Natalie Greene is leading 20 or so sixth-graders in what amounts to an advanced dance and theater exercise on the stage at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School, which draws kindergartners through eighth-graders from all over San Francisco.
"When I say change, change just one elbow. Ready, change."
The kids cock an elbow, some at goofy angles, and wait for the next cue. And within minutes, Greene and the kids have built a random series of movements into an interpretive dance about an urban raccoon dueling with a trash can. Spoiler alert: it has a happy ending.
"When we do something like that, and you make your own decisions, and you don't know what I'm going to ask you to do, what is it called?" Greene asks the kids, who are squirrely with energy but totally focused on the exercise. "Improv," one boy calls out.
Greene is an artist in residence at Claire Lilienthal. A 10-year veteran at the age of 31, she teaches this master class in movement for 11-year-olds through the San Francisco Arts Education Project (SFArtsED), a nonprofit that posts 70 or so working artists like her to teach theater, dance and visual arts at 24 San Francisco schools.
Artist Ruth Asawa died last year, but she's left a vigorous legacy in this nonprofit, which she founded in the 1968.
"We're not dumbing down the information." Greene says. "When it's artist-centered teaching, student-centered learning... it brings a real integrity to the artwork the kids are making." Which nicely states one of Asawa's guiding principles, as recalled by SFArtsED artistic director Emily Keeler: "If a non-artist teaches art, it's not art."
Keeler was a dancer when she got the job as SFArtsED's artistic director almost 30 years ago. Asawa had begun campaigning to keep arts alive in the schools in the late 1970s, after the anti-tax measure Proposition 13 crippled school funding.
Keeler and others say they still follow Asawa's ideals for the group, which hold that the arts are essential for all human beings. "It's clear to a lot of educators that it's part of a whole person," says Keeler. "Being able to read a note, hold a paintbrush, stand in front of your peers and speak and not feel frightened."
Susan Stauter is San Francisco Unified School District's artistic director and oversees half a dozen arts programs alongside SFArtsED. She, too, was Asawa's friend and colleague and shares her belief in the unique contribution artists make in a classroom. "She believed artists had a way of viewing the world, a way of problem-solving, a way of taking risks."
Keeping arts education in California schools is harder than ever now, as districts scramble to adapt to the nation's new Common Core curriculum. But San Francisco schools have a master plan for arts education, inspired, you guessed it, by Asawa. And there's money for the arts -- $10 million this year from San Francisco's 2006 Proposition H, up for renewal in November.
As for the kids, they're all for it: "I just love working with the directors, the acting, singing, dancing," says sixth grader Tosh Harris-Santiago. "It's a blast."
Harris-Santiago is following his older sister's footsteps into SFArtsED's musical theater program. He plays Marryin' Sam in the company's upcoming production of Li'l Abner, a modestly successful Broadway show from 1956 based on the Al Capp comic about the hardscrabble lives of the Yokum clan in the fictional village of Dogpatch. "I've read the comic strips. Li'l Abner is... awesome. It's out there."
Tiny Libby Bass plays tiny Mammy Yokum, Li'l Abner's pipe-chomping mom. "It's a great experience, because we're learning the way professionals do it," she says.
"The characters lend themselves to children," says Danny Duncan, an SFArtsED master artist who's retiring this spring after directing all the program's musicals since 1991. Duncan is a passionate advocate for the golden age of Broadway: "An incredible feast of theatrical, musical joy that will never, ever come again. Not in my lifetime." Pressed for a practical reason to teach kids these old shows, Duncan says, "This teaches them about history."
"Some of these musicals are like time capsules," adds Natalie Greene, who choreographed the show, "where they're learning about a completely different culture, but a culture from the country they live in."
Greene's work-life illustrates another aspect of SFArtsED: It's an organization that serves the kids, sure, but it also serves the community of artists who do the teaching. Greene is a member of the avant-garde theater company Mugwumpin, whose most recent production required her to go without sleep for 60 hours, with performances every two hours. She’s paid for some of her work with the company, Greene says, which is "balanced out by my teaching income."
Besides SFArtsEd, Greene is an adjunct dance professor at the University of San Francisco. So she can afford to do edgy work with Mugwumpin, and volunteer at San Quentin Prison -- and somehow survive in San Francisco, a city that is increasingly inhospitable to artists with limited incomes.
And by that standard, SFArtsEd is still doing what Asawa intended for it, says Susan Stauter: "She used art to build community, to bring people together."