Jessica Genick, of Tisch Drama’s Office of Career Development & Alumni Engagement, recently caught up with educator, writer, director and leader in the public service sector Alex Johnson. Alex holds a BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (2010) and an M.A. in Theater and Performance Studies from Stanford University.
Jessica had the opportunity to talk with Alex about creating House Lights (www.houselights.org), a new organization placing artists in public service residencies where their talents can make unique impacts.
1. Can you talk about your time at Tisch Drama? How did you develop and grow as a student?
I am forever grateful for my time at Tisch Drama- from the first day of freshman year to graduation, I was surrounded by talented peers, supported by incredible teachers, and ushered into (quite literally) life-changing experiences. It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life.
Sometimes I think about my four years at Tisch as an introduction to abundance. Like many young people who come to Tisch, I had gotten there by “achieving”- good grades, test scores, lead roles, all things defined by scarcity. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my 18-year-old self was steeped in this thinking. That’s what my time at Tisch impacted most- I learned, particularly in my time at the Experimental Theater Wing, how false that scarcity really was. Finding abundant inspiration and talent and ideas and drive and will in myself and others helped to highlight the things that truly were scarce: time, space, attention. That sense of abundance- that there is tremendous potential in every person- has shaped my life and my work ever since.
I also think it’s important to highlight the more tangible skill growth I had as an artist and academic: Laura Levine championed me as a writer, Jane Malmo helped hone my research skills, Daniel Spector and Louis Scheeder reshaped my approach to dramatic texts, and my time at ETW helped me learn about the deeper structures of plays, songs, dances- how to identify those structures, work within them, and to create ones of my own.
2. You mentioned that Rosemary Quinn, your teacher at ETW, first introduced you to the idea of teaching theater arts programs. Can you describe your professional journey and the varied career paths that you have pursued as a teacher, director of theater arts programs and now as the creator of House Lights?
Like many people who end up working in education, I never thought I would work in education. But when Rosemary let me know about an afterschool theater gig at a middle school in Tompkins Square, I jumped at the chance, and it changed my life. Since then, I have tried to position myself at the intersection of the arts, education, and public service. In practice, that means that I've done everything from full-time classroom teaching to district and statewide advocacy. I've coached rookie teachers, developed online curricula, ran a university repertory theater, and most recently launched a nonprofit of my own. I've learned a lot about the really critical gaps in our national system of artistic production: who gets the opportunities to make art, where, when, and why. That's what drives the work of House Lights, my nonprofit: empowering artists to help people make more art.
I am incredibly grateful for all the people who have helped and supported me along the way- at every step in my journey, my friends and former teachers from NYU have offered guidance, insight, connections, and encouragement. I could not have done any of it without them.
3. The idea for creating House Lights began when you attended your 10 year ETW reunion. Can you take us through the process from the idea of creating this program to making it a reality? When you encountered challenges in creating House Lights, how did you overcome them?
My ten year reunion would have been in May of 2020. We hadn't had concrete plans for any kind of gathering, but with everyone sheltering at home and getting used to life on Zoom, we got together online. As everyone shared their stories and memories and caught each other up on life, it struck me how often people said something like "I feel like my training made me a better person/friend/lawyer/teacher/etc". It's a sentiment I've heard elsewhere too- not everybody who studies to be an artist continues working as an artist, but many people who study to be artists recognize that it prepared them for lives beyond the arts as well. I started to think, how can we harness all that energy? How can we direct it towards causes and organizations that really need it? Artists, especially young artists, are compassionate, energetic, empathetic, and can do a lot with a little- exactly the qualities most needed by on-the-ground public service organizations. House Lights has grown and changed much since that initial idea, but the core impulse remains the same: creating a pathway for young artists to use their unique talents to make unique impacts in public service.
4. House LIghts is committed to training and hiring artists for residencies in social and public service. How can implementing arts programming build more connected and creative communities?
At the core of everything we do at House Lights is the idea that collaborative art-making ends up making more than just art. We know this from our own experiences as artists: the projects where you made lifelong friends, the events where you forged meaningful connections, the performances (and afterparties) where you felt like a part of a real scene. What if we looked at these connections and collisions as the goal of artmaking, and not just a byproduct?
House Lights Fellows, in residence at public libraries, create artistic projects driven by community involvement; a mural is a great example. The Fellow may be a talented mural artist, but what they are really facilitating is community members' experience. They create the opportunity, promote it with local partners, connect it to causes and ideas of local concern, and coach community members through the creative process. This might mean teaching some painting classes, or it might mean leading some discussion or planning sessions, or it might mean throwing a party to celebrate. The point is that the Fellow is not there to show off their own skill- they are there to use their skill to guide others in making something that matters to them. We call the connections that emerge in this kind of work Creative Community Infrastructure- the relationships and bonds that connect us just as much as our roads and electrical grid do. Good art projects strengthen those relationships, so we are trying to make as many as possible!
5. Your vision about making art isn't about creating masterpieces- it's about building relationships, finding meaning, and feeling joy. How can we help our students to focus on these points while they pursue careers in the field?
When you are climbing a mountain, you get stuck in a kind of paradox: you have to look down to go up. If you try to climb a mountain with your eyes fixed on the peak, you’re almost certainly going to stumble, trip on a branch or a rock, misplace your feet. You have to look down to go up.
This is really, really hard to do when you’re at Tisch. You’re surrounded by the most brilliant, talented people you’ve ever met, and you can’t help but look up at the peak in the distance. You want to imagine the great work you will do someday. The most valuable thing you can learn in becoming an artist is that “great work” and “someday” are never as important as “real work” and “today”. That’s not to say you shouldn’t dream about things you want to make or create- but you have to look down to go up.
So: make as many things as possible, even if they are small and not excellent. Make things with different people as often as you can. Seek joy in the work, and if you start to lose it, try something different. Dean Young has a great line about this, in a poem called “How I Get My Ideas”:
You bend the nail
But keep hammering because
Hammering makes the world
6. What skills did you learn at NYU that prepared you to be an entrepreneur who creates arts programming with a social justice mission?
The most crucial skill I learned for social entrepreneurship was how to make exciting things with limited resources. The early days of any social venture are by necessity pretty lean ones, but they are also when it is most important to be ambitious and optimistic in the work. This was often my experience at Tisch and especially at ETW- maintaining ambition and vision even when (especially when!) you had limited time or space or resources. There is always a way.
7. What tools do you use when you experience challenges? How do you incorporate health and wellness into your daily life?
Sadly, I don’t think I have very good advice on this topic- my response to challenge is always to dig deeper and push myself harder, which hasn’t always been a boon to my health and wellness. I think the mental wellness component is so crucial, and would encourage every student to spend some time talking with a therapist and practicing meditation or some other kind of mindfulness. And some fresh air and a walk around Washington Square can do wonders for the nerves.
8. What advice do you have for our current students at Tisch and for our graduates?
There is no one piece of advice, of course- Tisch students are a wonderfully varied group, and anything that might apply to half would miss the other half. So take all of this with a grain of salt! But here are three important things I have learned along my own path:
● Cultivate curiosity- the world is bigger and weirder than even your biggest and weirdest dreams.
● Prioritize the cause- when you find something you care about, that really drives you, follow it, and serve it however you can.
● Make a scene- connect people, support them, bring them together, bring out the best in them. Create the conditions for people to create together.
There are so many ways to be an artist, and that’s part of the challenge- you have to find your own way. But it is- it really, truly is- also the wonderful part. The way you find, when you find it, will be yours.