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.
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.