Maria Schirmer was a fellow-in-residence with WISC in 2016. We sat down with her to ask her about her life and work.
How do you see performance functioning in the world?
I read this quote somewhere recently about how the arts reflect culture and it really got me thinking about how I disagree. I think that art (performance or otherwise) creates culture, which in turn effects policy, which in turn creates laws. Which is to say I think the arts are enormously powerful. The arts are vital and everywhere and you are engaging even if you think your not.
Does a live theater production impact a spectator differently than other art forms?
Once years ago I was at a Broadway production of Amy’s View, by British playwright David Hare, staring Judi Dench and I realized halfway though that I was breathing the same time as the people seated around me and that we where breathing the same time as Judi. Eventually it was as if the entire huge theater was breathing at the same time. It was astonishing. I had always thought of live theater (or any live performance really) as collective witnessing but when it’s really good it becomes collective being, a physical act. Not every performance it going to do that to you (I’m talking about a pretty amazing confluence of talent after all) but it’s knowing the potential is there that keeps me coming back.
What challenges have you faced working collaboratively and how did you get through them?
A group of friends from college and I ran an off-off Broadway theater company for 9 years. We did everything ourselves from writing and producing to fundraising and marketing. It was an enormous challenge but also so much fun. We ran into difficulties all the time. We were a group of opinionated, strong-willed individuals, but we got through it all with our friendships intact, while creating some pretty fantastic shows, by being really transparent. We didn’t make decisions without everyone’s input and always spoke up if something was bothering us. Having those hard conversations can be awkward but it’s so much worse if you let hurt feelings fester.
Describe a typical day for you in NYC.
Since I have multiple jobs I don’t have a typical day in the traditional sense. As a teaching artist I work at several schools around the city. Monday’s during the school year are my most nutty because I start in Manhattan where I live, go teach in a Queens elementary school, then traverse back through Manhattan to teach an afterschool program in a Bronx high school. I once tried to have a social engagement in Brooklyn after that but quickly learned that three boroughs in one day is my limit. No one can ever say I don’t get my monies worth on my monthly-unlimited Metro Card!
“Balance” How do you find time for your own art and creation?
If I’m being totally honest I haven’t been very good at balance lately. I’ve always been a very politically engaged person but since the 2016 election I’ve gone into hyper-drive. My free time these days, which is scarce to begin with, has been going to into advocacy and volunteering (shout out to Planned Parenthood!). Also my students come first so when teaching is in full swing my projects get ignored. I don’t know how sustainable this is but on the other hand I’m ok with it. I don’t think that I’m less of an artist even if my output is less at the moment.
What’s most rewarding about being a teaching artist?
I love it when a student does something that most adults in their life didn’t think they where capable of, a super shy student performs or a kid that barely does homework pours their creativity into a poem. I get comments all the time from teachers, admin and sometimes parents about how they never thought that child could be creative or how they’ve never been so focused. It’s not that I’m a brilliant teacher; I’m just facilitating a new way for young people to express themselves. Clearly the moral of this story is arts education matters!
What are your best tips for wrangling unruly teens in your role as a teaching artist?
Never, ever, try to be cool. Teens can sniff out BS like you would not believe and they can tell if your trying to hard. I go in totally myself and myself is kind of goofy, excitable and in my 30’s (aka. not a person who can identify YouTubers). Also bring snacks. I am endlessly amazed by the transformative power of fruit chews.
What advice do you have for young people seeking to pursue their passions in theater or arts?
Really assess your desires. Are you doing this because you want to be famous or wealthy? No judgment, those things are compelling for sure, but if the answer is yes turn back. You will be disappointed. If your answer is no wonderful, now get an education. It doesn’t need to be fancy (see above and know that paying back student loans is painful and hard) or even formal but an education will make you a better, more curious, more thoughtful artist.
Are you still working with Heidi Latsky Dance? Tell me more.
I am and am thrilled to be a part of the ensemble!
I have been working with with Heidi Latsky Dance on their ongoing movement installation On Display. On Display is a deconstructed art exhibit/fashion show, a commentary on the body as spectacle and society’s obsession with body image. It turns a cast of diverse bodies into a sculpture court where the performers are the sculptures. On Display began as a simple human sculpture court and is now a growing portfolio of works that explore and demonstrate inclusion through art. Since our debut at Lincoln Center in 2015 we have performed all across the northeast at various locations including the Whitney Museum, the High Line, the Skirball Center NYU, Hurleyville Arts Center and several times at the United Nations for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. I’ve also facilitated workshops on behalf of HLD teaching On Display to college students at Muhlenberg College in Allentown Pennsylvania and Baruch College in NYC.
Name three women who inspire you.
Given the cliff of disaster that the Supreme Court is charging towards I’m really feeling the power of the women justices. Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent when the court upheld the travel ban gave me chills, Elena Kagan is a quiet force and Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, at this point, super human. My gratitude for these women knows no bounds.
And if I may add a bonus wonder woman to my list… There is a traffic cop that works a very busy intersection that includes an off-ramp from a major bridge, which is around the corner from my apartment. This woman dances her entire shift. I have never seen her not bounding around with these like a Michael Jackson meets disco queen and I’ve lived in this apartment for over a decade. And she greets all us pedestrians, not matter our age or gender, as “baby.” If this woman can dance her way through NYC weather and traffic then surely I can tap into inner joy even during my most cranky days.
What books are you reading?
I keep a small pile on my desk at all times and rotate through. The current pile is,
– Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
– The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City by William B. Helmreich (I’m really into non-fiction books about NYC. I’ve lived her since I was 18 and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of knowing her.)
– The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (After a shamefully long lapse I recently renewed my library card and this the first book I checked out. Shout out to the magic that is the New York Public Library)
– Fire and Clay: The Art of Oaxacan Pottery by Eric Mindling (This is research. I’m taking pottery classes.)