By Matthew Udland
I recently had a colleague ask about the importance of risk taking and creating a safe environment for the arts. Encouraging risk in any field (art or otherwise) really depends upon building a safe environment for learning and creativity. I find that planning ahead as a leader is a big part of encouraging artistic risk. If I am unprepared, the students feel too uneasy to try new techniques or experiment outside of their comfort zones. In vocal music, especially choral music, a director very much guides the artistic risk taking. We create a safe rehearsal environment that does not diminish people when they make mistakes in a serious way. We can all laugh at when we are terrible, and we can all celebrate when we are growing, and everyone will fall into both categories often enough that it begins to feel comfortable. So, an instructor often guides risk taking.
How can we create these safe classrooms? By making all students in the creative process feel valued. Ultimately, I believe all people have a basic desire to be needed and respected. Tell your students how you appreciate them! Compliment their failures. Build an environment where without failure, success is almost undeserved. In the arts, this helps students to appreciate the growth and creative process of reworking material… and by reworking a piece of art/music/theatre you create inherent value in the art and the people making it. It is also very important to show students that mistakes are a part of the creative process. I have to show them that even with 36 years of living, I still make the same mistakes they are making; while each of our struggles is unique, we are all also on the same journey of learning to create art.
In theatre, a director leads in a similar way. Because in both fields we most commonly work off of scripted materials that are envisioned first by people other than the performing artists, the room for destructive risk is less than for a visual artist who creates from scratch. A theatre director creates the safe space by having focused rehearsals that are closed when risk-behavior is required. An actor taking a risk is different than a singer in a choir of singers. Actors are being asked to take on characters and embody a completely different person. Wearing someone else’s shoes does not begin to cover the breadth of responsibility and actor feels to the characters they portray. Our students are often playing characters far outside of their comfort zones. They may be physically different, emotionally unstable, or more physically involved with other people than a student is in their day to day life.
To help the student in this situation, a safe space includes a feeling of safety with everyone in the room. It’s not enough to just have a quiet place that is free from outside eyes; you have to also be comfortable with the other actors in the room and the adult directors. The easiest way to do this is to create emotional connections within the cast, but some people are unwilling or unable to do this. In a professional setting, actors are trained to be able to create these relationships (or at least show these relationships) with little guidance. They are acting! Students however are still figuring it out. So instead of just hoping our students get there, we have to very openly discuss discomfort and try to get everyone on the same page and willing to invest in the art.
Ruminating on this topic has reminded me that our student’s emotional and artistic journeys are unique, and that if a student does not feel valued, included, and open to risk, we are doing the art we create a disservice and the education our students receive is diminished.