The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.
We can all be better students. And teachers. And people. It takes listening, humility, and the understanding that you always have more to learn. These ideas are at the core of our values at Working Classroom, a 30-year-old arts, theater, and new media non-profit in Albuquerque, NM that cultivates the artistic, civic, and academic minds of youth through in-depth arts projects with contemporary artists to amplify historically ignored voices, resist systemic injustices, and imagine a more equitable society. For the past five years, I have had the privilege of serving as the Theater Conservatory Director for this deeply progressive and impactful organization. At Working Classroom, we train our alumni to facilitate workshops, we integrate topics of social justice into every aspect of our programming, and we create nearly 50 paid opportunities every year for our students to work on projects as professional artists, alongside some of the best guest artists from across the country and around the world. We do this because we know young people can be fantastic leaders, create stunning art work, and they also have a lot to say about the state of the world. We don't need to empower them, they are great at that on their own. We just need to provide the resources and stay in dialogue with each other.
This past summer we had the distinct pleasure of welcoming more new guest artists into the Working Classroom family, one of which I'll highlight here. Clara Solly-Slade is a heartfelt, thoughtful, and extraordinarily playful theater artist from Australia. We met last summer while we were investing in our own educations by attending the La MaMa Umbria international directors symposium in Spoleto, Italy. I was there because I chose the training for my allotted professional development at Working Classroom. Clara was there because of a grant from Helpmann Academy, and granting body in her home country, and the university she graduated from. It was exactly because our institutions understand how valuable continued education is that either one of us were able to be in the idyllic, creative mecca that is La MaMa Umbria.
We became fast friends. We talked a lot about working with young people, including how other people can sometimes reduce our work as not real art, simply because of the population we work with. Because Working Classroom is easily one of my favorite topics (I warn people they can ask me to stop at any time, really, I could go on forever about why it's such a cool place, but anyway...), we ended up talking deeply about the steps Working Classroom takes to make our students’ education a priority. We talked about the original work we've created with Tectonic Theater Project and Borderlands Theater, and the murals that are an iconic part of Albuquerque's landscape. We talked about why it's so important to us to hire artists that come from the same kinds of backgrounds as our students, and why it is so important to us to pay our students when they are hired for professional artistic work. It all comes down to valuing student voice. From the guest artists we chose to the dollars we pay, we are teaching our students that they don't need to work for free for the exposure, they don't need to make only a certain kind of art that is accepted by the mainstream, and they don't have to believe there's no money in the arts, especially for students like them - in poverty, varying immigration status, first to go to college - they can see themselves in the artist we hire, so they know for sure there really are people just like them making a life for themselves as artists.
Little did I know, I had inadvertently talked dear Clara into including Working Classroom into her next big grant application. Clara used her final year of a five-year grant-cycle to work at three US institutions. La MaMa ETC, Working Classroom and the H.E.A.T. Collective. She spent exactly three months in the US, using every last day of her travel visa. She spent two months living in NYC and one month in Albuquerque. Working with Jessica at H.E.A.T. Collective was her first stop. She learned so much from Jessica about what makes her company special. She learned how to organize websites, and people, and to Working Classroom’s great fortune, Jessica's approach to puppet making. Clara was also able to set up an in-person meeting for Jessica and I when Jessica was in New Mexico. It was such a gift to make a connection in this unusual way. While I had been seduced by the power of Working Classroom's mission years ago, getting to see it through new eyes, through someone who moved worlds to work with us, well, I still don't have the words to convey how meaningful it has been.
Clara arrived at the beginning of June, her first task was to be a student in a week-long workshop with Fitzmaurice voicework master, Micha Espinosa. It was a great place for Clara to start. Immediately, she got to experience our intergenerational class model. Our youngest students were just 12 and our oldest was in their 60's. The class was four hours a day for one week, and could easily pass for a college level course. Micha is a true master, and has been coming back to Working Classroom every summer for ten years because she believes so much in what we do. We are always humbled to host her. The rest of the year, when she is not teaching in her tenured role at Arizona State University, she's always in some far-flung part of the world like Argentina or Bali teaching up a storm, or working on her latest book.
This first week was already a revelation for Clara. It was inspiring to watch her over the course of the week continue to be blown away, not just with the caliber of the instruction, but from the power of the students. She told me that it had become one the most creatively fulfilling experiences she'd ever had, and that she felt so inspired for her own classes coming up. I have to admit, as someone who loves this organization as much as I do, to hear her and watch her as she had this transformative experience, it's enough to make me tear up a little as I write this.
In the weeks that followed Clara had her own opportunity to take lead. She took her puppet making skills she learned with Jessica and immediately applied them to her curriculum with her own beautiful Clara spin. And this is where she got to blow me away. Because she had just experienced Micha's workshop, and high off the experience from her NYC time as well, she dove into her workshops with such confidence, intent, and sense of fun, every student she worked with was all in. She created an environment of focused play. She taught two levels of puppets, one more advanced, but just a week long, and one more introductory, but for three weeks. Both workshops ended up with beautiful products, both the puppets made, and the performances we created with them.
In her last two weeks, with only one class to teach, and her afternoons free, Clara decided to take a new media workshop with another new guest artist we invited this summer named Karl Orozco. Not only was she able to work with new students, and pick up many new media skills, she was able to see another great guest artist do their thing while going through the process of discovering the magic of Working Classroom and our students. She even had a great time showing him around and talking about all she had learned so far. Their teaching exchange was so strong that she recruited Karl to create a stop motion animation for our puppets. This wasn't part of the original lesson plan, but because her weeks at Working Classroom were so rich, and her skills so fresh, her can-do attitude made things that shouldn't have been possible, totally doable.
It was a sad hard day when we said goodbye to Clara. In the month she spent with us she became our family, and she always will be. We hope we'll find our own way to bring her again. We will always be grateful to Clara, and the grant she wrote to bring her. What she had to offer us was equally valuable as what she had to take away. I write this story as the basis of this blog post because I believe it illuminates so much of what makes Working Classroom's mission so special. The connection to our students, the drive to innovate, and to immediately apply the skills being learned. In her time with us Clara was a student, a teacher, and an all-around amazing person. Our students still talk about her and ask when she is coming back. And while I don't have an answer yet, a plan will inevitably be in the works.
Clara and I would have never met unless someone else had seen the value of our own education. We have both been lucky enough to be parts of institutions that prioritize that desire to learn, and always improve and expand. Working Classroom makes it possible for our students to take the time to invest in themselves, to see themselves as worthy of a paycheck, worthy of respect. I very much hope this story can help others consider what place education has in their own lives. Are you investing in yourself? Is there something you want to learn but are scared to? Is there maybe something you have to teach, but haven't found the place to teach it, or maybe you don’t realize how valuable your knowledge is? My advice to you, keep going, do the hard thing, make the investment. Who knows, maybe you'll find yourself in Italy, sipping wine while making life-long friends and collaborators. Just don't forget, we can all be better teachers, and we can all be students for life.
photo credits: John Acosta
Meggan Gomez is the Theater Conservatory Director at Working Classroom in Albuquerque, NM. At Working Classroom she manages all aspect of the theatre program, including contracting guest artists, developing new projects, partnerships, and curriculum, as well as teaching improvisation, clowning and Theatre of the Oppressed. Originally from Pennsylvania, Meggan studied acting in the BFA program at Montclair State University before moving to New York City to create her own work. Affiliations include Cornerstone Theater, The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and TEDxABQ. Meggan is on the steering committee of the Latinx Theater Commons and sits on Working Classroom's executive board as Secretary.