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Mark Larson: Interviewer, Writer, Teacher

Published on 09/05/2017

Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Larson Photography

What is your life’s purpose?
My life’s purpose is as it has always been: apprenticeship.

How are you living your purpose?
I’ve done this many ways—reading, writing, watching, listening, and mostly through teaching, which is the most powerful form of apprenticeship because it involves an inherent reciprocity. We all are one another’s teachers. I have held to that belief and it has guided me throughout my career as an educator. I was a high school English teacher for 14 years and wrote two books based on my teaching experiences: Situations with B.J. Wagner, and Making Conversation. In 1998, I was offered a position as Manager of Educational Partnerships at the Field Museum in Chicago, then Director of Education at Lincoln Park Zoo, and finally, a professor of education at National Louis University.

Right now, I am living my purpose by interviewing people who interest me. I apprentice myself to them, if only for the hour or two we’re talking and then during the hours of editing. I am always eager to see the world through their eyes. A few years ago, I started interviewing people on topics of interest to me, like their relationship to money, change in their lives, and the work of education. I was surprised to find that in very short time, I had acquired hundreds of interviews with people across the country, so I created a website, American Stories Continuum to house these interviews.

This site led to a larger project, which is what I am working on now: an oral history of the Chicago theater movement from 1953 to the present. In the span of one lifetime, the Chicago theater scene has grown from virtually no homegrown artists to its current status as a vital theater town with over 250 theaters, which fostered and continues to foster national and international talents like Michael Shannon, William H. Macy, David Mamet, David Schwimmer, John Malkovich, Tracy Letts, Stephen Colbert, John Belushi and countless others.

Because many of those who pioneered this movement are still with us, I’ve been able to capture firsthand accounts from artists like Ed Asner, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, and many others. This book, Ensemble Chicago: The Making of a Theater Town, is due out in 2018. There’s more information here: http://ensemble-chicago.com.

Interviewing George Wendt (photo by Sarah Elizabeth Larson Photography)

How did you find your purpose?
To be perfectly honest I didn’t find it (or articulate it) until you asked. I discovered what it always had been by asking myself the question: In what have I been most consistent throughout my life? I do believe we always act on our true purpose, mostly unaware.

What advice do you have for purpose seekers?
Pay attention to what you’ve been doing throughout your life: What has been consistent, what has guided your decisions, what draws you to people, places, projects, experiences, books? The answer is already there and you know what it is on a deep, subliminal, intuitive level. You’ve always been living by its rules. You just haven’t said it out loud. Yet.

Interviewing Donna Dunlap (photo by Jennifer Girard)

What resources do you recommend?
I’m bad at answering that question because, although I’m always reading, once I’ve finished reading a book, it becomes a part of my constitution like a meal and I can’t remember the titles if my life depended on it. The best I can do is say that right now I am reading three books: David Hare’s memoir, The Blue Touch Paper: A Memoir; Algren: A Life; and Ghost Light: A Memoir, Frank Rich’s memoir which I am reading in preparation for an interview with him. Next week I’ll probably have a different answer.

Some of the most helpful resources I’ve found for learning how to interview well are collections of interviews themselves. There are many fine examples: I love the extended and thoughtful interviews in the periodical Paris Review, the astonishing sweep of Studs Terkel’s oral histories in Working and Race, and the breathtaking The Good War. Terry Gross has a fine collection of her interviews called All I Did Was Ask. I also greatly enjoy hearing well-done interviews in live settings around town and on the radio.

Presenting at Ethical Humanists, 2016 (photo by Sarah Elizabeth Larson Photography)

Connect with Mark Larson
Email: markallenlarson@gmail.com
Website: www.americanstoriescontinuum.com
Book website: http://ensemble-chicago.com  I am currently writing an oral history of Chicago theater, 1953-present, due out spring 2018 by Agate Publishing.
Published books:
Making Conversation: Collaborating with Colleagues for Change
Situations: A Casebook of Virtual Realities for the English Teacher

Mark Larson curates a website, AmericanStoriesContinuum.com, which compiles over two hundred of his topics-based interviews with a wide range of people across the country. He has a doctorate in education and recently retired from his position as assistant professor in Educational Leadership at National Louis University (2005-2015). Previously, he was Director of Education at Lincoln Park Zoo (2002-2005), and Manager of Educational Partnerships and School Programs at The Field Museum (1998-2002). Prior to moving to the museum, Larson was an English teacher at Evanston Township High School for 14 years. In 1995, he received the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Golden Apple Foundation of Chicago.

From 1998-2004, Larson served as Chair of the Golden Apple Academy. He is founding chair of the board of directors at Polaris Charter Academy, which opened in the fall of 2007 in Humboldt Park, has sat on the steering committee for the Coalition for Chicago School Research, and the executive committee for the Museum Educators Roundtable. He has made numerous presentations on topics ranging from innovations in teaching to developing collegial relationships in schools.

He has published articles for professional journals and written two books, Making Conversation: Collaborating with Colleagues for Change; and, with Betty Jane Wagner, Situations: A Casebook of Virtual Realities for the English Teacher, both by Heinemann Books. In 1996, he received the Farmer Award for Best Article for English Journal.

Before beginning a career in education, he worked in theater and television as a special assistant to Burr Tillstrom, creator of the ‘50s television program Kukla, Fran and Ollie. With Burr, he worked on three television specials for NBC, assisted him for his appearance at the Kennedy Center, and for three seasonal runs at the Goodman Theater. He co-wrote and co-produced Kukla, Fran and Ollie: A Reminisce with Fran Alison for NBC and was a consultant for the Chicago Historical Society exhibit: Here We Are Again!

He is currently working on Ensemble Chicago: The Making of a Theater Town, An Oral History, to be published by Agate Publishing in the spring of 2018.

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