Recently I was talking about my experience teaching theatre to children, and it occurred to me mid-conversation that I have been teaching in some form for twelve years. Some teachers focus heavily on the end product, say, a gorgeous performance of The Little Mermaid where Ariel's costume could compete with an actress on the red carpet at the Oscars and no one forgets a single line or pair of jazz hands. These productions are incredibly impressive. These productions are not mine. In my productions I prefer dropped lines, at least one instance of an actor running offstage to retrieve the prop she has forgotten (while yelling to the cast onstage that she will be right back), only to trip coming back onstage.
I like my theatre classroom to mirror real life: messy, heartfelt but chaotic, and in the end, beautiful in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the missteps along the way. For me as a teacher, I believe that the most crucial lessons occur during the process. For the record, the last children's production that found me at the helm was a cobbled together compilation of fairy tales and fables that the kids wanted to mesh together into one (somewhat nonsensical) story. The forementioned mishaps were present throughout, but afterwards, a small blond girl with enormous glasses and a huge toothy grin approached me and said "We did it!" Yes. Exactly. No matter how muddled things get, the point is to keep going. This seven year old girl got it.
When I talk about teaching children creative drama, I am often met with slightly different varieties of the same sentiment from adults. They love the idea of kids being encouraged to simply play. "Kids are so over scheduled these days", people will say, "It's important for them to have time to just have fun." I absolutely believe this is true. I believe in play for children, I believe in reminding them sincerely and often that play is as important as eating your vegetables and getting eight hours of sleep. i think it's fair to say that the majority of artists, teachers, and parents agree that our children need to express themselves in completely unique ways. It's ok to not be "productive" all the time. Yet I've picked up on a dangerous mixed message embedded within these seemingly good intentions.
What doesn't make sense to me is this: How can we tell children in one breath that they must never forget to let their imaginations guide them and in the next breath, belittle an adult who is living by this same principle? How can a young person of ten years old be praised for being uninhibited with her drawing skills, and a thirty year old be teased for still playing with her watercolors and sketch pad? Do you know the kind of comments I'm talking about? Here's a few that come to mind right off the bat:
1. "Did you hear that she's taking a dance class? Must be nice to have the money to do that."
2. "You're going to a book club after work? Must be nice to have the time to do that."
3. "I don't have the luxury to do something I want, I have a real life and a family to take care of."
These kinds of reactions to an adult pursuing creativity are passive aggressive, but they are toxic nonetheless. Where is that fine line between being a young person learning to play and an adult who supposedly needs to "grow-up" and focus all of their time on laundry, dishes, bill paying, and being generally jaded and miserly with their joy? I've been teaching for twelve years, and for just as long, I've witnessed these horribly mixed messages that we send to young people and to ourselves. Are you a child? You get the green light for play--it's not selfish at all! It's for your own good and the good of everyone else in the world! We want a world full of creative and confident people, right? Now, are you an adult who took this creative urging to heart and is still walking in this world with curiosity, creativity, and wonder? Seriously, Adult? Cut it out and get real. Taking time for your self is now officially self-ish. How would we explain to a child why there are different rules?
This kind of "how dare you do something fun when there are people out there with REAL responsibilities" shaming we do to each other (and ourselves) is dangerous. The next time you hear someone talk about their creative writing group, solo sewing project, or Friday night plans to go salsa dancing, please pause before you speak. I've been on both the shaming and receiving end of these kinds of comments, so I know both sides well.
Here's a few things I've found helpful when someone creatively shames me (believe me, I'm a 32 year old woman who still wears a fake mustache and sings with a wooden spoon as I scramble eggs for breakfast--this isn't uncharted territory for me):
1. Ask yourself this: Are you physically or psychologically damaging yourself or others by drawing, dancing, baking a dozen batches of chocolate chip cookies? Is your painting, scrapbooking, or voice lessons truly detrimental to yourself, your loved ones, and causing you to stop paying your rent and utilities? If the answer to these questions is "yes", then by all means, reassess your pursuit for pleasure and make sure you are not truly neglecting someone or something important. If the answer is "no", then accept that your pursuits are simply things that you are doing for yourself (literally self-ish) that bring you joy and make you a richer and more alive person in this world. Proceed with joy and don't allow anyone else to have a say in the matter. No one. For any reason.
2. There isn't really a second step to this process, except to KEEP GOING WITH WHATEVER CREATIVE THINGS MAKE YOU WANT TO GET OUT OF BED IN THE MORNING. Do them as much as time, finances, and energy allows. Repeat often. That's it. It's very much like Taylor Swift says: haters gonna hate. Keep on keeping on with no guilt needed. In the process of stubbornly pursuing pleasure, you will also be sending a message to the young people (and adults) in your life that having fun and playing is not over when you turn thirty. Or fifty. Or Eighty. You get the idea. We need this message, so let the way you live your life be part of this message.
It should be said that people may not only shame you for writing your novel, or taking up hip hop dance at forty years old. They might also see dancing in the kitchen to Katy Perry or playing air guitar along with the Foo Fighters as "selfish" pastimes as well (not that I know anything about taking part in these amazing endeavors). I say keep going with these too. On many occasions, I have happily left dishes sitting in my sink when the opportunity to dance like a mad woman to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" comes along. I have no regrets about these decisions.
When we talk about bullying in schools with kids, we are starting to acknowledge that it's important for both parties (the bully and the bullied) to be involved in a solution. Thus, if you every find yourself creatively shaming someone, here's a few things to consider (I feel I can give this advice because I'm someone who has absolutely shamed others in the past, so this is from experience):
1. First ask yourself the following question: Could your reaction be jealousy in disguise? I know this is the most common reasons why we creatively shame others because I've felt this many, many times in the past. If I find myself starting to get snarky and say "Wow, she's pretty intense--who seriously does yoga every day?" that generally means that I wish I had the discipline to put down my SmartPhone and reconnect with my body and mind instead of wasting an hour on Facebook. It means that I wish I was as comfortable with my body as she is. It means that I wish I was brave in that way, but instead of doing the hard work of taking a risk and getting outside of my comfort zone, I'd prefer to hide my fear behind criticism. Dig into the real reason for why you are shaming. Don't stop until you find it and drag it into the daylight.
2. Figure out what you are going to DO about it. Snarkiness and jealousy are not pretty, but they act as very powerful creative barometers. For years, I would feel simultaneously inspired and upset by reading a reading great book. Why? For the very simple (if slightly embarrassing) reason that I have always wanted to write a book but have been too scared and confused about the process to try it myself. So after a decade of dishing of shame in this way, I'm finally working on a book of essays about creativity. It's still scary and confusing and downright frustrating sometimes, but my habit of shutting down and shaming successful writers has all but disappeared because I'm finally just trying to do it myself.
3. The Witch from Into the Woods was right: Children will listen. When we look at a child and tell them they have the right to play, to imagine, and to be a little bit silly and then in the next breath criticize a friend who has the "audacity" to leave her kids with a babysitter once a week to go to a guitar lesson, what is that child supposed to think? Kids needs to see adults taking our own advice, giving ourselves permission to be free, expressive, and find pleasure in the joy of making something that once only existed in our imaginations. Kids that see these examples will become adults that lead the way by example.
Adults need to see these examples, too. I know I do. Seeing my awesome creative community refuse to give up their sense of play keeps me inspired and motivated every single day. Play is not a sin. It's not the straw that's going to break the camel's back that is our day to day "adult" life. It might just be what makes our lives worth living. And no matter what anyone tells you, play is NOT a luxury, something only granted to those with clean laundry, no student debt, or a special talent. It's out there and available for every single of us, all we have to do is reach out and claim it for ourselves.