive action as a means of addressing and moving through conflict.
6 Articulated by Emerson College’s former VP of Equity and Social Justice Sylvia Spears
7 Another gift from my time as a student at Dell’Arte
8 First taught to me by Daniel Goldman at TPPL’s Intensive Drama Program 2011.
Tushar Mathew is a theatre maker, actor, and teacher. He is an Assistant Professor in the Performing Arts Department at Emerson College, Boston, USA. You can read more about his work at www.tusharmathew.com.