FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Naomi Tessler
What can happen in a FUTURES/forward community-engaged arts mentorship during COVID-19? Read on to find out! In this series of blogs, we will post Q&As with featured mentees.
FUTURES/forward Mentee: Naomi Tessler, May to September 2020, mentored by Kendra Fanconi
Naomi Tessler M.A. is the Founder, Artistic Director and lead facilitator of Branch Out Theatre. She has been working with communities globally for 16 years, using theatre to inspire positive change! She is a graduate of the Masters of Arts program in Educational Theatre for Colleges and Communities, New York University and currently facilitates and develops Branch Out Theatre workshops, productions and community arts projects with organizations and groups in Ottawa, Toronto and across Canada. She is passionate about using theatre as a tool for encouraging self-empowerment, conflict resolution, environmental and social justice and well-being. As a facilitator, Naomi has an extensive background in Theatre of the Oppressed, Playback Theatre, acting, physical theatre, storytelling, directing and play writing and strives to share these tools with those she works and collaborates with. Read more about Naomi here: https://icasc.ca/futures-forward-mentees/#n-tessler
Naomi’s mentorship included being placed as Artist-in-Residence with the Butterflyway Project at the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) where she created, piloted, and facilitated the “Wings & Tales Community Arts Project”. The Wings & Tales Community Arts Project provided Butterflyway Rangers (volunteers), from across the country, the chance to participate in arts workshops to creatively reflect upon their Butterflyway project experiences. Each of the online learning platforms (workshops, video, and email tutorials) guided participants through theatre, movement, creative writing, and storytelling exercises to motivate new ways of harvesting their learning and reflecting upon their experiences in gardening, building and protecting pollinator habitats, stewarding the Earth, and building community through their volunteer work as DSF Rangers. The culmination of Wings & Tales was an online performance showcasing the visual art, poetry and storytelling created throughout the project.
Q: What was a most interesting success? Wings & Tales marks my first online and national project. I was in awe of how it was possible to creatively engage participants who are working together online and across time zones as well as build a strong foundation of trust and connection with participants who solely took part through the email and video tutorials. I had strong doubts initially about the effectiveness of online engagement, especially engagement that was strictly through email since my regular practice is through in-person popular theatre workshops, performances and projects. However, the combination of the pandemic and working nationally pushed me to break ground in accepting working with technology and taking the leap of trying out new modes of practice. I overcame the challenge of this new way of engagement by recognizing my resistance, taking baby steps to move through it and reaching out to my mentor — Kendra Fanconi — for support throughout the journey. I’ve often turned away from anything technical but working on zoom was an easy stepping stone to facilitating online. I loved leading the online workshops and finding ways to adapt my techniques, exercises and games to be transferable to working on zoom. I appreciated that participants were willing to get silly and creative with me, dive into embodiment work, and build creative trust across the screen. Creating the video tutorials was also a new playful adventure and I was never sure if anyone would actually watch them, but I felt that trying this new way of engagement would again open up a new door and I was grateful to be able to provide that platform as another mode of learning for folks who couldn’t attend the workshops. Leading the project via email tutorials and exchanges was surprisingly effective as the creative pieces that were developed through this process were just as powerful as the pieces of those that took part in the workshops. As I found it challenging to find a time that would work for all folks across the country and given that this project took place during the pandemic, I felt that providing these three mediums of engagement was a helpful way to make the project accessible and viable for all folks who wanted to participate.
Q: How did this creative, arts-based project affect change in climate action/justice? This project invited participants to creatively reflect upon and celebrate the importance of their work as volunteers with DSF’s Butterflyway project. It invited national creative learning exchange about each other and the various pollinator and flower species that are local to the different of the country. This project recognized the individual and collective impact of environmental stewardship. Hopefully, the Wings & Tales program will inspire and motivate ongoing environmental stewardship by the present and future project participants.
Q: What did you learn that was most powerful in your work? When there’s resistance, a seed of growth is waiting be planted: I found this to be very present for myself through this new online mode of community arts engagement. Initially it felt very foreign to lead community arts practices in this way. Building a power-point to showcase the Wings & Tales visual art pieces online to people all across Canada via Zoom was also a great stretch. I felt like I came upon some professional edges and had to gently guide myself to move through the resistance to harvest my own new learning. My goal was to support participants to find their artistic voice and have the spaciousness to discover which artistic medium called to them to express their Butterflyway experience. Some participants were new to creative expression and their resistance surfaced as they felt unsure what or how to create. Others had a desire to only present something that was perfect. These resistances initially placed blockages in the creative process. With these participants I spent extra time connecting online in the workshops and via email to guide them to find their creative wings that would lead to the tales they wanted to share and how to do so. Motivating self-compassion along the journey and celebrating the small steps was important at each juncture of our project. Although it took these participants more time and more engagement to feel connected and excited about their work, the result was something they are proud to share. I am grateful to have supported participants to move through their initial creative doubt and to have supported myself and received the mentorship to move through my own technical blocks.
Q: What one thing about your mentorship do you want to share with emerging community-engaged artists? Trust in your creative capacity to overcome any challenge, obstacle, and resistance to expand in your artistic leadership and potential. When it feels like your own creative path and practice is blocked — whether by a pandemic or otherwise — there are always new pathways to grow your skills. Discover new ways to lead your practice!
We wish to thank the Butterflyway Project/David Suzuki Foundation for this collaboration and hosting Naomi Tessler’s artist-in-residency. FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Naomi’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of the McConnell Foundation and Judith Marcuse Projects.