"The Arts Saved My Life" An Interview with Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston co-founded CAT’s College/Adult Program, which provides interactive learning experiences on independent living skills, college and workplace readiness, financial literacy, and parenting.

Following are selected highlights of an interview with Keith Johnston, Director of the College/Adult Program at The Creative Arts Team conducted on Thursday, August 25, 2011.

Career Arc & Personal Experiences: “I love this work. I could go on and on about stories of tapping a child’s genius, or people stopping you on a street and saying how much a workshop changed their life . . . It saved my life.”

Arts in Education/Educational Theater: “The Arts IS Education – any form of the Arts demands certain disciplines that are academic. The Artist is the highest form of human beings because they are the Creators. They are the Innovators. The arts is the only way things can actually change because you see it, you feel it, you smell it, you taste it, and you’re forced to deal with it.”

Consequences of Arts Reduction: “We live in a capitalistic country and this is my political understanding. . . Education is not the primary goal in the United States. It’s about making money.” Case in point is reality television. “Reality shows have no reality to them. Producers found that humiliation sells as good as sex. It could be a scheme to get our society to volunteer personal information on social networks and surveillance. We’re being seduced into not thinking for ourselves, which is what art is. “The Arts are being taken out of school. Kids don’t have access to it. They’re bored; they’re not being challenged.” Our country has become separated: “We’ve become such an individualistic society that we have generations that don’t know how to talk to one another.” They’ve turned into self-centered individuals on their IPODS. Robots. Chips for a political agenda. People have better relationships with machines than with human beings.”

Success Stories: A head of The Bloods gang was reduced to tears during a diamond poem exercise. Reflecting on past deeds he wept with remorse for “all the people I’ve hurt in my life to get these cars and women . . . None of it is worth it. I never looked at it that way.”

RESPOND: Can Arts inclusion be the solution to fixing our nation’s educational institution?

“The Arts Saved My Life”
An Interview with Keith Johnston

Following are selected highlights of an interview with Keith Johnston, Director of the College/Adult Program at The Creative ArtsTeam conducted on Thursday, August 25, 2011.  

Rather than deliver an oral presentation, Keith Johnston chose to fail his high school English course. A mediocre student to begin with, the thought of speaking in front of a group of people paralyzed him. Reading aloud was another challenge because of dyslexia and the notion of being an actor and teaching educational theater was not only a remote possibility, but also an endeavor he would have NEVER considered as career options. But, here he is, co-founder of the College/Adult Program and working for over 18 years doing the work he is so passionately committed to at The Creative Arts Team. He took the leap to confront his fears when an introverted kid in his class was taking acting lessons. “If he could do it,” he pondered, “then why can’t I?” Acting was the conduit for him to examine his true authentic self and discover the talents that lie within. It was the vehicle to access his confidence and genius: “[The Arts] gets people to think for themselves,” remarked Keith, “it gives people the tools to be better human beings . . . to gauge and look at themselves a little harder, even if it hurts. Acting is not about pretending; it’s about tending; dealing with circumstances that we may not deal with in our own lives. It’s about being authentic, honest, studying yourself to understand and reflect the human condition.” The span of Johnston’s career is a living testament of this declaration: he is a working actor, successful musician, a teacher and artistic director at the American Theatre of Harlem, and presently, CUNY CAT’s representative for the Black Male Initiative.
Growing up with the mindset of his parents, that the arts are separate from education, Keith came to understand that, in fact, the Arts IS education: “Everything comes from the arts. The chair we’re sitting on — someone drew it. Someone imagined it; someone built it.” Art is universal: “Everything in life is sound, color, and light.” Specifically, he noted how Educational Theater accesses what exists within each and every human being by getting people up on their feet, raising questions, addressing social issues. “I love this work. I could go on and on about stories of tapping a child’s genius or people stopping you on a street and saying how much a workshop changed their life.”
Keith simplified the complexity of the arts left out of education by pointing to the fact that children are only tested in two areas: Linguistics and Logistics – Math and English. The arts enhance both areas of intelligence however the spatial/visual, kinesthetic/bodily and rhythmic/musical learners are left out of the educational equation. To illustrate, he recalled a workshop conducted at a high school wherein all seniors were required to read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye for graduation. Students were struggling with the book. He devised a 10-day curriculum to “take it off the page and put it on the stage.” Once they were able to translate the central themes utilizing drama strategies, students “started reading the book like you could not believe.” Unfortunately, there is not enough acknowledgement given to this practice. The Arts are being cut from school curriculums and the education institution is failing. “We live in a capitalistic country and this is my political understanding. . . Education is not the primary goal in the United States. It’s about making money.” Case in point is reality television. “Reality shows have no reality to them. Producers found that humiliation sells as good as sex. It could be a scheme to get our society to volunteer personal information on social networks and surveillance. We’re being seduced into not thinking for ourselves, which is what art is. “The Arts are being taken out of school. Kids don’t have access to it. They’re bored; they’re not being challenged.” Our country has become separated: “We’ve become such an individualistic society that we have generations that don’t know how to talk to one another.” They’ve turned into self-centered individuals on their IPODS. Robots. Chips for a political agenda. People have better relationships with machines than with human beings.” He referenced the desensitization and passive communication of our youth. “They don’t have to listen to anyone. [They] can have their say texting or blogging and turn off.” So many students are going into college and taking remedial courses: The Arts IS Education – any form of the Arts demands certain disciplines that are academic. “The Artist is the highest form of human beings because they are the Creators. They are the Innovators. The Arts is the only way things can actually change because you see it, you feel it, you smell it, you taste it, and you’re forced to deal with it.”
Success. Here are some stories as proof of an arts inclusion education. Keith cited his own life as an example, as well as his children’s experiences. Both were enrolled in CAT’s Youth Theater Program and continued to utilize those skills as successful academics. His daughter is a theater and English major at Lawrence University and earned a McNair scholarship for her Master’s and Doctorate; his son, is a musician, poet, modeling talent who’s completing his Business degree at Skidmore College.
At a restaurant, Keith was delivered a chocolate cake by a busboy. “So, that’s for you. It’s on me.” Unable to recall the young man’s identity, Keith asked him to refresh his memory. He was an inmate at Horizon’s Academy [at Riker’s Island] and is now writing plays for the National Black Theater.
A head of The Bloods gang was reduced to tears during a diamond poem exercise. Reflecting on past deeds he wept with remorse for “all the people I’ve hurt in my life to get these cars and women . . . None of it is worth it. I never looked at it that way.”
All these examples show how “Theater holds up the mirror for them to see themselves,” summed up Keith, “no matter how you look at it. Everything around you was created by an artist. How could we not be supporters of the Arts? It saved my life.”
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