I did not intend to become an interdisciplinarian. Claiming a singular discipline feels cozier, it confers a sense of belonging. I labored in my early 20’s to find a discipline that was a good “fit” but was flummoxed by the notion of picking just one when there was such a smorgasbord of choices. I cut my teeth on visual storytelling at a very young age. Born in Hawaii, I learned hula when mainland girls my age were wearing tutus. My father was in the Navy, and we moved every few years. Even when my family was stationary for a few years, I always felt connected to faraway lands as I followed his journeys by ship on an out-of-date, beat-up metal globe. As a result, I never felt geographically tied to a place that was “home.” By the time I reached college, my educational journey had traversed eight schools.
I learned to adapt quickly to new environments, to assess groups, figure out how they worked, and to see where I might fit in. I became comfortable with ambiguity because it was my norm. I took on the mantle of “class artist” and branched out from hula dance to explore other expressive media. Each move we made as a family required endings and beginnings. I was (still am) perpetually curious about what happened to each person I had befriended; my life was full of incomplete story arcs. In addition to my fascination with these seemingly incomplete personal histories, I was captivated by stories from other lands. As a teen, I spent ridiculous sums of my allowance and babysitting money on books: collections of folktales, mythologies, creation stories, and stories of ancient civilizations. I devoured Joseph Campbell.
As a college student, I struggled. Not with grades or work, but with declaring a singular major. I connected with professors who modeled passions for their disciplines. Swept up by so many new ideas – so many new stories – I officially changed my major four times. I so envied my peers in the School of the Arts who felt “called” to various forms of artistic expression; they were painters, sculptors, and potters. I longed to feel that sense of connection. “I majored in changing majors,” is good for a laugh but not much else. In hindsight, interdisciplinary studies seems the only logical conclusion to my divergent upbringing and my (spoiler alert) journey as puppetry artist. Interdisciplinarity requires forging an individual path through uncharted territories; a task that might even, at times, require a metaphorical machete to hack away at a fresh path – not just a road less traveled, but a road, perhaps, untraveled.
My “off-road” studies began in 1994 when I began to explore puppetry. I apprenticed to a puppet builder, attended puppetry conferences, worked in a magic shop, built puppets, delved into voicework, and stumbled into collaborations. I formed my own touring company, wrote scripts, mastered various materials, created my own work, toured internationally, received grants, won awards, and kept moving. Like a fish unaware of water, I was oblivious to the interdisciplinary skills that were integral to my everyday work. As a theatre-maker, I have researched bread-making through the ages from the viewpoints of farmers, millers, blacksmiths, and bakers; the age of exploration from the perspectives of tortoises on the Galapagos Islands and starving sailors suffering a long sea voyage; and forest succession as seen through the tendrils of mycorrhizae in the soil of the forest floor. Curiosity, comfort with ambiguity, and empathy are intertwined in my creative process and are key skills in any interdisciplinary work.
My work in puppetry has gained me admittance to schools, libraries, and institutions involved in educating the public. I have worked with many educators seeking to leverage the engaging nature of puppetry to bestow a similar engagement to their subject areas. I still relish in making connections to people and learning through art. I eventually discovered that what I was doing had a name: arts integration.
Arts Integration is a natural intersection for education and the arts. It is important to not confuse this with art education, an entirely different field of study. The Kennedy Center defines arts integration as “an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject and meets evolving objectives in both.” Within this framework, art and other subjects are learned in partnership and on equal footing. The disciplines complement and support one another; arts integration is interdisciplinarity with an active role in education.
One must make a home for oneself in interdisciplinary studies. Scaffolded by art, art history, and education, I have found my place in arts integration. I revel in the “controlled chaos” that many teachers find unnerving when the arts are brought into learning; I recognize the creative process at work. Employers today want employees who are resilient, comfortable with ambiguity, and able to work creatively. It is imperative that we realign our educational systems to fully prepare all people for a future where ambiguity and change will be certainties. We should not deny future generations the full spectrum of possibilities within an interdisciplinary approach.