When I launched ArtsEdTechNYC last year, there was this voice on Twitter, @TheEngagingEd, that kept appearing in the Twitter feed. I soon had an opportunity to meet this Twitter voice in-person, otherwise known as Jen Oleniczak. I was quickly enamored by her positive, radiant energy and passion for social media, the arts and improvisation. Since last summer, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with Jen a few times. I thought it would be fun to sit down with her this week as we prepared for our Social Media Week master class in New York City and chatted about ArtsEdTech and improv.
JW: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background in the arts and how you discovered improvisation.
JO: I grew up in Milwaukee and was a dramatic kid. Seriously, there is parental evidence of me declaring my death when I would have to take medicine. Fast-forward through a lot of dinner theatre, improv classes and troupes through college and beyond. There was always something about the terror of not having a script and just responding in the moment – no matter what show I did as an actor, I loved doing improv more. I moved to the city [NYC] and auditioned for National Comedy Theatre (NCT) and found my home with an amazing bunch of improv crazies.
JW: What inspired you to become “The Engaging Educator?”
JO: When I went back to school for Art History, I quit acting. Like, tore up my head shots, turned down the under-5 work on As the World Turns. They called me the same week I decided to quit. Thanks Universe! And I left NCT. I started working in museums and realized that everyone was so good at what they were saying, but needed polish on how they were saying it. I saw a definitive gap in training in education – we all learn about content, but rarely do we get professional development in presentation skills.
The day I turned in my last paper, seriously the day, I Facebook messaged the artistic director of NCT, Gary Kramer, and asked to come back to the team. Thankfully, he responded and told me rehearsals were still Wednesday nights and the weekend after I turned thirty I was back onstage.
After a few rehearsals, I started to see the connection between improv and teaching – and then improv and everything. My time away widened my vision to the good of improv. I then widened my scope as a company, and everything started to come together a little bit more. Now, I’ve partnered with NCT, I’m starting an autism initiative, I’m traveling to train and speak with educators from institutions across the country. Really excited to see what I can do next!
JW: How do you break the barrier of fear that sometimes comes when people hear “improv” and what do you enjoy most when working with groups of people?
JO: People think “improv” equals “standup” – so not true. Improv is all about communication – and by saying that, and emphasizing that every time you have a conversation, you are doing improv, breaks up that fear.
I love when people are surprised by how much fun they have. I’ve had so many students tell me they are hooked, they love what’s happening, they love how they feel – it’s such a high to see that magic happen.
I think the other part of it all is the idea that improv is being used for good. It’s not just something for actors or performers, it’s something for everyone, because everyone can afford to be a better communicator.
JW: You recently did a TEDx Talk about improv and social change – very cool! What was that experience like?
JO: Thanks! It was terrifying. I teach presentation skills, and understand how ironic that is, but speaking in front of a large group of people is scary. People watch it and say, wow you looked great! I tell them, up until seconds before I got up there, I was sweating into my notecards. My roommate was there with me, and he kept telling me, use your notes. They turned my mic on, called me up onstage and at that moment I said, nope, don’t need these – gonna be in the moment – and threw down my notecards and walked onstage and just did it. I’m dreaming up my next one now. It was such a rush!
JW: Sounds like something I need to try! So tell me, what is this Museum Hack “thing” you’ve been doing lately?
JO: Museum Hack is an amazing company I’ve had the pleasure to work with. We are all about museum tours for people who don’t necessarily like museums or tours. It’s interactive, renegade and fun. Plus you might end up learning something. Right now we are at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and AMNH [American Museum of Natural History], rocking it out.
JW: You’ve been co-facilitating these fun workshops recently with ArtsEdTechNYC demonstrating ways to integrate social media in the classroom. What are some of the push backs you see happening with technology in education?
JO: Well there will always be push back to any “new” thing. People talk about how students are too involved with devices and they need to be present – which is all true – but they also need to learn how to utilize the technology that is all around them. Technology isn’t going away, it’s going to just increase, so we as educators should use it to our advantage!
I also understand that some schools don’t have access to technology, but so many people have smartphones and we should use what we have to increase communication within education.
JW: How will access to technology and the use of social media change the landscape of arts education in the near future?
JO: Accessibility! The ability to have a conversation with people across the world about art and to share ideas among so many different groups of people. #ITweetMuseums, and ArtsEdTech are some favorites. I’m really excited about work they are doing in the field, and super pumped about seeing where we are all going to go next!
JW: What would be your “two stars and a wish” for arts, education and technology?
JO: Is this like wishing upon a star? I hope ArtsEdTech keeps growing, rocking it out and making waves in the field. We need amazing thought leaders to push people beyond their comfort zone and make things happen. I’m thrilled every time I collaborate with ArtsEdTech, because I love the group vibe that comes together.