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OOM Special Issue: Impact x 4

 

In this special issue of On Our Minds:

 

Introduction
Series Editor: Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown

The Impact of Raising the Stakes
Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

Curating Impact, Not Shows
Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

And so…
Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown

 


 

Introduction


One of the “specialties of the house” at WolfBrown is thinking with clients about innovative ways to measure the impact of their work. In Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art (featuring the report Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre), Alan Brown pioneered work on capturing the intrinsic impact of performing arts experiences on audiences. Dennie Wolf and Steven Holochwost have pursued new ways to look at intersectional impact, identifying aspects of human behavior that are particularly sensitive to what the arts and culture have to offer, such as socio-emotional development and risk mitigation in vulnerable populations. In this series of blog entries, all of us, together with colleagues at The New Victory Theater, discuss the organizational impact of innovation, a way of taking stock of the consequences of undertaking innovative practices or new programs. Our basic premise: genuinely new ways of working are hard, labor-intensive, and expensive; but they should reverberate throughout an organization.

 

While this issue of On Our Minds addresses the consequences of SPARK for New Victory’s work, we believe the framework for thinking about the organizational impact of innovation speaks clearly to the work of many cultural organizations seeking to cut new paths.

 


 

The innovation: SPARK

 

Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

SPARK, or “Schools with the Performing Arts Reach Kids,” is a robust, five-year theatre arts program, funded by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, specifically designed for elementary and middle schools with no history of arts programming. With this funding, the New Victory challenged staff and teaching artists to learn to work intensively in schools where teachers and students didn’t know what to expect in an arts partnership. Every year, in each SPARK school, students engage in 15 performing arts workshops with highly trained teaching artists who develop and increase student’s creative skills in circus, puppetry, theater, and dance. Young people also attend three varied live performances by international arts companies where they see the skills they’ve been acquiring live on stage. Throughout, teaching artists, working side-by-side with classroom teachers, model the ensemble skills of discussion, collaboration, and rehearsal that are an integral part of theater practice.

 


 

The Impact of Raising the Stakes
By Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

 

You might say that the New Victory has a ”thing” for raising the stakes. Who else puts wild urban circuses on the beautifully restored stage of a turn-of-the-century theater? Who else would perform X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation – a courtroom drama focused on the assassination of Malcolm X — for young audiences? The New Vic’s SPARK program is no different – it raised the stakes by entering into intensive and sustained relationships with a set of New York schools that serve some of the city’s poorest children. The intensity of the partnership brought the entire organization face-to-face with the consequences of trauma — young people, teachers, and schools all of whom live daily with the inequalities that are New York. The work has taught us not just to believe in the power of the arts, but also to live out that commitment in ways that have re-defined our comfort zone. Three examples make this clear:

  • Agency: Many of the schools that have no arts serve students with high needs, spending their discretionary dollars on tutoring and other support services, pushing to meet standards. In SPARK, we wanted to turn this around by calling on principals’ and teachers’ agency. Instead of selecting sites, we asked interested schools to apply as the first step in identifying schools who wanted to partner in building an arts program. From the start, we wanted their ownership and vision as full partners.
  • Acknowledgement: SPARK schools operate under constant stress: in addition to being classrooms, they operate as clinics, safe zones, and community centers. Teachers triple as mediators, social workers, and diagnosticians. They can appear angry or disinterested. But rather than grumble, we had to act collectively. We would never be able to enliven curriculum or change school climate without teachers’ buy-in. We realized quickly that we had to redesign our professional development sessions to acknowledge what teachers were carrying. Every session called out the (sometimes hidden) performer in each teacher, offering humor, relaxation and collaboration. In addition, teaching artists doubled down on showing how theater skills could build literacy and numeracy. Finally, we re-directed one of each school’s teaching artist advisors to focus wholly on working with individual teachers to think through how theatre could make a difference in focus, behavior, and peer interactions.
  • And not least, theater as love: Many SPARK students live with personal traumas: homelessness, domestic violence, or forced migration. Especially in middle school this often translated into withdrawal and apathy or eruptive bullying and fighting. To respond to the students fully — with love rather than with disappointment or frustration – teaching artists needed a whole new set of skills. We invited behavioral counselors to observe and critique how teaching artists addressed conflict, and we worked with experts like Shawn Ginwright to explore concrete strategies for working respectfully with youth with trauma. We realized that teaching artists have to build, not assume, safe spaces for creative learning. (For instance, we learned that a low-stakes final rehearsal might be a much better culminating event than a full-blown show. The final rehearsal can be about growth and persistence, rather than perfect performances where “messing up” can ignite anger or sadness.

In our fourth year, the successes outweigh the challenges but only because we have spent three years mapping out the consequences of raising the stakes on how we work.

 


 

The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
By Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

 

Two years ago, New Victory asked its teaching artists about joining the research team. The offer was a little mysterious — some of my colleagues joked about putting on “white coats over their plaid pants” — but the chance to stay engaged and gain new skills was intriguing. For many teaching artists, the only chance you get to “grow” is to add more gigs or become an administrator. But this unconventional investment in human capital has turned out to be beneficial to the research and to my own professional development.

What I realized is that, as a theatre teaching artist, I have many of the traits that make for an effective researcher. Specialized expertise in the field — check. Keen observation skills — check. The ability to make sense of complex human interactions unfolding — check. The habit of showing up on time, with props, ready to dive in — check. For example, one of my jobs as a researcher was to ask students to improvise the end to a short story they had seen on video. Right away, my theater instincts told me that students were overwhelmed by the task and not able to engage fully. Drawing on my teaching artistry, I knew that if I gave them clear one-step directions on becoming the character (e.g., “Okay, get in his last position, start moving like he did…) students would be able to take off. I kept it neutral (after all, I was the researcher not a fellow actor), but I found a way to launch their performances — possibly in a way that few PhDs would have hit upon.

And the consequences flowed the other way as well: being a researcher informed my teaching artistry. As a researcher, I had the luxury to witness all the nuances and micro-narratives unfolding in a classroom. I can see a lesson starting to implode: a broken pencil, a boy with no way to sharpen it, frustrated, who then distracts another student, who then throws the unsharpened pencil at a third student, and ka-boom, the theater lesson is over. I feel like I’ve developed a sixth sense for that first moment and ways to dive in and turn it around — for myself and for my colleagues. One day a fellow teaching artist opened up about feeling disheartened: “I don’t know what happened today — one of the most focused students was totally checked out!” As the observer, I saw tiny behaviors he missed among the 35 children. That student had been following closely the whole while, whispering responses to the friend with his head down on the table recovering from an earlier incident.

This chance to become a researcher has also changed my understanding of how impact actually happens. Getting the chance to witness a particular student over the course of a year illuminated the way that progress occurs: two steps forward, one step back, and less linear than it is layered. I now think and respond with that developmental map in mind.

With the SPARK project, the New Vic invested in developing a new kind of human capital: teaching-artist-researchers. We got the rare chance to dig deep. The theater got a trove of insights. We are both like miners who get to keep all the gold we’ve discovered.

 


 

The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
By Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

 

Increasingly, arts and cultural organizations are asked whether they contribute to the greater good. Answering that question is rarely simple, particularly at a time when public and private funders alike press organizations to prove that something they did (e.g., changing concert format, working with seniors, or running programs in juvenile detention centers) actually caused the change that they would like to claim (a more diverse audience, fewer doctor visits, or lowered rates of recidivism).

In the case of the SPARK program, we were looking to make the case that young people who participated became different from their peers: that time spent in the world of theater could cause stronger inter- and intra-personal skills. Like many evaluators, we turned to the existing research literature to find out how others have measured the growth in these hard-to-capture domains. This method of working from past research to inform new studies has many advantages: measures taken from the research literature often reflect years of conceptualization, testing, and refinement. So, drawing on past research, we decided to use a measure called Reading the Mind in the Eyes which assesses children’s knowledge of other people’s emotions by asking them to look at photos of the upper portion of faces and naming the emotion they detect there. Since becoming available twenty years ago, this measure has been used in over 500 published studies, including those examining the effects of theater education.

But the measure behaved in unexpected ways. We found that children participating in New Victory’s programming — over 90% of whom were young people of color — struggled to identify the emotions in the photos – the great majority of which portrayed adult Caucasian faces. Moreover, when young people selected an incorrect option, it often reflected a hostile emotion (e.g., anger). This was a moment when the tables turned: it was time for practice to inform research. The more diverse youth in SPARK classrooms had a message for research: to assess children’s ability to read emotion expressions validly, our photos had to represent the people whom SPARK students “read” and react to every day. By putting out a call to its diverse population of theater artists, New Victory staff helped to develop a revised measure that included people from a wide array of ages, cultures, and backgrounds.

We have just begun to collect data with this new tool. We may have still more to learn on our way to valid measures. But the experience opened all of our eyes — researchers, staff, and teaching artists — to the ways in which research tools reflect our assumptions, including whose faces are “universal”.  It was investing in sustained work in new neighborhoods, with young people of color who have not been the usual subjects of arts education research, that made this clear.

 


 

Curating Impact, Not Shows
By Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

 

In the SPARK project we ventured into new territory: we asked students as young as 8 to respond to in-seat surveys about the impact of a performance they had just seen. We wanted to know if young people could help us to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of live theater experiences.

Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

Our survey instrument includes quantitative measures of emotional response, anticipation, and impact, as well as open-ended questions pertaining to students’ curiosity and feelings about the performances. To make this work, house staff distribute the printed surveys and special pencils during the Q&A session following each performance. Then staff collect the student responses, and everyone heads out to their school buses waiting on 42nd Street within 10 minutes. As of the end of the 2017 school year, we will have collected approximately 2,000 surveys for nine shows. As completed surveys come in, we clean, code, and upload the data to an interactive dashboard through which New Vic staff can query the results.

So far, the results paint a picture of distinct “impact footprints”:

  • Shows featuring acrobatics, circus acts, and other spectacles tend to spark interest in the artists themselves and their training;
  • Story-based productions tend to elicit more questions about characters’ emotions and production design choices;
  • Shows with more complex narratives and character arcs evoke a greater mix of positive and negative emotions in students, which may be evidence of empathy development;
  • Both spectacle-based and story-based productions can produce powerful social bridging (i.e., learning about other people and cultures) and aesthetic growth outcomes (i.e., exposure to new art forms).

These results suggest that an artistic director is curating impact, as much as specific works. A season is a tour through a varied emotional landscape – an opportunity to explore a magnificent range of human emotions, ideas, and histories. Our work with New Vic has underscored the idea that “challenging” artistic work — work that draws on a wide emotional range, including feelings of sadness or disappointment — has an integral place in a well-curated season, alongside works that elicit feelings of joy and wonder.

The results from this study open a new chapter in our journey to understand the immediate effects or intrinsic impacts of arts programs on both children and adults. But this work is just beginning. Further analysis will investigate how students at different grade levels respond to the same work, whether students with more experience in the SPARK program respond differently, and how multiple points of intervention/exposure may stack to create greater impact.

 


 

And so…

Yes, these entries all focus on SPARK. Yes, we have identified only four of what might be multiple reverberations of undertaking new work. But inside that specificity are a set of fundamental questions that any cultural organization — zoo, museum, film center, or theater — ought to pose when investing in new practices and programs. How can your organization design (and also discover along the way) so that you reap:

  • Impact on the Raising the Stakes: When your organization works in new settings (or with new materials or issues) how high are you willing to set the stakes? Are you tinkering or changing the way you work? When a new program completes, or the funding goes away, has the organization stretched in lasting ways or does it snap back to doing business as usual?
  • Impact on Human Capital: If you undertake this work, who in your organization will have new opportunities to grow? How can those opportunities include employees who work “on the ground”?
  • Impact on Research: When you go to evaluate your work, do you (and your evaluation partners) look carefully at the assumptions that underlie your approaches and tools? Are you learning from what doesn’t work? Are you curious about why? Does your approach evolve?
  • Impact on Programming: Are you curating for impact? Do you adequately consider the array of emotional, social, and learning impacts that are likely to come from different works or experiences?

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