Someone Else’s Shoes

Old shoes


It seems like every year we see more and more public schools cutting funding for arts, eliminating programs, and generally marginalizing the role of the arts in education. Without getting into a nasty political debate that is likely to lead nowhere, I think it is fair to say that politicians of all stripes from the Federal to the local level have been guilty of this, on some level. When looking at a basic cost/benefit analysis, I can even understand why it seems like an investment in arts programs is hard to justify – especially in the midst of the Great Recession.

As an educator, I get so tired of the perennial exercise in justifying the worth of the arts in our educational system. One positive that comes from this is that it affords me a regular opportunity to examine the worth of what I do. Every artist, if you’re being honest with yourself, has had those moments where you stop and really wonder if what you’re doing is impacting the world in any way. I have found that theatre artists are often guilty of this, due in no small part to the pervasive mentality that we are “just putting on a show.” While it is true that we work in the entertainment industry and, therefore, spend the majority of our time doing the whole entertainment thing, I think there is an important aspect to our work that is often overlooked – empathy.

Fundamentally, the role of theatre is to enable the artists and audience members to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To be successful, an actor has to take on the mantle of another human being – to see through their eyes and respond to the world in a way that might not jive with the actor’s own inclinations. Designers and technicians collaborate with dozens of different people in an attempt to tell the story in the most effective manner. Often, they must abandon their own ideas along the way to make room for the end-product. Audience members get a glimpse into the inner workings of  character in a way that is impossible in the real world. At face value, this might not seem as important as scientists creating vaccines for deadly diseases or engineers designing nano machines. I would argue, though, that empathy has become the single most important commodity in the world today and we owe it to ourselves as a society to foster it whenever and wherever we can.

A look at the news on any given day can be an unsettling glimpse into the reality of our polarized world. On any topic it seems that there are two camps, us and them. Moderates and independents seem to be a dwindling thing of the past, replaced with folks on both ends of the spectrum unwilling to see the other side’s perspective and, worse, vilifying anyone with a differing opinion. Compromise is considered weakness. In the United States, we have seen this mentality taken to the horrifying destinations: cyber-bullying, character defamation, and even mass shootings. In this environment, a little empathy can go a long way. Any exercise in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is a welcome medicine to treat this ailment.

That’s where we come full circle. The change that we want to see in the world must include art. The arts have a magical ability to break down walls and build bridges between camps. It has always been so. When we stop to consider how our education system will shape the world of tomorrow, let’s not forget that the arts aren’t simply electives – they are one of the last great tools we have at our disposal to instill a sense of empathy, bring our society closer together, and see the world through someone else’s eyes. For all of you artists out there, those goosebumps you’re feeling are completely appropriate. In a society where we all too often feel powerless, you are the ones with the ace up your sleeve. Get out there and save the world.


Filling The Void


Photo courtesy Max Wolfe. Creative Commons license.

As a teacher, I often get to observe that moment when a student looks at the blank piece of paper or an empty stage and  struggles with that internal debate over “what next?” This is a familiar exercise with artists of all varieties (and, believe it or not, all levels of success). As a writer, there is nothing more exhilarating and, at the same time, taunting than a ream of paper. For the painter, it is a canvas. The dancer alone in the studio feels the need to stake a claim on on that empty space and fill it with movement.

The Void is a magical and terrifying space that the artist must occupy and shape to his or her own will. This need to fill the void speaks to the power of art and our ability to carve out some small corner of existence for ourselves – to put a stamp on this place and time and boldly proclaim, “I was here!” More than that, it means that we took the few fleeting moments given to us and turned them into something that will last longer than the finite scope of our lifetime. Something that will AFFECT someone, or something. Lots of artists over the years have spoken about this:

“You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.'” – Vincent Van Gogh

This is the challenge I want to leave you with today: Break the spell of “you can’t.” Make something! Say something! Think! Create! Resist that voice that says “what if it isn’t good enough?” Good enough for whom? Embrace failure is an important and often necessary component of success. The fear of failure ought not keep you from trying. Quite the opposite. Samuel Beckett said it best in Westward Ho 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The fear of failure should drive you to create new things – take bigger risks. Feel free to fail. By all means, fail in grand and dramatic gestures. Just don’t fall victim to the most mundane of all failures – the failure to get up off your butt and start something.

Why a Design Degree isn’t the Career Death Sentence your Parents Suspected

This is back to school week for me. It’s always exciting to meet a new crop of students. Every year I get to see parents send their kids off into the wild on their own. Frequently, I am posed with questions from these parents to ease their fears about their child pursuing a degree in the arts.

I get it. Really, I do. I am hoping that my own 3-year-old sticks with her game plan of becoming a doctor (I’m not exactly as comfortable with her plan of her Mom being the nurse and myself serving as the receptionist, though she assures me that the medical school she attends will have classes for the two of us, as well).

The fact is, a life in the arts has never been a golden ticket to wealth and leisure. It is, in fact, a career filled with hard work, long hours, and (at times) less than glamorous work conditions. The entertainment industry is particularly challenging in that your job happens when other people want to relax. Nights, weekends, and holidays are your work week. Monday is your weekend. If you freelance, there is the added pressure of working to secure the next job (or jobs) while working on another. Believe it or not, this is the beginning of my pitch to those parents mentioned above. It’s the follow-up that’s so important.

If your son or daughter is committed to learning, works hard and proves to be a good collaborator, they are going to get a job after graduation. How can I make such a claim? It’s pretty simple, really…

Supply and Demand

Statistics say that those in our field looking for work stand a much better chance than most other fields. In this economy, we all know jobs have been hard to come by. People have gone back to school in record numbers to learn new skills and the market is now flooded with graduates. At the undergraduate level, recent polls show the greatest majority of undergraduates majored in business (358,000 majors). On the other hand, all of the Visual and Performing Arts combined together numbered less than 100,000 majors. In short, while other professions are being flooded with graduates, the arts have less people competing for the jobs.

What about the jobs, though? Are there enough of them? Well, that is where we see some other good news. It seems that when times are hard, people still want to be entertained. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the Arts, Entertainment and Recreation industry is predicted to grow 15% by 2015. This is second only to the Healthcare and Social Assistance industry! In other words, not only are there jobs available, but there are jobs being created.


The other reason for future job security with design and technology graduates is the versatility of their training. Designers are not trained to only do one thing – they are trained to solve problems within given constraints of time, budget, and resources. This is why we see major business schools increasingly creating partnerships with design programs so that tomorrows CEOs can be trained to think like a designer. Designers are problem-solvers, and problem-solvers are always in demand.

That’s why I feel good about what I do. Let’s be honest, a college education isn’t the the panacea it was made out to be for so many years, but if you can can find a program that gives life skills and helps prepare students for the realistic demands of today’s world, then it is still worth it. Just remember, though, even the best education is only worth what you put into it.