Monday, February 14, 2011

Dennis Baker

Earlier this month, I used my cellphone to interview Dennis Baker; a teaching artist, entrepreneur and social media expert. We had a wide-ranging conversation and here are the results. Dennis has kindly typed and edited the interview. It's good stuff.

Q: Hi Dennis! I am so glad you've agreed to answer a few easy questions. It's February 2nd, and I am in San Francisco. You are based in Los Angeles. We are doing this by phone, and since my cellphone bill is ludicrously high and I am underpaid,  I'll get right to it.

(Here we pause because an incredibly loud protest demonstration of California State Workers passes by banging drums and screaming something about draconian budget cuts. It will be over soon.)

Q: Dennis, what are the critical issues facing Teaching Artists?

Dennis Baker: Money is always a critical issue.  This is going to get some people upset, but I am going to say it, teaching artists are the migrant workers of the arts education field. Administration justifies paying $25/hour for a teaching artist with a masters degree in education, with no benefits, because they think that teaching artists choose to be freelance workers. Teaching artists are freelance workers, because there is no other choice. If there was a full time resident teaching artist position created, with the benefits and pay of an administrator, the teaching artist application pool would be huge. In the U.S., we live in a society where the goal is to get everything as cheap as possible, without truly asking what that means to the people that we pay the lowest price. This mindset does not account for the whole picture. I am not implying that every arts education organization chooses not to pay their teaching artists a living wage, but the standards are not at a sustainable level.

I think the issues that actors have with the amount of work, in relation to pay, is the same problem for teaching artists. In the acting field, there has been questions of why is there so many MFA programs, graduating actors year after year, for a field that can not sustain the numbers.  Some of the statistics are:

·      14.4% of Equity members (actors and stage managers) work in any given week in ’08-‘09

·      49.3% of Equity members are unemployed for the whole year of ’08-‘09

·      Median AEA member made $7,688 in ‘08-‘09

My guess is that these numbers are pretty close to the teaching artist field. We are seeing more and more schools creating theater education programs, for a field in which a teaching artist cannot make a living wage.  Why? One reason, higher education institutions are businesses. If there are enough students willing to pay for it, they will create a degree, with no consideration of whether there is a field to sustain their graduates. Manifest destiny is at the bedrock of all we do.  Grow and expand, without thinking of the consequences. Does any theater program advertise the above statistics? No, because their might be less student enrollment. So until we are willing to have a national conversation regarding the relation of higher education to the number of jobs in the field, there will be an ever-increasing supply and demand problem. Is the answer a union? That is a good start to increase standardized pay, but that will not address the amount of work in the field.

            Regarding pedagogical issues, how can we find ways to integrate the education of becoming a teaching artist with that of the classroom teacher?  Do teaching artists need to take some classes in a credential program?  As I begin to teach theater education and teaching artistry, I find that I am lacking in truly understanding the mindset of the classroom teacher.  While I know the basics through working with teachers in the past, and looking at state standards, in general teaching artists do not know the language of classroom teachers and principals.

Q: What is the future field for professional Teaching Artistry? Where are we and where are we going?

Dennis Baker: There is no doubt that the field has come into its own in the last decade. The field and conversation has grown. It is a time to truly reflect and find ways to move forward in a sustainable manner. Sustainability needs to be the future of the field.  We are not there yet. We are pockets of people without a unified voice. We live in a time where business and entertainment is looked in higher regard than education. For sustainability to occur, this national mindset will need to shift.  Without this national shift, we are a field that is fighting for scraps at the table.  Honestly, I am talking of a change that is beyond any of our life times, if it is to happen at all. In the mean time, one needs to be a creative, entrepreneurial teaching artist. 

Q: Dennis, I see you working all over the place. You're on Twitter. You're an actor, teaching artist, fight director, audition coach, web designer, and social media expert. Aren't you exhausted? I mean, how are you pulling all of this off?

A: Individuals in business are learning what it is like to live and work with less, something artists have always done. At the same time the entrepreneur discussion that is going on in the business sector is something artists need to be listening to and figuring ways to adapt it to the teaching artist field.  Artists can learn just as much from people like Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki as they could from leaders in the education field.  While living in New York, and planning to move back to Los Angeles, I was talking to a fellow teaching artist expressing my concern that Los Angeles did not have the same infrastructure for work in the theater arts education.  He said, well then you will have to create your own. What keeps me positive is that we as humans are adaptable. How are we as teaching artists creating our own work? How are we forging relationships with teachers, principals, school districts and organizations to create opportunities for work?  We need more of these conversations in the field. Coming out of graduate school, I was hired into a one of the biggest theater education organizations in New York.  There I formed my teaching artistry, but due to the size, all the business aspects was taken care of for me. I just had to show up for the various curriculum trainings, give them my availability, and they would email me with jobs. That is not the norm. So how do we become entrepreneurial teaching artists?

First, what do you do exactly? You might say I am a teaching artist. Too broad. What is your niche, your specialty? What are the two to three things that you are good at teaching? Shakespeare? Physical Theater? Elementary age children? In the area where you live and work, you need to be considered the expert in areas of your specialty. This is where living outside a metropolis might help you. It takes more work for me to be considered an expert in a theater or acting field in Los Angeles then it would for a teaching artist working in a field that is less populated with theater artists.

Second, do people know you are an expert in that field? This is where connection is key. Are you in conversation through social media, attendance at school district functions, PTA meetings, etc. You need to be at the places where you can make connections with people that would want to hire you. Principals, teachers, parents need to know you exist.  Are you reading the mommy blogs, and commenting on posts in regards to education? Are you at the school district meetings?  Are you using social media, not as a tool to talk, but as a tool to listen?  So many people say I don’t get twitter, what am I supposed to say.  Don’t say anything, just listen.  Listen to the conversation that is being held on the local level, as well as the national level.

Third, create a need that then you can fill.  Businesses are great at this.  They sell us a product that we don’t even know we need, and once we do, they are there to provide us with it.  Everyone agrees that education is important and needed, but what does that mean?  How can you go about influencing hearts and minds in your local community that the work of a teaching artist is needed? There is numerous articles that show how arts education is needed, but minds are not changed with statistics, they are changed through experience.  How can you provide administrators, teachers, parents and students with an experience in where they have an “a ha” moment and realize that teaching artist work is needed in their school, community organization and community?

Lastly, in this current time you will not make a living wage as a teaching artist. While you need to find your niche within the teaching artist field, you need to diversify your job skill set. You need to find other part-time freelance jobs that will compliment your teaching artist work.

Here, all conversation ended because those last few sentences from Dennis nearly killed me. I encourage you to read it again to yourself, slowly, carefully and aloud.

Thank you Dennis Baker for your thoughtful comments on the state of the field. Fellow teaching artists, if you would like to join this ongoing conversation, push the comment button below or email us here.