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Archive for Leadership

Perseverance

In the past few weeks, I have had the fortunate opportunity to clinic sixteen shows in different parts of Texas.  I always leave feeling challenged, inspired, and blessed.  This past weekend, I returned with a huge appreciation for the life lessons we teach students while working on a production.  We teach students about perseverance, commitment, and the strength we gain when working with others.

As I have worked with each director, I recognize the toll the long hours and stress put on each of us.  Preparing for the competition season, working within a budget, lesson planning, teaching, grading etc. (not to mention having a family) is draining on all of us.  With the earlier contest dates, we are all scrambling to re-adjust our schedules to be prepared for that first contest.  Even with the best-laid plans, unexpected delays seem to pop up.  I know many of you have had additional, unforeseen complications with obtaining production rights, commitments (or should I say non-commitments) from students, and the flu season.

About the time I am at the end of my stress level and ready to throw in the towel, I am reminded of the invaluable lessons we are teaching our students as we press through all of the obstacles to prepare our production.   When students see us continuing to work hard, staying positive, working around all hurdles, they are learning life lessons.  These are the lessons a student cannot learn from a book, they learn from example and their own experience.  This is why we continue to pick up our bootstraps and keep moving forward.

In the past couple of weeks, I know of three productions that have had to start all over.  All three companies had created their super-objective and commanding image, prepared their scripts, begun costuming, designed a set, gathered props, etc.   Their students had already memorized their lines, were blocking and developing a character.  Then, because of some unexpected obstacle, the current production had to be halted.  I am afraid in today’s society, too many people would give up and quit – but not theatre teachers.  We know how to look at the worst of situations and turn them into the best possible scenario.  What a gift we give our students.

We all could tell stories about companies who pulled together to overcome complications – stories about changing productions with few rehearsals left before a contest or opening night, students who failed to commit, administration that stopped a show or concept, unfortunate accidents or sicknesses.  This list could go on and on.   Very few times can we name the times a company quit because of these unfortunate incidents.  Instead, we have watched as directors and students pulled together to produce quality theatre.  More importantly, we have watched as directors taught young adults how to persevere in life.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  We cannot quit in the face of adversity,

As I watched a group of young actors enthusiastically welcome a production change due to the lack of commitment from some of their classmates and peers, I stood in awe.  I never heard one complain.  I never heard one say they could not do it or that it could not be done.  I watched these students embrace the challenge with a contagious eagerness.  Those students are the ones who will survive in life.  They are the ones who will succeed in their endeavors because they did not quit when it was difficult.  They backed up, re-evaluated the situation and embraced a solution.

As theatre teachers, we begin modeling how to persist through adversity early in the production process. When we begin designing a set and have to adapt our vision with the reality of the space, contest or our budget, we are modeling perseverance.   When we find the need to recast the lead actor, we are demonstrating how to work through adversity.   Students watch us face an obstacle, re-evaluate and develop a solution through all aspects of the production process.  I realize now, that every time we adjust our plan of action to meet the needs or restrictions at the moment, we are modeling life lessons to our students.  What a gift we give our students every day without even realizing it.

As you continue preparing for your competition season, don’t disregard the little lessons you are teaching everyday.  Every time you stay positive in the face of adversity, your students are watching you.  Every time you refuse to give up or quit and, instead, continue to work hard, re-evaluate and keep going, you are modeling the lessons in life that make people succeed.   Those lessons are more important than any administrative evaluation or trophy you can win.

 

 

 

“Kid Power”: Leadership for the New Year

I love the promise of a new year.  The holiday usually gives me some much-needed rest and I am full of energy and hope for the second semester.  I would have time to get prepared for the first few weeks back and I was always eager to start work on the next production.  Success for the new year means doing your best to anticipate the challenges that come with all that is the Spring Semester.  However, this doesn’t mean you do everything alone.  Certainly, having partner teachers is a plus but even if you are the lone wolf in the drama department you are not on your own.

Since leaving the classroom, I have become more aware of the most powerful partnership I had as a teacher.  That partnership is what I now refer to as “Kid Power”.  I truly miss “Kid Power”.  Frequently, I think to myself how many of my tasks in my current administrative role would be so much better if I had students sharing their skills, planning ideas, and most of all, using their physical power. From offering suggestions on projects, planning and organizing, and setting up sets or building, students are the power behind any successful program.

Students have so much to offer and can certainly use their skills to assist in making your classroom instruction and productions run smoothly.  Now that you have had a semester to build relationships, it is time to challenge your students with opportunities to own their learning and take on more responsibility. January is the time to engage your students and develop their “Kid Power”. A new year is the right time to empower students to become leaders.

“Leadership is the wise use of power. Power is the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it.” -Warren Bennis, scholar, author, and pioneer in leadership studies

You really can’t be a leader without having power, which most dictionaries define as “the ability to act.”

You know that with class and productions your plate will be full for the second semester.  Now is the time to grow your own leaders and transform your students into partners in learning by embracing their power. One way for students to embrace their power is by feeling a strong sense of self-efficacy—a strong belief that they can accomplish their goals. William Glasser calls this quality the “power within.” Developing “Kid Power” in the classroom means helping students embrace their ability to own their part in learning.  So many students have learned, through school, that they are passive receivers of knowledge and theatre is a fantastic venue to promote learning as an action.  Letting students know that learning is something done, not something done to you and they need to take action and decide how they want to learn is necessary to take your classes to the next level. Setting up differentiated lessons where students have choices on how they will demonstrate mastery of skills is a great way to offer opportunities for students to harness their power.

Teaching students about learning strategies can also strengthen self-efficacy. This is different from teaching skills. Being able to start a car with a key in the ignition is a skill, but if you lose your car keys, you need strategies. “Kid Power” helps students gain the capacity to tackle unforeseen problems by emphasizing comprehension.  Students are empowered to categorize information, identify patterns and problem solve in theatre without a teacher always telling the “rule” in advance. For the second semester, challenge your students to solve problems without spelling everything out.  It will be messy and if you are a control freak, like me, it can be hard to watch, but when you watch them develop and begin to work together and collaboratively use their creativity, you will find they will surprise you with exciting ideas and innovative techniques.

If you are concerned that your classes may not be ready for the responsibility I suggest, it is important to note that Glasser suggests that 95 percent of classroom management issues occur as a result of students trying to fulfill a need for power. When we share power with our students, it doesn’t mean that we “have less power” —but it can mean we’ve created more possibilities for learning and leadership. You have already laid the groundwork for “Kid Power” by building relationships with students.  As you head into the next semester, continue to explore your students’ self-interests, hopes, and dreams, and be better prepared to more explicitly connect lessons to them.

Another way to shift your classroom to “Kid Power” is to provide opportunities for students to teach others. Teaching others not only requires students to reread and return to learned material but it also enhances self-confidence and provides good modeling for peers. I often used the “jigsaw” concept—in which students become experts and teach each other about a topic in small groups.  I usually required students to provide an original visual or performance to teach their assigned material. Small groups of students can teach short lessons to other small groups, who then reverse roles.  Another strategy asks individual students to prepare short fill-in-the-blank statements and then exchange them, keeping in mind that their statements need to be carefully designed so that their peers can use context clues to complete them.

The classroom is not the only place where students can exercise their power. I know most of us trust a student to be a stage manager or perhaps you trust and give power freely to that light board technician kid who knows the board like the back of his hand but, I want to challenge you to embrace “Kid Power” for the entire company.
Your students can help get the word out about your productions.  I always asked my best students to bring at least two new students to the audition for the next show. I asked them to listen for great readers and speakers in their English classes or great presenters in other classes.  They would often get excited about finding someone to bring to an audition that would ultimately get cast.  They took great pride in their recruiting skills and casting eye and the students they brought were so happy to find theatre and become part of the team.

I would often prepare a 1 page audition announcement flyer for them to hand out with the following information to help new recruits:

  1. Title of the Show
  2. Performance Dates
  3. Important Details (Special performance times or requirements)
  4. Production Team Positions Open
  5. Kind of Audition (Musical or Play)
  6. Audition Dates
  7. What to Prepare
  8. What Type of Performers are Needed (Age, Gender, and Special Skills)
  9. Brief Synopsis

It is important to remember that “Kid Power” doesn’t mean Seniority.  Seniority has its place but “Kid Power” is about building leadership skills for all students and helping students own their department.  When you create opportunities for all students to make an impact in production you build commitment and you see less students abandoning the process mid-stream.  Students see their power as immediate and know that you trust them with responsibilities.  Certainly we are good at assigning leadership roles for certain students but the task of “Kid Power” comes in finding opportunities for all.

All students can cast the play.  This is a wonderful activity at auditions to help students understand the responsibility and difficulty of casting.  I required that all actors and technicians interested in participation in the play submit their cast list in writing as the last activity before I dismissed them from the audition.  This is something they did not discuss with others and many struggled with the task but it helped them understand the responsibility of a director.

All students can lead warm-ups.  Have your stage manager model leading a 10 minute vocal and physical warm-up for the company.  Then have them create a calendar that allows for every student to have at least 1 rehearsal where they lead the company in warm-ups.  This 10 minutes at the start of every rehearsal allows for you to have time to get set up and problem solve before each rehearsal.  Students can repeat traditional warm-ups or introduce new warm-ups to the company that might just become traditions. Have students plan for end of rehearsal reflection activities.  Each student should have a rehearsal they are responsible for running reflections.  If you are like me and use a “source wall” (See Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints) when doing table work for a production, students can rotate responsibility for updating items on the wall and presenting to the group.

All students can offer suggestions for improvement and by creating an open communication system, students can offer suggestions for what scenes they may need to work on more.  Developing an appropriate way to share ideas, students can help problem solve difficult scene changes, costume issues or blocking concerns.

All students can develop and deliver your 3-5-7-9.  On a 3×5 card, have students write your department’s mission and goals in 7 sentences.  They should practice delivering this message in less than 90 seconds as an elevator speech to promote what your department or production is all about.  This 3-5-7-9 technique can be used to recruit students to the program or invite folks to come see your latest play. You can also use this strategy with Twitter by having students use 140 characters to tweet about the show or the program.

It is important to note that “Kid Power” does not mean you don’t make decisions.  It is important to establish that student leadership is respected in your department but you are there to guide them and ensure their safety to prepare them to promote what is best for all students.

Using “Kid Power” doesn’t mean there won’t be teachable moments, times when you will need to intervene and hit the re-set button or that you will not need to re-direct students who make poor choices or choose to use their “power” for ill.  However, the benefits of embracing “Kid Power” or student leadership far outweigh the risks and students are more prepared for post- graduation because of their experiences.  Here are some of the ways embracing student leadership in theatre can better prepare your students:

  • Having their abilities recognized by others is empowering, and the work students do in a leadership role is likely to be recognized and help them gain confidence.
  • Public speaking plays a major role in many careers today. You teach your students to speak with confidence and poise to diverse groups about your department’s mission and goals (running warm-ups, reflections, critiques, planning, 3-5-7-9, etc.). Diplomacy skills and persuasion tactics are applicable to almost any career.
  • Student leaders aren’t only responsible for themselves – they also have extended responsibilities that affect a wide range of people. Leaders of a group must not only make sure that tasks get done, but that all members of the department are performing to the best of their abilities. If someone doesn’t follow through on a task, leaders make sure that, ultimately, the task is completed. This responsibility can be a lesson on how to hold others accountable.
  • A play is the ultimate collaborative project. Student leaders must learn to establish priorities and compromise when necessary. Success occurs when the integrity of the production is maintained and everyone involved feels valued and empowered. This form of negotiation is invaluable for helping any group meet its goals, including professional teams in the workforce.
  • A strong leader is one whose management skills become second nature. Leaders must oversee operational tasks, make budgets, prioritize workloads, build consensus and perform other executive duties as necessary. Students will likely make mistakes, but learning how to handle them now, through play production and with you as a safety net, can better prepare them for college or the workforce.
  • Student leaders have many obligations to meet while maintaining a full course load and attending to other personal responsibilities. It will take some creative problem-solving to get everything done and keep life in balance. Leadership experiences allow students to hone multitasking abilities that future job and life responsibility demands.
  • College recruiters and employers recognize the responsibilities that student leaders take on, and they respect the initiative it shows to be a leader a play production. With leadership experience on their resume, they are more likely to get the attention of a recruiter or hiring manager. A student leadership role is also a great talking point during interviews.

Happy New Year! and best wishes for a “Kid Power”-ed semester.  Your leadership and extra effort with your students means they are not only becoming well rounded theatrical professionals but they are also honing skills and techniques that empower them to be successful in learning and in life.  Enjoy the partnership with your students and celebrate the promise of new beginnings!

 

 

Washington DC Needs More Verbs

Rick Washington DC

The following is a message I sent to a fellow teacher and dear friend,

“Hi JJ. Thank you for the wonderful resources you provided to help me prepare my words for my trip to DC. My trip was exciting, but I am sad to report that I left feeling very small in the world of bureaucracy. I appreciated the opportunity to share my stories and my experiences. Secretary John B. King Jr. is a kind and gentle soul. He was attentive and I saw the same concern in his face as I see in my dad’s face; they care for their children. But the words I heard from other educators in the room were the same stories of frustration I’ve heard in faculty meetings for the past 37 years. All the teachers there were passionate; a few were prolific and hinted at solutions. I was saddened because it was a gathering of great ideas, but no real discussion of what to do with those great ideas, or more accurately, how to fund those great ideas. I cried a lot yesterday. I felt sad for kids who get lost. I felt sad for schools that lose funding and get closed. I felt sad for Secretary King because the federal government’s relationship with the states and districts is complicated. I thought public school was bad, I discovered Washington DC is bureaucracy on steroids.”

JJ’s reply,

“I’m sorry to hear that Rick. I understand and I cry often too. But remember that sometimes we can’t change the ‘outside’ world. The only way to change things is to create our own small worlds and allow them to ripple out. The outside world is corrupt with greed and warped notions. But when some small movement begins and finds success, it takes hold and can’t be stopped. Every movement in the world started with a handful of people, you know that. From revolutions to the Renaissance. Did you know that many movements started with a group of students taught by the same teacher? Or a group of free thinkers in a pub? They didn’t try to change the world that existed around them. They created their own world…and it spread because the world was ripe for change. Don’t worry about old paradigms. When new worlds are created, the old worlds crumble. Focus on creating your world, the one you have been building all along. That is the future. It will happen. This is the way change happens. Ab intra. From within.”

JJ Jonas teaches at Salado High School in Salado, TX. She is one of the most creative and dynamic individuals I know. “Focus on creating your world,” she advised me. I love writing and receiving letters rather than concise bullet point memos. Her longer note to me is filled with verbs. An actor understands verbs. The Maestro phrase is “Actors perform actions; all actions are verbs.”  “Focus and create.”  Artists do this well.

The inequity in funding for arts in educational programming, fine arts facility construction, and fine arts equipment is historical. Even in the U.S. Department of Education I learned that the Office of Innovation and Improvement, who supports art in education, is equally limited (and in my opinion, embarrassingly limited) in the budget they are allotted. I was shocked when I compared their budget with the budget of the office for Title 1 and Title 2. Title 1 and Title 2 money targets students’ academic performance and teacher training. And despite generations of statistics that prove that involvement in the arts improves academic performance and keeps kids in schools, administrators still do not equally support the arts. Why can’t administrators hear the power of the verbs “improve” and “keep”?

The current trend to overwhelmingly fund science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) programs is dangerous. School boards and principals will funnel Title 1 and 2 grants away from humanities programs (which include the arts) because no principal wants to be slapped in the face with low performance scores. No principal wants the embarrassment of having a school closed. That pressure is immense, especially in rural communities where the school is the anchor for jobs and the heartbeat for local economy. So long as we have school performance tests, money will go to those areas to insure additional funds and to successfully meet the right amount of penciled in bubbles. So long as we have money tied into school performance tests, local legislators will interpret federal recommendations and policy to benefit their constituents and disregard the ethical intent of the grants.

Do not get me wrong, I do not want a test for theatre to justify federal grants because many of the skills the fine arts teach cannot be penciled into a bubble. I understand the need to learn STEM skills, but not at the expense of what the humanities teach:  how to think, how to communicate, how to solve, how to see what is not there, to name a few. Art skills taught me how to turn lack of resources into resourcefulness, how to take risks and leave a family farm and dismiss cultural pressures to stay home. I am a fulltime teacher and also run four other businesses. I add to the local economy via my art skills. The arts taught me entrepreneurship. Most students that take fine arts or even major in fine arts to do not become “professional artists”, yet those who do deserve a loud applause. But notice that many students that major in accounting do not become accounts or students who major in history do not become museum curators. Many of the acting majors from my college class became very good lawyers and no one questions that their acting skills are valued in a court room.

“Focus on creating your world,” JJ said. The art educator is persistent, and I think our best skill is the ability to see what is not there…yet. Despite inadequate funding we will continue to produce art. Despite inadequate funding we will continue to educate kids and provide them opportunities to succeed. Why would we do this when so many teachers feel underappreciated and ignored? Because the teacher, like the artist, is also passionate. And when you follow your passion, well happiness triumphs over pessimism.

Upon my return, I shared my experience with my students. I cried a lot Friday because like many artists and teachers, I’m philosophical and sensitive and in my heart I know what is ethically correct. I cried because I hate feeling and sounding cynical. I also cried when I told my students about A.S. Johnston High School where Celeste Rodriguez-Jensen attended school in east Austin.

Celeste is the director of The Teacher Liaison National Engagement Team for The U.S. Department of Education, the program that invited me to DC. Celeste is also one of my alumni. I was filled with pride as I saw my once 17-Rick Garcia and Celeste Rodriguez-Jensenyear-old student incorporate her UIL One-Act-Play stage manager skills to coordinate a national gathering of teachers. I mentioned to Secretary King, that her school closed her junior year because the school failed to meet academic standards. Yet here she was in the same room, in charge and successful. The Every Student Succeeds Act should include all the future Celeste Rodriguez’s in fine arts programs across the country who are practicing skills to better our world.

My first trip to Washington DC was tough but appreciated. The National Mall exudes art:  the designs, the museums, the lighting, the architecture, the history and stories preserved. Thank you Secretary King for listening to my stories. I teach at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Upper School in Austin, TX. I will continue to pray for your leadership and not worry about those critical of separation of church and state. And regarding this particular issue of educating kids, I will also pray that the gap close between between Washington DC and the states and districts. “Think globally. Act locally” is a great slogan, but I still believe that there are those in power who are better positioned to fight for change on a large scale. Thank you for allowing this soldier’s input. Thank you Celeste for being a model of how every student can succeed.

Thank you, JJ Jonas for all you do in Salado, TX. And thank you to all the fine arts teachers who continue to create resourcefulness from lack of resources. Thank you for making students’ success your trophies. Oh, and thank you JJ for the verbs. “All actions are verbs.”  Actors know actions.

Rick Garcia was one of 14 fine arts educators who were invited to Washington DC to meet with Secretary of Education, John B. King Jr. August 31, 2016. You can learn more about the monthly “Tea With Teachers” gathering and also sign up for the newsletter, The Teachers Edition at U.S. Department of Education www.ed.gov

 

 

 

Using One Word to Kick Off the New School Year and Add a New Dimension to Productions

book

This summer, our administrative team was challenged to read One Word that Will Change Your Life by Jon Gordon, Dan Britton, and Jimmy Page.  In 1999, these authors discovered a better way to become their best and live a life of impact. Instead of creating endless goals and resolutions, they found one word that would be their driving force for the year. No goals. No wish lists. Just one word. You can access a video explaining the concept as well as resources and how to purchase the book at getoneword.com.

The book boasts that your life will become more rewarding and exciting than ever once you find your one word. One Word is supposed to create clarity, focus, power, and passion for your year. The concept behind One Word is that it impacts all six dimensions of your life – mental, physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, and financial. The idea is that once you find your word, you live it, and you share it.

One of my colleagues swears by this book and has used One Word for the last 3 years.  She chose the word “Pause” the first year to remember that she needed to take time to reflect and appreciate as she went through her year.  The second year she chose the word “Keep” to focus herself on keeping the things she loved close and to keep going on the path she had planned.  This last year she chose the word “Fierce” and used it to encourage bold, fearless choices to move herself forward.

Although I could tell my colleague was passionate about how using One Word had shaped her life and promoted meaningful change, I have to admit that I was not excited about reading this book. I certainly expected a cheesy, idealistic, feel good book that would quickly find its way sandwiched between many other books I have been required to read and have never referenced or used for action in my life. When I received it, I was happy to see it would be an easy read and I started it immediately to get it out of the way. However, as I read the book, I found that the concept really seemed to be a simple way to approach goal setting and echoed some of the same ideas I have embraced for play production.

The concept is similar to the idea of a commanding image for a production and as I read I realized One Word could translate not only as a tool for teachers to use personally but also for students to use.  Students can define their word as it relates to their personal goals but One Word can also be used to set a goal for a whole class or compassiondepartment. Choosing one word could be a great way to kick off your year with your students.  Writing the word on notecards or posters and making a focus wall where all the words are displayed is a great way to have students establish ownership of the classroom or performance space.

Some campuses have written their words on rocks and placed them in front of the school or have written their one word on an object important to the team or group.

stones

You can have students design the word with colors and shapes to exemplify the word or even combine all the words chosen by your students to create a wordle at wordle.net. The One Word website even has a reflection activity for the end of the year to consider how the use of One Word impacted your students’choices made throughout the year.

Now, using One Word as a unifying activity for the start of the year is a cool idea but what really excited me about the concept was using it in production.  Certainly using it to unify the production company came to mind but, I am intrigued about using One Word as a character building activity. What if actors chose one word for their character as an extension of their word cloudsuper objective?  How would selecting one word, in character, change their focus, clarity, passion and power in performance? I am curious to see if selecting one word helps students who can get in their heads too much while trying to portray a role. What if the One Word concept could simplify the process for students who struggle to actively play their tactics in pursuit of their character’s objective? Could choosing one word for their character help them make mental, physical, emotional, relational and spiritual choices for their character in the play? I certainly think it could be a valuable tool in the production process and I encourage you to give it a try.

I hope this school year brings you clarity, focus, power and passion.  Your work inspires and engages students in ways that connect all their studies to the bigger picture of creative problem solving and synergized learning.  Embrace your one word and let it guide you through a successful year of discovery and growth.  Share your one word on the Maestro Theatre Publications, LLC Forum.  Good Year to you and Good Show!!!!

 

Rick, Dad, a Porch, and Art

To start off the school year I made two lists for my advance theatre students. I’ll give them the two topics and ask them to generate their own lists; we will discuss their recordings; then I will share my lists with them.  The first is a list of things theatre teaches.  The second is a list of traits creative people possess. This blog will address my views on the skills theatre instills.porch

The arts in general add to a well-rounded education; as a student I knew I loved my fine art classes but I did not have the vocabulary or understanding of the practices that were shaping me to become more confident, successful and healthy.  Theatre had no value in my rural, Mexican-American, lower socio-economic world. My first exposure to theatre was church Christmas programs and a first grade musical where every grade sang a different song which loosely propelled a weak plot.  So there was not a lot of exposure to theatre from my family or my early school years.  My dad was visiting this week-end, as I was writing this blog; we have great conversations, so I thought I’d get his views on art in his farmer-rancher life. Our conversation provided some insight to begin my list of skills theatre instills.  Throughout the blog I have bold some phrases; their highlight alludes to my discoveries and marks ideas for me to later define as skills.  I hope the bold does not distract from the story-telling, but rather models the process of how I accomplished my list.

I approached the subject by asking my dad, “Where’s your old saxophone?”

My dad, Aureliano (Willie) Garcia, dropped out of school in the 6th grade.  He blames my grandfather who lured him to stay home on the family ranch with a new tractor which needed a skilled operator. Farming and ranching are the only life he ever knew; he is now 85 years old. He is passionate about working the land and it pains me to see his frustration because he can no longer climb onto his tractor as easily as he once did. His back can no longer endure the arduous, rhythmic hours of back and forth tractor U-turns.   With only a 6th grade education, my dad is the smartest man I know. Dad was also a very skilled alto sax musician.

On my front porch over-looking the Texas hill country, oak trees, some near-by grazing deer, fawn and buck we sipped our early morning coffee and I asked him, “Where’s your old saxophone?” His face changed. I saw his eyes drop.  Like me, Dad has a very serious face. My friends were scared of him saying he looked mean.  I now recognize Dad’s constant expression as one of deep thought and wisdom.  His eyes and wrinkles were not reflecting meanness, but instead a sign of earnest thought and contemplation. Dad is quick to opine and often interrupts, but not this time. I saw his lips tightened, hesitating. It was as if the muscle memory in his lips tasted the old wooden saxophone reeds.  It was as if his lost gaze scouted dancers circling a wooden dance floor.

“Well, when your mom asked me to quit the band… (pause) she asked if I loved the band more than my young kids?  Well, I put the saxophone under the bed and that ended the band.”  He’s silent again looking down the old rock side walk that leads to my porch, but that’s not what he’s sees. I know that he sees what is not there; he sees a corn colored saxophone case. He feels the old royal-burgundy velvet lining that cradled a shiny brass artifact.  That beautiful saxophone is his symbol of a passion stronger than old stepping stones. He understands symbols. His silence breaks, “Years later, I gave the saxophone to your brother, Frank, when he started band in school.”

Dad and his fellow cotton farmer-rancher-brothers, played in a band named Los Hermanos Garcia.  My grandfather, a land owner, in Spur, Texas, owned a dance hall on the south end of Main Street and on weekends the music of Los Hermanos Garcia provided a much needed escape for the barracks of migrant workers and local field hands who hoed weeds or picked cotton. “What was your favorite song to play?”  With no hesitation he surprisingly answered, “Five Minutes More.” He even sang a bit of the refrain for me.  I was expecting him to announce a conjunto title, not a Frank Sinatra tune.  The conjunto sound originated in south Texas and was influenced by the German setters who introduced the accordion and oompah-pah rhythms. Los Hermanos Garcia played conjunto-polkas, jitter-bug, and country and western. They covered the music of Isidro Lopez, Gene Autry, Lefty Frizell, and Conjunto Bernal.

Dad loves to tell the story of how he met my Mom, Lupe Gaona. He was on stage playing his saxophone, when he saw her from a distance and knew he’d better go dance with her fast before another guy beat him to her.  He bowed out of a song or two to request a dance.  He says, “I held her as delicately as I held my sax.”  Dad was slick.

“Did you take music lessons?”  He laughs and shakes his head at how ridiculous my question was.  As a child he imitated his Uncle Martin’s finger placements and taught himself to play the violin.  “Me and my Tio Martin’ were hired to play the fiddle for White people’s parties,” he brags.   He later saw a travelling band come through Spur and heard his first saxophone. His father bought him a sax and once again, Dad taught himself how to play.

“How?” I ask.

I could just feel it.  I don’t know; I just tried it ‘til it sounded right.  You have talent teaching and with drama; everybody has a talent. ” Dad is also a deacon at our family parish church, St. Michael’s in Ralls, TX.  His explanation segues into scripture as naturally as notes blend into harmonic chord progressions. “The arm can’t do what the legs can do; the eyes can’t do what the ears can do.  People have different skills. But it takes the whole body to make things work.”

“Do you miss the saxophone?”

“I sing at church.  I like when the guitars play at church.”

“But do you miss playing the saxophone?”

“I miss driving the tractor more,” he laughs.

As a student of art, a student of how creativity works, or just as an artist, I know that sometimes words are not enough to express a feeling.  Art tries to capture that mammoth inexplicable emotion via color, via line, via dance, via the images and poetry of theatre. Does my dad miss the saxophone music he created? Of course he does, but a simple yes or a shamed no is too easy.  To store one’s passion underneath a bed is… is … is too emotional to describe.

“When we played at those Saturday night dances, I knew we made people feel good, relax, dance, have fun. When I played the saxophone I got into the music; I could feel it and the music made me forget how tired we were. My body got into it; I use to swing the sax up and down while I played, not dancing or showing off. My arms just had to move with the music.  The people thought it was show, but it wasn’t.”

As an artist, I understand how art gives people pleasure and an escape and a collective gathering of universal themes and spirit. Art also gives people the opportunity to improve the quality of life in a community.  Art provides for social and emotional development, even in a dance hall in Spur, Texas. Remember your first dance?

“Were the Mexican migrant workers ok with ya’ll playing Country and Western and Jitterbug, not just Spanish music?”

“They loved it!  Everybody liked to Jitterbug.  It’s good too for a band to have different songs, some slow ones, some fast one, some English ones, some Spanish ones.”

As an artist I know how the arts can teach empathy and cultural diversity, multiple perspectives. I understand how the collaboration of theatre reflects equitable opportunity.  Art teaches that there is more than one way to reach the same goal.   The world is complex and art teaches that small differences can have huge effects.  Dad did not know that Conjunto music has its origins in German roots, “No; Conjunto is Mexican music he argued.” Once I explained and had him listen to some oompah-pah on You Tube, he said, “Well our Mexican food is better.” Competition is also a wonderful American right.

“Let me ask you a question Rick,” my Dad interjected, “You don’t listen to the radio when you drive. You don’t have a television in this house; don’t you like music?”

He’s correct; I’m the family odd ball when it comes to loud parties and music.  “I like quiet,” I explained what he already knew; “I need time to shut out everything around me and listen to what’s inside my head.”

“I pray too,” my dad added creating a harmonic jump in our theme. “You like to write; you tell good stories. When I’m writing my homily for church, I meditate.”

“I learned to tell stories from your sermons,” I complimented him; “I can tell the congregation loves when you talk.  I learned by listening to your stories.”

“God gave you that gift, not me,“ he corrects me.

As an artist I understand the spirit that the arts fulfill. I get lost in the passion of directing a play or writing or designing; I forget it’s late and do not even need sleep when the inspiration clicks.  My dad says he could feel the music.  When one synchs with one’s passion, it’s holy and complete.

Aureliano Garcia wanted all his sons to grow up and be farmers and ranchers.  Although not one of his five sons followed, I, the least likely candidate, am now the caretaker of our family ranch. I was a horrible teen farmer; I broke everything.  Dad once told me it was going to be cheaper to put me through college that to keep me on the farm.   This morning I asked him if he remembered how several years ago I wanted to implement some changes at the ranch. He shook his head no. I described how I wanted to reroute some of the ranch roads and do some landscaping.  I explained how I thought the road would be prettier skirting the hillside bluffs and winding around some trees by the stock tank.  I wanted to put some flowering bushes at the entrance gate.  He still did not recall this.  I remind him of his reaction, “This is a ranch not a park!”  We both laughed.

Like an artist, I know Dad understands the need for beauty and aesthetics.  He loves to tell the stories of how straight he cultivated his fields; “and we didn’t have that GPS,” he reminds me.  He often critiques the amateur lop-sided structure of round hay bales he sees in fields. My dad has much pride in his work.  He sometimes mentions the inconsistent color scheme of mixed-breed cows in some rancher’s herds.  Art gives individuals a connection with a deeper beauty. 

Several years ago, I considered moving back to the ranch; the romantic isolation might provide a better setting for my writing. I discussed it with my Dad.  He wisely noted, “We would like to have you here, but you belong in the city.”

The artist in me taught me to take risks and leave “la familia”. The artist in me allowed me to turn the obstacles of poverty and void of college education in our family into resourcefulness. The artist in me teaches me to shake things up, remain curious, and to fail and still look up.

Like my brother, Frank, I also played a saxophone in the Ralls High School band and was a small part of what, in unison, created something big. I also performed in our school’s theatre; learned to experience other worlds; learned to walk around in someone else’s shoes.  I designed and built sets; I found satisfaction and pride in my work, it made me proud of blue collar construction skills learned from life on a farm. I wrote in our school journalism program and craved the creative writing opportunities in English classes. All arts bring a project to fruition.  It taught me to connect the dots and see what was not already there. 

Dad was not a patron of the theatre.  He saw all my football and basketball games, but he never saw me on the high school stage. He didn’t see me perform until I was 30 years old in Cucuy, The Mexican Bogeyman, a one-man-show I had written, directed, and performed.  The show was an autobiographical piece about growing up rural, Mexican, and poor. It was about the artistic traits that alienated and labeled me ugly names in a country town. The play also wove traditional Hispanic folklore into my personal ghost stories, my skeletons in the closet.  Just before the show, my mom came backstage and said, “You know your father’s in the audience.”  She was referring to a piece in the show which recounted Dad’s absence from home and alcohol abuse.  Mom continued, “We are real proud of you, but I don’t like the way you talk about your father and I don’t like the way you talk about Jesus.”  The show went on with no edits. I was 30 years old the first time Dad saw me perform.  My Dad saw a show about me, about us. He cried. We cried together.  I’ll never forget his words that day, “You’re better than anything I see on television.” Art also heals. 

I’m writing but I do not see words; I see a saxophone underneath a bed.  I spell check and check grammar, but I can’t perfect the emotions beyond my fingertips; I can’t explain how art saved me and how art saved my relationship with my father.  I can’t communicate how the artist son now sees the beauty and metaphor in the farm and ranch he hated and dared leave.

My fingers tap on a keyboard, but that’s not what I hear; I hear a low saxophone note, F sharp, underscoring my Dad saying, “You’re better than anything I see on television.”

 

Theatre Taught Me

  1. To see the big picture, there’s more than one way to reach a goal, see multiple perspectives
  2. To fail and learn from that failure and keep your eye on the passion and the goal
  3. To communicate what cannot be spoken, think through images, music, dance, poetry, savor language
  4. To practice good judgment vs following how-its-always-been-done-rules, take risks, remain curious
  5. To feel empathy, respect those different than you, respect views different than your own, understand universal connection, recognize equitable opportunities
  6. To create community, participate in civic obligations, grow socially and emotionally
  7. To bring projects to fruition
  8. To create silence and meditate
  9. To recognize and create beauty
  10. To utilize and respect labor skills, take pride in one’s work
  11. To cooperate and work as a team
  12. To embrace one’s passion, respect another’s passion
  13. To think abstractly, understand symbolism and metaphors
  14. To become resourceful when there are lack of resources
  15. To Heal