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Arts educators reach out to new stars

The best-known quotation from the eminently quotable H.L. Mencken is probably this one: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." • It's familiar, it's snappy, but it isn't true. • Many of the Tampa Bay area's best and most recognizable artists are also teachers at all levels, from kindergarten through graduate school, in conservatories, theaters and municipal arts facilities. • Given these days of ever tighter education budgets, they're also survivors. • With the new school year under way, we checked in with a few of the working artists who are helping to train the next generation of actors, dancers, playwrights, choreographers and visual artists. And with apologies to Mr. Mencken, every one of them told us they find teaching up-and-coming artists to be every bit as important and fulfilling as their personal creative efforts.

Meg Heimstead, 31, actor

The artist: She's a stage actor who performs regularly with Jobsite Theater. Her most recent role was in Jobsite's Embedded.

The educator: As a teaching artist for American Stage in St. Petersburg, she goes into area schools and teaches all aspects of theater, mostly to students in schools with very limited arts programs.

Why teach: "I especially love teaching playwriting. I like going into a room full of people who view writing as punishment. Some teachers have actually told them, 'If you don't behave I'm going to make you write something.' I tell them that I'm going to have them explore who they are and what they want to be, and then we're going to write a play about that. And after working with them for a few weeks I see a change in their attitude. They're able to look at writing as a form of self-expression."

On artS education: “I think there are some good private programs in this area, but arts education in the public school is not what it should be. Because we're so focused on the FCAT (the state-mandated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) we lose a lot of the purpose of education, which is to give a broader perspective."

Meg Heimstead directs Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues,'' opening Sept. 23 at American Stage. Information:

John Parks, 63, dancer

The artist: He's a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Jose Limon Dance Company, and a former dancer and choreographer on Broadway. He appeared in the films The Wiz, A Rage in Harlem and Malcolm X. He often choreographs works for student dance concerts at USF.

The educator: He's a professor in the USF Dance Department.

Why teach: "You're training someone to move through space and time, to transcend their limitations. You can't really teach all that. All you can teach is technique. But I look at it holistically. Ultimately it's not what happens to their bodies, but what happens to their minds."

On arts education: "We're reflections of the times. We're soothsayers and prophets of the times, and the times are weird. I feel that students are wanting to be expressive but they don't know what they're saying. They have a vocabulary but they don't have an ideology."

USF's Fall Dance Concert in November features a number of works, including "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," staged by John Parks. Information:

Bill Leavengood, 48, playwright

The artist: He's a playwright, most famous locally for Webb's City: The Musical (which he co-wrote with Lee Ahlin) and other works that explore this area's history.

The educator: He's the director of playwriting, screenwriting and videography at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg.

Why teach: "I just love the kids. The kids I get to teach are sophisticated, they're motivated, they're intelligent. Teaching keeps me — and this is a horrible cliche, I know — it keeps me young. It gives me clarity."

On arts education: "When they started the theater program here, their idea was 'We'll get the best professionals we can get.' So they got good people, and then we all learned how to be good teachers. I will say that in the public schools (teachers) tell me their budgets are cut every year, though there are certain programs that are doing well because the parents want it."

Tampa's Gorilla Theatre presents a staged reading of Bill Leavengood's new play "Charley and Emma,'' about the life and marriage of Charles and Emma Darwin, Sept. 24. Information:

Alan Johnson, 55, ceramicist

The artist: He's a ceramicist whose work is featured at the Florida Craftsmen Gallery in downtown St. Petersburg.

The educator: For the past 31 years, he has taught visual arts at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg.

Why teach: "Day after day it lets you immerse yourself in art. When you're an artist, you have all these ideas constantly coming into your head. As a teacher, I can have these kids bringing those ideas to fruition, and they'll often do it in ways I would never have come up with."

On arts education: "One of the reasons I came to Pinellas County (from Hillsborough) early in my career is that there were people over here who really supported arts in education. I have found that there's real support for the arts here. To me it was so encouraging that the voters of Pinellas would approve a referendum to support art and music education. There are a lot of places that wouldn't happen."

Maggie Council DiPietra, 45, musician

The artist: She's a singer, songwriter and guitarist who performs as Maggie Council, and released her most recent CD, Not in the House, in August.

The educator: She teaches at the Rock School at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Patel Conservatory. Rock School groups mostly young, aspiring musicians into bands and teaches them to play together.

Why teach: "I put on my promotional stuff that I'm self-taught, but that doesn't really happen. Nobody learns in a vacuum. Rock School gives me a chance to take what I've learned from other people and return the favor by passing it along."

On arts education: "I can really only speak from my experience at Patel, where we've got great programs and kids who want to learn. From what I've heard we've got it better than some."

Julia Flood, 52, actor, director

The artist: She's a longtime local actor and director.

The educator: She's artistic director of the Eckerd Theatre Company. Based at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, the company develops plays for young audiences that tour schools all over the eastern United States, introducing many children to the arts.

Why teach: "We go into a lot of places where the kids' situation may not be so good. And in a lot of cases, this is the first time they've ever seen a play. So we can show them something beyond what they've experienced. We can bring them to another place and another time. We're saying, 'Yes, we're coming into your world. But we're going to bring you into another world, a world that you've never seen before.' "

On arts education: "Things run in cycles. Right now people are saying budgets are being cut and there's not enough emphasis placed on the arts in schools, and that's true. But we've heard that before and we've bounced back. It may get worse before it gets better, but the pendulum will swing back."

What good comes from arts education? The national advocacy group Americans for the Arts says that young people who consistently participate in the arts (at least three days a week for a year) are: FOUR times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. THREE times more likely to be elected to class office. FOUR times more likely to participate in a math and science fair. three times more likely to win a school attendance award. FOUR times more likely to win a writing award. FOUR times more likely to participate in youth groups. TWO times more likely to read for pleasure. four times more likely to perform community service.

Arts educators reach out to new stars 09/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 11, 2008 2:32pm]
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