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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

Ben Weber is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster who works with the New Victory as a Teaching Artist.

For the past five years, I've collaborated with The New Victory Theater as a “Research Teaching Artist” on a longitudinal study focusing on the impact of the performing arts on young people—called "Schools with the Performing Arts Reach Kids," or SPARK. That means I combine my skills as an actor and artist with the demands of rigorous inquiry. Does this sound like an odd combination? Let me walk you through a normal day.
Ben Webber
Becoming My Artist-Researcher Self – 6:00am

I wake before sunrise, making sure all of my investigative tools are ready to go—student lists, interview protocols and a computer. As the train trundles into my station, I rehearse my hybrid role. As a New Victory Teaching Artist, I use my performing skills to inspire students' creativity and to encourage them to try new things. Meanwhile, I also act as a researcher, observing what my students think and feel, without my influence. When I lead a workshop as a Teaching Artist, success looks like each student jumping joyfully, feet first into an arts-based activity. As a researcher, success looks like careful observation of the students, while asking thoughtful questions. I get to school, and find which rooms are free, so my students and teaching partner can focus on the day ahead.

Collecting Survey Data – 9:00am

My teaching partner and I enter a classroom to collect surveys for this year of the study. The surveys are designed to measure how the program impacts the students' views of themselves as learners. It's time to draw on my skills as a Teaching Artist to engage my hesitant audience, “Now this packet may LOOK like a test, but it's really a series of activities to help us understand how you think about yourselves, how you relate to others and how you feel about theater.” One question asks students to cast a production using their classmates as actors, directors, playwrights and designers. Clusters of socially savvy students rapidly write down as many friends as will fit in each role, while lone students who struggle with basic social skills often have a hard time even thinking of one person who could be in their show. The artist in me wants to exclaim, "Don't worry! I bet lots of people would act with you. You are great! You are loved!" But my researcher-self holds back—I'm here to capture whether or not the ensemble work of theater can mitigate the harsh realities of peer relations.

Performance Tasks – 10:30am

Later, my teaching partner and I show students a silent video of a mime trapped in an invisible box. We ask each student to tell us what is happening, including what the main character might be thinking and feeling. As researchers, we are trying to understand whether immersion in the performing arts builds students' understanding of the lives of others. Afterwards, we ask students to act out what happens next in the story using only her body and no words. Here, we are looking at whether students' interpersonal understanding grows over time. Due to confidentiality protocals, we cannot record videos so I struggle to capture every move and facial expression students make. As an actor, I'm amazed when a student boldly picks up her chair to represent a park bench and pretends to smash through the invisible wall. I write down, "Picks up chair with both hands" and I feel an exhilarated, "YES!"

Persisting After Lunch – 1:30pm

After lunch, we fight fatigue from students, teachers and ourselves. As the day draws to a close, students are less likely to tell full stories or make daring choices as performers. Often the students are too shy to take creative risks. They lethargically move through the motions with an embarrassed smile, shooting us pleading looks as if to say, "Can this be over now?" I have to keep a lid on my internal Teaching Artist voice which is bellowing, "Think about what it would REALLY feel like to be trapped in this invisible box. You would feel desperate, trying to get out by ANY MEANS NECESSARY!" But, calling on my inner researcher, I calmly request, "Show me a little more about how the mime is feeling."

Riding and Reflecting – 2:15pm

School's out and now it's time for the long train ride home. I think about both my successes and inevitable blunders. I wish I had explained the directions more consistently...but on the other hand, just sitting with the fourth graders, helped them focus on and finish their surveys...and that student who hurled the imaginary bench—whoa!

Home at Last – 4:00pm

Time to stow my satchel full of materials and log in my observations, thinking about the push-pull of being an artist-researcher. As artists we are gifted data collectors—we can even make annual surveys seem like a fresh and inviting personal statement. But, by being researchers, we practice seeing and reporting objectively and clearly. Not a bad combo.
September 12, 2018

What Do Six Dozen Donuts Say?

New Victory Teaching Artist WT McRae shares an experience from his time in a Brooklyn, NY classroom. 

As a Teaching Artist, I've been working with a middle school in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn for over four years now. Being a TA, I travel the city with my colleagues hoping to provide a range of experiences that mirror the formative and meaningful experiences of my own youth. However when I first began my residency in Bed-Stuy four years ago, I found it difficult to even make eye contact in my school. During our first year, the students were skeptical of what we had to offer, and often extremely vocal about that skepticism. We worked with them for over 15 sessions, and they came to our theater three times to see shows. By the end of the year, we opted to do a gameshow-style review of the concepts they had covered over the school year. Although initially resisted, the students surprised me. The most reluctant participants could enthusiastically articulate a whole host of concepts that we brought to their classroom. This made me stop and think. Would a long-term residency be more effective than just one year? Could showing up over several sessions, months and years engage the students' trust more?

WT McRae

Fast forward to two years later: my experience in the halls had drastically shifted. By then, I was a three-year veteran who had taught nearly every student in the school. Walking the halls, students were genuinely excited to high-five me and my colleagues. "You have them today?" they asked their classmates, "Lucky!" Our residency ended with a peer-to-peer sharing in the auditorium that students willingly rehearsed for weeks. To celebrate their hard work, we promised the students donuts.
 
Here's a memory that stays with me: on the morning of our final share I took the crowded early morning train from Queens to Brooklyn and stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts, right around the corner from my school. On the way, I calculated that I needed six dozen donuts to make sure that each of our students, the teachers and staff could have one. I walked into Dunkin' Donuts, and ask the cashier for six dozen donuts. "You want six donuts?" she said. "No, I'd like six dozen donuts." She asked her co-worker, "Can we do that?" "If he wants to buy them, we can sell them." The entire store gathered to ask why I was buying so many donuts. By the time I had all of the boxes and bags, I'd also shared the exciting work we were doing down the street. It turned out that nearly every person in that Dunkin Donuts had attended the very same school where I was teaching. They were thrilled to hear that the kids were getting a chance to explore the arts and agreed that school would have been more fun if they had had that same opportunity.
 
On the hardest days, I grabbed a donut on my way back to Queens, wondering if we were reaching anyone. On the best days, my Teaching Artist partner and I would have a celebratory donut as we discussed the joyful moments of connection, collaboration and artistic growth we had seen in the young people at our school. So what do six dozen donuts say? They say that these students, their teachers and the community around them matter. That we will continue to show up and break bread (or donuts) with them. We provided three trips, 15 workshops and 72 donuts. However, we ultimately provided an experience that is resonant in the community and turned the most skeptical students into the biggest cheerleaders for the arts. 

Photo: Clemens Kois

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