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The Joy of Creating with Children: Differences in the roles of teachers and teaching artists

On August 10, 2015 I participated in Professional Day of Teaching Artists & Therapists at The National Puppetry Festival at the University of Connecticut. I shared my thoughts on the differences between an artist and teacher; I spoke a little about my Polish theatrical education and experience; and I presented an example of my work with children and teachers. The presentation was accompanied by handout material that explained my thoughts in writing. Below is an unabridged version of this text.


Professional Day of Teaching Artists & Therapists,
National Puppetry Festival,
University of Connecticut, August 10, 2015

The Joy of Creating with Children: Differences in the roles of teachers and teaching artists
Jacek Zuzanski




Let me explain how I see differences between artist and teacher.
A teacher teaches. She passes on her knowledge to students.
An artist creates. She connects with the mysterious universe of inspiration and brings a new reality into being. When working with students she does this with them.
A teacher and a school initiate into social norms, they both represent order and obedience to the expectations of a society.
An artist serves as a liaison between people and their primordial, intuitive and instinctive source of vitality. She represents and revitalizes the world of self which is free of societal restrictions.
A teacher inhabits the center of society with its norms and customs.
An artist resides on the borders of society often contesting its norms.
A teacher knows. She knows facts, laws, rules, she classifies objects and categories, and has language and names to describe reality.
An artist is on a perpetual quest exploring and examining reality perceived by her senses, inner reality of the mind, and known language, and she creates language to convey and give an expression of her explorations.


Much of what I am saying here follows how mythologist Joseph Campbell writes about these matters. Also psychology of creativity has a lot to say about this and how important the arts are for the well being of an individual, sanity of a society, and development of the creative faculty of the mind.
There is also the art teacher in schools, and of course teachers use hands on and project development in teaching, but for the purpose of this presentation I would like to make a strong distinction between a teacher and artist.




Artists and teachers can work together. Let me delineate two models of cooperation artists and teachers working together in school.
In the first model an artist adheres to the needs defined by the school, educational system, teachers, curriculum standards, norms and culture of the school.
In second model artist is invited to the school because of originality of the culture, world, norms and standards he or she represents by his work, art and life.
In first model artist could be instructed by school authorities on procedures and may even be trained in pedagogical techniques of controlling class dynamic or discipline.
In second model artist’s experience in work with children, methodologies she or he developed or lack of such an experience is recognized and valued.
In the first model artist serves teachers in their work with children.
In the second model teachers support and help the artist in his work with children.


At this point you may notice that these models may be seen as complementary and that in a real situation of cooperation between artists and teachers both approaches could and should coalesce. Sure, but it would also be beneficial for all sides involved if teachers are aware of these models, and of the difference between teachers and artists. They would better understand what conditions makes artists work most enjoyable, efficient, creative, enthusiastic and beneficial for children. Children will benefit and grow into better human beings when they learn from great teachers and work with wonderful artists. They have teachers in school everyday. When they meet artists they benefit from an experience very different from this one they have with a teacher.




I am a visual artist, puppeteer, actor, and stage director. I am also a teacher, but when I work as a teacher I allow myself as much as possible to be an artist. Most often I work with children as a director. I design and conduct the creative process and then I embody and demonstrate the application of my own creative self, and I make possible creative dialog between myself and my young actors and collaborators. I teach them acting skills and other skills needed in setting up a theatrical creative process and producing a theatrical presentation, but after they learn skills, we all launch into a creative adventure.


I am a Pole. I grew and obtained my theatrical education and experience in my native Poland, where the education of puppeteers is very different from that in the United States, and where theatrical culture–ways theatre is practiced and present in society–are also very different. In Poland two theatre academies educate actors/puppeteers and directors of puppet performances to work in over twenty very well subsidized puppet theatres, each employing from 20 to 70 artists, administrators and technicians. Actors/puppeteers intensively study acting techniques of the live theatre, theatre of mask, pantomime and a variety of puppetry techniques. All the time from the very first days in the Institute students work in teams, they learn techniques, and they learn how to cooperate, work with the director, and direct their colleagues .


I obtained my directing certificate by directing shows in Wroclaw Puppet Theatre theatre. Early, straight after my study, I started work as a theatre and acting teacher, but it was primarily by training my young actors and directing shows with them that I learned to teach. One of my teachers from the Theatre Academy, Jan Dorman, whom I also assisted in his directing work in Lublin Puppet Theatre, was particularly important and influenced the style of my directing work and work with children. Dorman developed a unique style of theatre using patterns, forms and rules of children’s play. Actors were in full view of the audience when “playing” with puppets and visual objects which were not used to physically represent characters, but rather to signify the characters. His shows revealed the mechanics of puppet theatre and exposed the process of creating theatrical language resembling children’s fantasy play. This display of narrative and theatrical techniques created a rich tapestry of associations loaded with metaphors and a wealth of poetic pictures.


I came to United Stated from the world where puppet theatres most often operate in their own buildings and where schools regularly visit theatres. A school field trip to the theatre is celebrated and valued. Puppet theatres play an especially important role in offering programs for elementary schools and their students. Polish schools themselves offer much less theatrical activities and programs than the schools in Massachusetts that I know best. In Poland most theatrical classes and activities for children are offered by culture centers or organizations as after school programs. At such programs children and youth have chances to work with artists. My experience as an artist working with children began in such a settings. I continued this work parallel to my work with youth and adult professional performers and artists. My methodology of working with children was shaped by this rich and diverse experience. It emerged by trying and adapting techniques and approaches I learned from my teachers and was developed when I worked with youth and adult professionals.




One principle was and reminded fundamental. No matter if I worked with adults or children, I always considered them to be, and approached them as, partners. Dialog between me as a director and teacher and them as actors was fundamental. I taught 7 year olds and I taught 50 year olds professional actors. Most of my shows were and still are explorations. I gather knowledge and experience from many sources and I bring this experience to my actors. Often teaching techniques or developing techniques of acting were and remain a part of my productions, no matter if I work with professionals or children. This is especially apparent when in a project new kind of visual elements, performing objects, or puppets are introduced, and where actors first have to find ways to act with such objects. So some kind of training is placed at the beginning of the project and when technique is developed and internalized it is implemented into the creative process of building the show.




As a director I use my rational intelligence and also I trust impulses and inspirations coming from within and from the process itself. My actors, collaborators, writers, co-writers, artists, musicians, teachers, technicians are all part of the same organism that I build to work and create as one. My job is to guide everybody be creative, reach his or her highest potential and surpass what they know about themselves while enjoying the process. I have to build clear and strong guidelines to make this happen. How to keep open my own sources of creativity and inspiration is a part of this work. Without keeping access to my own resources open, I can not lead others into a new reality beyond the borders of the known. Over the years I have developed ways to do this, but I can only do it when I am trusted and given the freedom to use my own methods, and when my actors and my collaborators want me to lead.


When I direct I bring my techniques, methodologies, and my culture. Schools have their own cultures, regulations, dress codes, and ways to move around and to behave. Inviting an artist to school to teach is one possible way to give children an opportunity to know something about the arts. But inviting artist to actually create with children is something very different and much more significant. When an artist creates with children, she not only teaches techniques and leads children to create, she leads a process where she and children create together. When the artist is a puppeteer, actor, acting coach, and director, the process involves many facets of creativity and provides opportunity for unique intensive experience where everybody learns by exploring and integrating multiple levels of cognitive, physical, sensory and emotional, and joyful experiences.




A good example of a project where I was invited to a school to work with teachers and children as a puppeteer and director was the after school enrichment program at Hyannis East Elementary School on Cape Cod, which I conducted in 2005. The following year I directed a similar project at the same school. After that I worked as a teacher, I directed school productions, I conducted summer or after school workshops, and I performed independently; but I haven’t had a chance to work with children in schools as a visiting artist.


A puppetry format in which the actor is visible for the audience, as in Jan Dorman’s style, is very good when working with children. When children play with a doll they project an imagined character onto the doll and do not care if they have an audience. In puppet theatre they switch from using the puppet as a doll to presenting it to the audience. Artists and teachers can help with this important element of children’s puppetry experience.


Manipulating techniques are not easy to master, but for the purpose of creating inspiring experiences for the child there is no need to master them. It is more important to ensure that a child is actively involved in the process, and that the puppets, as well as other aspects of the process, motivate and stimulate his/her imagination and creative experience.


The first Hyannis East Elementary workshop was exemplary in its use of the strategies I mentioned before, and for creating an environment where teachers supported the artist’s work with children.


About 40 children and 5 teachers were involved. We worked on the production of a play, which was an adaptation of a Polish folk tale transcribed by renowned Polish writer Gustaw Morcinek. In our adaptation three families present in Morcinek’s tale grow in numbers to accommodate the number of participants of the project. The project lasted 7 afternoons from 4:30 to 6:00. I was visiting the first, third, fifth and seventh days. In between on the second, third and fifth days, teachers worked with 4 groups following guidelines we prepared together, practicing texts, and scenes, designing and building sets and creating masks.


During my first visit we met in the gym, introduced children to the project, and played initial warm-up, expression and name games. Then we read the play. Next we split the group into two halves and we continued playing games. This time the games were chosen for their usability for the production. They served to develop expressiveness in physical acting, introduced patterns and rules of organizing scenes. This all was done in a big gym, split in two, one side for each group. I was moving from group to group, initiating games and exercises and watching children for their natural skills and talents. This part of the work served also as an audition, giving me and the teachers some clues for casting. Then we gathered all the children in a big circle and announced the cast, creating 5 groups for further work. Then each one of these five groups read its own part of the script.


We had a group of Storytellers whose task was to read narrative parts of the story. The second group was a family of the Poor Shoemaker: The Shoemaker, His Wife and Children. The third group portrayed family of Poor Shoemaker’s brother – a rich Miller: The Miller, His Wife and Children. The fourth group was cast as an allegorical figure of Poverty and her children. The fifth group was responsible for designing and creating sets for the production. One remaining character, Wise Man/ Beggar, worked interchangeably with two groups.


The second day teachers worked in four groups practicing lines, drawing, designing and paining masks, discussing and designing costumes, designing sets and priming cardboard.


The third day, work in groups was continued. I was visiting and I worked with each group, blocking actions and helping in shaping expressiveness of the actions and voices, and advising and praising designers and painters.


The fourth day teachers continued work in groups practicing, what we developed during previous meeting and painting scenery on prepared sheets of cardboard. Designers continued work on painting scenery and they started work on posters, invitations, and program.


On the fifth day I again joined the process. The actors started together, checking costumes and warming up. Then we continued rehearsing scenes in order and practiced transitions between scenes. Designers continued their work.


The first part of the sixth day children worked in groups practicing their parts. Then they gathered together and did a run through of the entire play.


The last, seventh, day I was leading the dress rehearsal. Then parents and friends were invited and children presented their work to them. The short party followed.


This project was exemplary for cooperation between a visiting artist and teachers. I brought an idea backed by years of experience in the theatre and creative theatrical work with adults, youth and children. I came with enthusiasm toward the project and received wonderful support from teachers and trust and enthusiasm of children. Teachers helped on every level of the work. They helped adapt the play. They participated in designing the schedule and planning work with groups and facility usage, so transitions from room to room, activity to activity, and teacher to artist were smooth and energizing. My task was to provide my expertise in building a dynamic creative process and team to inspire, coach, introduce techniques, ignite creative energies, and lead toward the final experience.


This was great and I was happy to see children perform.



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