Teaching Artists: Angels Trapped in Hell


To paraphrase John Gardner, artists are angels trapped in hell — kind, good people in a natural and unsought confrontation with an imperfect world. Love and challenge. All artists are teachers and all teachers are artists. Below is a blog post that I wrote for The Learning Center at UIC.  It was edited by my good friend and colleague, Ranjit Souri, the excellent teacher, writer and improviser (Artists are hyphenates.) It is a joy to collaborate with such a pro. Ranjit is an angel trapped in hell pushing all needles in good directions.

Teacher as Artist

I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’m a teacher in the UIC Business College; I’ve practiced as a trial lawyer. I’ve acted, improvised and wrote for Chicago’s Second City Theater and other venues. Some years ago, I was doing a one-man show, The Rick Show – which was partially scripted, partially improvised – at Lewis Black’s West Bank Café Cabaret Theater Bar in New York City. Paul Sills, the founding director of The Second City, and one of the most important figures of 20th Century American Theater, and (to my good fortune) a teacher and mentor to me, came to see the show one night. After the show, Paul came backstage and said, “That was the greatest evening of theater of the last 25 years. I haven’t seen anything like it since Lenny Bruce.” I responded in an apologetic tone – “I’m not very good at object work.” (Object work is the physical work improvisers do on stage to create a location the audience can visualize. Improvisers usually work with no set, props, or costumes.) My tone annoyed Paul greatly. He hated the lack of confidence when so much important work needed to be done. He responded with exasperation, “Who gives a s—?” (Read my blog entry “The Virtue of Exasperated Teaching” here.)

Object work was a major component of Paul Sills’ work in the Story Theater form he created, which won two Tony Awards and was nominated for a third. Paul’s theatrical space was largely physical; mine was a torrent of words. And yet, his response to my self-criticism about my perceived lack of a stage physicality he clearly valued was, “Who gives a s—?”
Paul mentored me during an 8 month period where we would walk around New York City discussing Martin Buber and Max Weber and Bertolt Brecht and Emerson and Thoreau and John Brown and Sam Adams and… – yet paradoxically, the main thing I learned from him was not to do things the way he did them or necessarily think the way he thought – but rather to figure out how I wanted to do things AND TO BE PROUD OF IT, not for the sake of my ego, but as a prerequisite of service. Our bold, assertive and confident action was, and of course still is, needed.

Paul knew that mediocrity’s swagger has to be countered by the actions of people secure and fearless in their good will. Paul loved Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

Art masters craft, discards it, and reshapes its preserved essence in a new form. It provokes thought and feeling; it transforms. Art is a way of life. I don’t know any other approaches. (Read my blog entry “The Love Triangle: Art, Education and Life” here.)

I think of “art” as a broad term. It is not just referring to painting, drawing, writing, filmmaking and so on. Any human activity can be approached as art. At the very start of the seminal book “Improvisation for the Theatre”, Viola Spolin says that no one really teaches anyone anything. Experience is the teacher. So my students experience me and one another and themselves and the material and the activities of the class. Hopefully we all experience with a high level of consciousness so we can own what we’ve learned and apply it in new ways beyond the classroom.

In a class I was teaching recently, the final project was an oral presentation. Most everyone did a good job…but some students really owned the work they had done in the course and could imagine future applications of their living experience, and others did not, or did to far lesser degrees. My future challenge is to have more students own their success — to teach them to appreciate its value and be proud of its personal and unique quality. A great experience, well-processed, gives the learner a healthy pride that transcends confidence, as well as the ability to apply new skills to new situations.

The art of teaching requires an unapologetic boldness, a fierce authenticity, and an openness to the unique and free individuals who comprise the class before you. The teacher artist’s essential integrity and generous hospitality can sometimes create the conditions for at least a glimpse by the student of her own true nature, her potential, and her personal art. Paul Sills — and a few others — did that for me. I try to do it for others. Nurturing warmth and clarifying, blazing light.

Richard Thomas is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the College of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a 2015-16 Master Teaching Scholar of the TLC. He will be teaching a workshop: “Finding and Exploring Your Teacher Voice” for the TLC in Spring 2016. He writes The Rick Blog, which focuses on the arts of teaching and improvisation, art and writing in general, and general social and cultural commentary. This post was edited by Ranjit Souri, Lecturer at the College of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and also an experienced teacher and practitioner of improvisation.

Copyright 2015 Richard Thomas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s