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BWW Blog: Interview with Temple University Professor, Maggie Anderson

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BWW Blog: Interview with Temple University Professor, Maggie Anderson

I recently had the chance to (virtually) sit down with Maggie Anderson, Associate Professor of Musical Theater & Movement, Choreographer & Director of Musical Theater Dance for the Department of Theater at Temple University. We had an in-depth conversation about what we have experienced over the past 3 months and about the future of education and performance.

What was the immediate action taken after finding out that we would be continuing with online education, rather than in person? What steps did the faculty have to take to prepare to transition to online learning?

Speaking back to early March, it was a very immediate, short window of time within which these decisions were made. Within a period of about 48 hours, they were asking us to take a look at all of the courses that we taught, to resubmit a new syllabus that charted out what we were going to do for the rest of those 8 weeks, go online, quickly learn technology that was accessible to us, take a look at our curriculum and make sure that certain learning goals could still be met, or if they needed to be modified. We tried to survey everyone for accessibility, so that we were really making sure, "Okay, someone's now in a different time zone; Someone doesn't have Wi-Fi; Where is everybody going to be and who needs a device?; Is what I'm asking a certain student to do manageable under their specific circumstances?" And then we were all online! So, there was the adrenaline of responding to a crisis that really helped educators and then, of course, there is just the deep-rooted passion of wanting to make sure your students are cared for, both because everyone's going through the trauma of the circumstance, but also because learning is still important, having some kind of structure is still important for our health and well-being and our intellect and community, as well.

So, when we finally did transition to online, what was the learning curve like for both you and for the students in your classes?

I would say the biggest learning curve was, first, just feeling the technology, focus and rhythm of the synchronous class on Zoom. So, we were just really working on everybody understanding the technology, understanding how to communicate with each other, whether that is through emojis, or the chat, or the discussion, or online afterwards. I was very adamant on calling people and making sure that we all stayed in touch and just really being very present for one another in the various ways that we could communicate.

Do you think, having gone through half a semester of this and experiencing more training for the future, there are any advantages or surprising benefits of online learning?

Yes, I actually do, which surprised me. Particularly in the performing arts and dance, it's a physical practice, everything that we're doing, it's social behavior, it's empathy and embodiment, so one of the surprises to me was how emotional it still could be through online learning. One of the advantages, I think, is divergent thinking. There are different and creative solutions to problems that occur when you're in an online format. Students have to increase the skill set of self-accountability, there's not people physically around you in the same space sort of helping to carry you through. I never ever feel like I have to drag someone through the process as a chore because I'm so lucky, I teach students that are really intrinsically motivated, but I also feel a huge responsibility to make it engaging, useful and relevant for them. I also think another benefit that was interesting (speaking to theater students in particular) was that we were suddenly having to edit a lot of our own content, so there is a whole different skill set that gets tested and practiced with editing that's sort of like directing. You're not just introspecting with the information as a performer and a singular entity, you're actually looking at the big picture in a different kind of way with editing your own content. This is huge in terms of making connections with all aspects of storytelling.

That's definitely interesting to hear because I feel like people are always focused on how the Internet is disconnecting us so it's great to hear that the classes were still able to have that connectivity even though they were through a screen.

Yeah, I think the same way we can get emotional about social media, we can get emotional through online learning, too and we can feel connected. As frustrating as it can be, there's also a profound gratitude that we are living in an age that gives us access to each other. We have to take care of each other by staying apart physically but, my god, we've got a space that we can still interact in that feels very real and it's real to the body in the same way that when you step in and embody a character, it's very real. I'm just so grateful that we have it as a tool of connectivity.

So, how have you been able to use the Internet to stay connected to others as well as your art during this time?

I think one of the words that's been very prevalent in my response to staying connected has been intention. It's very easy to sit back in despair, and to combat that I've kind of said "I'm going to be very intentional about being an artist" and the real examination of how to stay connected to art, artistry, artistic community, teaching and developing other artists. I think you have to create an intentional structure for that creativity, whether it's regularity of online meetings, making sure that you are engaged in conferences or webinars, in book groups and forums, in viewing other's work, in your own artistic development and societal participation on all levels available. I've been doing a lot of reading, leaning in, listening, examining other projects, supporting and promoting other artists and activists, re-evaluating my methodology for cultural relevancy, representation and resiliency and just really going very deep in both a contemplative and active kind of way. Because we're always artists, you're not just an artist because someone has cast you in a show, identity is not about that external validation. Hopefully that identity as an artist lives very deep in who you are and so you are approaching everything with creativity and curiosity, so that's always ongoing for me. I don't ever feel like my identity is wrapped up in more of an external container of how I make art. But you also have to be intentional about how you're going to find a way to continue to exercise the discipline of it. I think that is important too; to know when periods of rest are necessary and to know when periods of activation are necessary. For me, that means I am doing summer intensives and conferences online with educators and practitioners, we meet online regularly, we learn new skills and challenge one another, we've built community that way. I'm engaged in a project right now that grew out of a piece I was working on with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company that got cancelled.

Instead, to continue the discourse around the themes of the project, they invited us to submit these video responses to certain prompts and they put a video project together, so that we're still asking the questions that we were exploring through the creative process. So, you can either create that for others or join into a project that's ongoing, but you have to be intentional, you have to look for it and you have to do it and you have to know when it's also time to rest and absorb and recover. We are in crazy extenuating circumstances and so everything that we're doing right now needs to really come from a place of awareness of what we need as artists and as human beings.

How do you think this whole experience will affect the future of learning, both in the immediate future and then in the long term? Do you think we'll see long lasting changes from this once we are able to return to a regular classroom setting?

It is always my hope that when we go through something profound, that it does indeed impact us and change us, that we come out transformed towards more reflective, compassionate and just society; particularly something as big as what the world is going through with the Black Lives Matter movement, with how our shift in consciousness is happening right now, and with the pandemic. So, one of the things that I do hope we are all examining with education is accessibility, equity, and diversifying methodology. And, I feel this all applies to arts training too. What's been so interesting is, even for me, as just a small example of accessibility due to online offerings - I have taken class online with some of Broadway's best in the past two months that I never would have had access to before. Even better, many of the proceeds from these classes have gone to benefit the various organizations and allyships working for social justice. I have had access to archival sites and new videos that companies have released for small fees and monetary contributions that might have been too high a ticket price to go see live or simply impossible because of distance and location. This exposure helps me as an educator tremendously. And I think that is also true with the ways that we make education accessible for certain demographics and populations, that maybe asynchronous learning or online learning for a nontraditional student with dependents or a full-time job makes training actually doable and manageable for them. That is one thing that I hope helps us in the future, to say for example, "Wow, is this a concert that we could deliver in a variety of ways to reach a variety of audiences?" I think it's also an opportunity right now for teachers to really look at how learning works and how we're intersecting with technology, neuroscience, non-traditional classrooms and learning environments, resiliency and trauma training and social justice. First, we go into it like "I'm going to learn to teach online, I'm going to learn the technology", but then we're also learning how the brain absorbs things in different ways from a variety of points of view. We are learning how performing modalities can also be healing modalities. I mean, yes, I can't wait for the day where we all can sing, dance and act together in physical close contact without the vulnerability of disease or the heaviness of worry. But I think just even our sharpened awareness of our interdependence on all of this as well as our ability to shift, change and adapt is a positive that I hope we take into the educational process.

What about the future of performance?

I believe that the idea that theater is only done live, it can only be done in one way, is somewhat elitist. I think that someone can watch a taped performance of something and really learn a lot, if that's what is accessible in that moment. And if that means we have a farther reach to different communities to make discoveries about our art form, I think that's a big positive. Could we populate live performance in a lot of different ways than we traditionally do? I'm just projecting my own sort of vision of what the future would look like, but I think we would see a resurgence of a little more unconventional, nontraditional types of ideas about what performing is and where it takes place and how it takes place and who it takes place for. Of course, there's massive economic upheaval and things to address and dig ourselves out of. It's going to be a long road to repair, but I'm also hopeful that that provides opportunity for us to rethink the systems of all of this.

It's been really impactful how the whole artistic community has been coming together to respond to both the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Our arts community has been hit hard, but I am also witnessing and participating in the myriad of ways that we keep moving forward. I'm proud to be part of a community that is really deliberate in creating structure for dealing and responding to things in brave and uncomfortable ways and looking at how we can be of service and create community for a more just and equitable world through arts education and beyond. I feel like I am always in an infinite loop of teacher-student-teacher-student, I teach, I learn, I teach, I learn. So it's a big learning summer for me, as I continue to exercise creative approaches in rising to the challenges that we face as artists and human beings.

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