Drew Davidson

Actor - Comedian - Scholar

I don't teach people to act. I free them to play.

A teaching statement. February 6, 2018. 

Unlike Fichte, I believe that education should aim at preserving and enhancing the student’s free will so that after they are thus schooled, they will be capable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking and acting for themselves. I don’t teach my students how to act. I free them to play. One of the biggest inspirations behind my teaching philosophy is Viola Spolin, the Mother of Modern Improvisation. Her vision for the future was a world of accessible intuition. Through miseducation, upbringing, and societal influences the student loses access to their intuition. “The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be a human being.” It is only possible to fully realize what it is to be a human being if you have access to your intuition. 

Viola Spolin opens her book Improvisation for the Theater and Beyond with the lines, ”Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater and learn to become ‘stageworthy.' We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. . . . ‘Talent’ or ‘lack of talent’ has little to do with it.” This statement has been a guiding star since I started teaching theatre. Many theatre professionals and educators lump actors into two categories: the haves and have-nots. In other words, you either do or do not have talent. This line of thinking is unproductive and results in a creative block for the teacher and student alike. Teachers start focusing on the “talented students” and leave the others by the wayside. Students have a tendency to live up to their teacher’s expectations, for better or for worst, and the “good ones” start excelling and the “bad ones” flounder and fail. This form of favoritism among theatre professionals and educators has a tendency to inflate egos, create divas, and drive a culture of self-centeredness. Not to mention the demoralizing effects on fledgling artists who are deemed ‘unworthy.’  But, if you go into the classroom with the mindset: “Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theatre and learn to become stageworthy”, all of a sudden a more favorable learning environment emerges. I always tell my students, “Talent —whatever it is and if it does exist— is outside of our control and shouldn’t consume our focus. Rather, we should focus on things that are under our control. Instead of worrying about if we have an amazing voice, we can work daily on effective vocal exercises to develop strong, clear, resonant voices. Instead of complaining about how out of shape our bodies are, we can discipline ourselves to daily exercise as well as the study and application of movement exercises to develop a body that will do whatever is asked of it. We should strive to become as strong, supple, and graceful as the constraints of your body will allow.” By framing the learning environment in this manner, many positive outcomes emerge. The student stops questioning whether they “have IT” and subsequently the choices they make. The actor's job suddenly becomes clear, that is, to show up to the theatre in optimal condition ready to engage with the play at hand. And as a result, the student has the confidence to grow as an artist.  

When I first read, “no one teaches anyone anything,” as a third generation teacher, I was a little offended. For years, I thought all of the educational responsibility rested on the shoulders of the teacher. In actuality, it is a shared responsibility between the teacher and the student to be open to direct experience. As an expert in walking, the parent can talk to the baby about walking. Show him how to do it. Read books to the baby about attaining the proper gait. But at the end of the day, only the experience of kicking to crawling, crawling to standing, trying to walk and failing, falling over and over again will teach the baby to walk. The child has to learn for himself through experience. In the right environment, and if the individual is open to direct experience, anyone can learn whatever he or she chooses to learn. My responsibility is to create an open environment that is freeing, safe and leads students to direct experience. The student’s responsibility is to permit it to happen. At the beginning of my courses, I try to quickly and efficiently remove the five blocks of direct experience as identified by Viola Spolin: The Approval/Disapproval Syndrome, Self-Pity, Success/Failure, Attitudes, and Fear. Each block can be confronted with various games. 

Viola Spolin’s Theatre Games are a complete system of actor training, but also a useful tool for creating an optimal learning environment. The very first game I usually play with students is a game called Exposure. In this game, half of the class is asked to stand on stage and given the command “you look at us, we’ll look at you.” It doesn’t take long before the students onstage start swaying, gritting their teeth, holding their breath, their pulses quicken, palms begin to sweat, and various other physical manifestation of fear emerge. After this exercise concludes, I give them the command “point and count the ceiling tiles.” An astonishing thing happens, the students relax, breathing calms, shoulders release, and all of a sudden they look comfortable onstage. Why? Because they had a specific focus, a clear point of concentration. Exposure is just one of many games that can be used to conquer the block of Fear. There is a myriad of games that can be used to overcome each of the five blocks of direct experience. Games can be used to solve other challenges (e.g., projection issues, lack of support and trust, memorization), and I have been known to make up games to address unique problems specific to each group. Games hearken back to our childhood when we had the most significant access to our intuition and sense of play. By setting forth a series of games and exercises in class, I can create a care-free (not careless) environment that allows the students to solve the problem/challenge/focus of each game as a group. Lessons are learned through play, through experience. This type of work engages the whole person and creates an ensemble. I have seen shy students become more confident and the hysterical students more at ease in just a matter of weeks. I have seen groups of strangers from various majors become a classroom of best friends. Learning should be a beloved activity, and through theatre games I can create an environment that is engaging, fun, and conducive to the growth of the student. 

“Progress not perfection” is a motto I try to inspire in my students, but it is also a principle I try to apply to myself as a teacher. Each day I want to be more effective than I was the day before. There is no arrival in the art form, and there is no arrival as the teacher. You don’t just wake up one day and have all the answers. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t understand. I’m honest with my students and tell them the truth, “I don’t have all the answers, and any acting teacher that pretends to have all the answers should probably be avoided. If I don’t know the answer, I’m confident we can discover the truth together.” Neil Gaiman says, “If someone says that a story is about one particular thing they are probably right. But anyone who says that this is the only thing a story is about is definitely wrong.” I know that my approach to actor training is not the only way. It is a method that seems to be effective in producing well-rounded artists and people. That being said, I can always be better. I make a promise to my future students to constantly strive to grow as a teacher. I promise to set high expectations myself and for my students. As technology continues to expand exponentially, I promise to stay caught up on most-recent educational technology. I most recently read “Guiding Creative Talent” by Ellis Paul Torrance and will continue to read books, journals, articles, blogs, and any other kind of literature that will improve my performance in the classroom. I promise to keep participating in conferences, workshops, and other events that will make me a more effective teacher. I am an active supporter/collaborator with the Education Theatre Association and South Eastern Theatre Conference, a certified Lessac Practitioner, and will seek out other professional groups so that I can learn from other professionals. I promise to make time to observe other teachers who are effective in the classroom and am open to finding new strategies. 

I would like to leave the reader with one final thought. This teaching philosophy is a working draft. I don’t ever want my beliefs as a teacher to completely ossify. I plan to renew and revive this document continually. And to that end, this draft is only one window into my teaching philosophy at this particular moment in time, the Spring of 2018. I hope that these few short paragraphs have offered some insight into my approach to teaching. 

 

Optimal Conditioning the New Year Resolutions List

“Play well or play badly, but play truly.” - Konstantin Stanislavsky

The New Year has arrived! Do you know what that means? It’s time to set some New Year’s Resolutions!! Most of our resolutions revolve around feelings of shame and guilt carried over from the previous year. And yet, there is a certain atmosphere of eagerness and a wealth of ‘new year dedication fuel’ in ye olde motivation tank. This is a magical time of year because it feels like you get a clean slate and a fresh start to make positive changes in your life. As I’m trying to curate my own list of New Year’s resolutions I can’t help but find myself being drawn to a quote from “A Practical Handbook for the Actor” by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeline Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Roberto Previto, and Scott Zigler. 

“All you can do is bring yourself to the theatre in Optimum condition to participate in the play at hand. Identifying what things can put yourself in optimum condition then doing them consistently so that they become habitual will give you the satisfaction of always knowing what to do, what your job truly is… The best thing you can do for yourself as an actor is to clearly define and list those things that are your responsibilities and separate them from those things which are not.” (pg. 3-4) 

Theatrum Mundi. Jacques in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” said it best, “All the World’s a Stage…”. While many of you might not be actors in the commercial theatre, we are all actors on the stage of life. And all we can do is bring ourself to the theatre/our life’s stage and strive to place ourself in an optimum condition ready to engage with the play at hand or whatever life throws at us. When the magic of NYE dissipates and we find ourselves in the ides of March, fifteen pounds heavier and no longer going to the gym, with our resolutions long forgotten, what happens next? The truth is: we are not in control of the magic. We are only in control of our intentions. If you realize a few important concepts NOW, while the magical motivation of NYE/Jan 1 is still present you can set yourself up for a year filled with satisfaction and accomplishment.

    • Optimal is NOT Maximal
    • Know your Job 
    • Consistency leads to Habits

Optimal: the best, most favorable, most salutary condition, degree, or amount; “optimal” (and “optimum”) always implies “quality” and is never fixed or finite. Maximal: the greatest possible quantity, degree, or amount for a particular situation; “maximum” is fixed or finite.” (“The Use and Training of the Human Voice” by Arthur Lessac, pg. 27-28) We live in a culture that is consumed with ‘hitting the numbers’. We are obsessed with measuring our success with some societally prescribed rubric. We need to keep concrete records of our progress so we can see how we stack up compared to everyone else. We have to get the most bang for our buck and we have to do it better than everyone else. All of these ideas have us chasing after some ‘maximal’ standard. The human condition is always in flux and is never fixed (or finite in my opinion, but thats a topic for another article). We are fighting against our own nature when we strive for the MAXIMUM. Arthur Lessac used to say “Never Force Your Voice.” Many actors mistake volume for healthy projection and effective tonal resonance. This leads to strained voices and in some cases permanent damage. Some of my students want to fill the space immediately, but aren’t willing to put in the necessary daily practice/patience/time that it requires. They look at their colleagues and see someone who is filling the space immediately without even trying. They then push for the same level of volume. They push for the end-product and forget the process. While It has to be discouraging to see people with naturally stentorian sounds, there is no short-cut to success without some consequence. In this case, a blown larynx. This seems to be a perfect parallel scenario for our New Year’s Resolutions. After going to the gym for a few weeks, we still get out of breath going up the stairs but everyone else seems to be in great shape. After asking our boss for a promotion, Jan from accounting gets the bump. It would make anyone sick trying to constantly “go for broke” and seeing the apparent success of everyone around them. We want to accomplish our goals, but we run out of energy half-way through because we aren’t hitting the ‘maximal’ standards. This is why it is so important to frame your New Year’s Eve Resolutions in an OPTIMAL way. ‘Optimal’ is the most effective, healthy, and favorable way to accomplish your goals because it takes into account the qualitative results of your actions (e.g. wear, tear, and damage to the human body). Lessac says, “It is the most favorable condition for growth, development, reinforcement, and maturation.” Before I broke my back in 2011, I was always going for maximal standards: Best Grades. Best Body. Best Role. Best, best, best. When I realized that I might not ever walk again, I knew that I would never be able to hit those maximal standards. I was depressed for months at the prospect of a life of already hitting my maximal physical limits and never being able to get there again. 2 titanium rods, 14 screws, and a year of in-home physical therapy later… There was a paradigm shift in my thinking. There had to be. I came across the word optimal. I would say to myself, “What is your optimal condition today? I can’t change my condition in life. There are factors outside of my control.” I would look at myself in the mirror and ask myself, “What is my optimal condition today?” Can I walk to the door? Can I walk to the kitchen? Can I walk up one stair? Two stairs? Each day I had to convince myself to take one step more. But instead of comparing myself to other people and the maximal standards placed on me by society, education and upbringing, I decided to compare me to ME - right where I was in that moment. “Johnny broke his back and is already running.” “Billy never broke his back and can easily bend down to tie his shoe.” These ‘maximal’ thoughts are murder to progress. Your New Year’s Resolutions are YOUR  New Year’s Resolutions. Don’t worry about the maximal standards of the world around you. It takes time for growth, development, reinforcement and maturation of newly forming habits. 

What is your job? Your job is to show up to your life. Be in your optimum condition daily. Does that mean you are singing show tunes every morning? No. But it does mean being at your best, whatever that looks like on that particular day. Even on your cruddiest day the self has an optimal condition. And Participate in the play at hand. Get in the habit of saying Yes! to your life. Our default is to block and deny the path before us, when we should be accepting and building as we go along. How? Identify the things that put you into an optimal condition. Is it eating right? Getting enough sleep? Having one glass of wine before bed? Meditating? etc… Then do each of those actions consistently until they become habitual. Adding and subtracting from the list as your awareness of what is your responsibility and what is NOT your responsibility grows. I’m reminded of the serenity prayer often quoted in AlAnon: 

“God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.”

- Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

It is important to clearly define this list of things I am responsible for in my life. Then I need to Make it Visible; Make it Visited; and Make it Viable. Consistency can build good or bad habits, it just depends on your actions. If I consistently worry about the things I can’t change, I will inevitably spin out. This frustration and fruitless worry will infect my whole life and result in my stagnation. However, if I can change the little things in my life I have control over I will be in charge of my life. There will be a more consistent trajectory of growth, if we look at our New Year’s Resolutions in a practical way. My goal is to not be swayed by the ebb and flow of the motivational magic… 

New Year’s Resolutions (subject to change):

  1. Work daily on effective vocal exercises | Goal: Strong, clear, resonant voice. 
  2. Discipline myself to daily exercise as well as the study and application of movement exercises | Goal: Develop a body that will do whatever is asked of it; become as strong, supple, and graceful as the constraints of my body (2 rods and 14 screws from L5 - L2) will allow. Stop beating myself up about the body that was, and focus on the body I have now and what it could be in the future. 
  3. Be Braver and more confident. 
  4. Be more open with my faith in Christ.
  5. Daily prayer, meditation, and journal. 
  6. Stay organized, prepared, and on time. 
  7. Put God first, others second, and me third. 
  8. Speak less and listen more. 
  9. Read 52 books. 
  10. Do Stand-up Comedy again. 

Patsy Rodenburg and Three Simple Questions

Summer, Shakespeare, and the Outdoors. What a great combination! This summer I have the privilege of directing Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” on a brand new outdoor stage in Richmond, KY. In preparation for the work, I found myself going to a staple resource for any Shakespearean practitioner: “Speaking Shakespeare” by Patsy Rodenburg. ***If you don’t have this book, and you want to speak and/or understand Shakespeare, this book is a must-have on your shelf.***

‘Take pains; be perfect.’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I.ii)

Before beginning my process and starting work on a piece of Shakespearean text, I always go back to the three questions Rodenburg asks her actors who are attempting to play Shakespeare for the first time. Even though this is not the first time I will be playing in Shakespeare’s world, these questions are grounding, revealing, and helpful in establishing a sense of focus. To my mind, the use of these questions stretches beyond beginning Shakespearean actors. I have found these questions useful when I teach acting in the classroom or when I work with non-classical texts. So, the purpose of this blog post is to introduce those who are not familiar with a fantastic resource in Patsy Rodenburg’s “Speaking Shakespeare” as well as to share and discuss these three questions in the context of the theatrical process; using this summer project as a point of reference. While I anticipate my audience for this post will primarily be composed of theatre practitioners, it seems clear to me that these questions are beneficial for non-theatre persons as well. So even though I won’t be discussing the relative beneficialness and application of these questions to the non-theatre persons, (maybe a post for another day, or a conversation for the comment section) I hope you still read and enjoy. 

The Three Questions: 
Are you prepared to work and put in time and energy? 
Do you have
courage and are you frightened?
Do you have enough humility? 

 

“Are you prepared to work and put in time and energy?” On the surface, this fundamental question may seem obvious and patronizing. But, it is a necessary consideration. Too many times I have seen people begin a process and come to the realization that this “Theatre Thing” (as I've heard the uninitiated call it) is a lot more demanding than they had originally thought. The theatre practitioner must be diligent and willing to give over his mind, body, and spirit to the work if he desires to achieve more than the average. Whenever I properly commit to a project, I usually come out of it exhausted; this is a good thing. A runner doesn’t finish the race saying to himself, “Well, at least I didn’t give it my all.” For the actor, in particular, this ‘theatre thing’  is a total organism workout. Externally: Muscles in the body, breath, voice, and speech are stretched and utilized; Internally: Intelligence, emotion, and spirit are pushed to places beyond the everyday. You have to be a philosopher as well as an athlete to get the most out of a role. While I won’t be performing in “The Taming of the Shrew,” I hope to leave this summer exhausted. I want to finish the project and feel like I gave myself over entirely to the show. So, I suppose another way to phrase the question, “Are you willing to leave the show exhausted?” This mindset requires a strength of will and a fitness of self. I’m confident the more work, time, and energy I put into the show that my cast will do the same. The mind is willing, let’s see if the body is able.

“Do you have the courage and are you frightened?” To quote Nelson Mandela (which is something that I can’t say I do on the regular) “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” When you hear someone say, “Yes I have courage. But, I am not afraid.” You should know that they don’t truly have courage, they have a sort of blind confidence. There seems to be a desire from some folks in the theatre community who want to eliminate fear completely from our world. Caution: without fear, you lose Bravery and Courageousness —among other things. I believe, as Rodenburg puts it, “You have to be frightened in the right way.” I intend to take this notion further at a later date (there is good fear and bad fear; there is a usefulness of fear in the theatre). When you start exploring the human condition, as Shakespeare and all great playwrights do, you will find a hefty helping of fear in their stories. The powerful thoughts and passionate feelings have to be faced head on, and in their totality.  Rodenburg goes on to say, “Recognizing your fear and working through it allows the actor to release the plays.” There is no short-cut to the Work. When you short-cut, you undercut™. (One of my sayings.) Don’t try to get around fear. You have to recognize your fears -whatever they may be-  if you intend to explore the human issues Shakespeare addresses. Fearlessness, as a result of denial, prevents you from truly getting to the heart of the work and there is no opportunity to have courage. This summer, I hope I can inspire my cast to face the ‘hard-problems’ that “The Taming of the Shrew” addresses with the right kind of fear and the necessary bravery.  Besides the content of Shrew, there are personal habits that have formed over the course of a lifetime that can impede the work. As far as technique and craft are concerned, I have an arsenal of exercises, games, and explorations to help break bad habits. Some of the members of the cast have never done Shakespeare before, and I'm sure others have a very specific way of doing Shakespeare. Fear will manifest itself in a few different ways on this front: 1.) Fear of trying something new for the first time and 2.) letting go of bad habits is frightening. We all know why trying something new is scary, because you don’t know what the outcome will be. But letting go of bad habits is terrifying because you have first to admit that this thing you’ve been doing hasn’t been efficient and is therefore wrong —artists tend to have fragile egos, so this doesn’t feel great. And then you have to put your trust in something new, which brings you to the fear of trying something new for the first time and not knowing if it will work. My hope is that my cast will trust me, be brave and jump head first into the work! 

“Do you have enough humility?” You have to have a certain amount of pride and ego if you go into the performing business. You have to think “People want to see me do things.” But at a certain point, you have to realize that you aren’t as important as you think. As theatre artists, we become servants to the work and the others around us. ‘How do I make the work better?’ and ‘How do I make my partner look better?’, These are the questions we have to ask ourselves. Many get stuck on self and on “How do I make myself look better?” The battle between ‘Me vs. The Others’ and ‘Pride vs. Humility’ wages on throughout an artist's career. Rodenburg says, “I have never met a great artist without humility.” I want to be a great artist, and I’m inclined to believe there is no greatness without humility. (I would love to explore this notion of ‘greatness in humility’ further). This question serves as a great reminder to stay humble. Not the false humility used to attract compliments after phrases like “I’m just a screw-up” or “I’ll never be as pretty a her” etc… Nor is it the bastardized version of humility where you lose confidence in yourself and undermine your abilities. A true kind of humility comes with openness. Open to the possibilities within the text. Open to the suggestions and ideas from your teammates. Vanity gets in the way of your potential. The irony is, when you get caught up in your needs at the expense of those around you,  this is when you are least likely to be fulfilling your desire do great work. Rodenburg encourages the actor to “avoid starting any discussion along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t do that,' ‘I don’t believe in that,' ‘I don’t think my character would do that’ ‘Can we change that line?’, ‘This scene is unreal.’” I’m a strong proponent of the ‘Yes and…’ improv principle. When you start from a place of denial and prejudgement, you are displaying a lack of trust. The work shouldn’t be about the self; it should be about transforming and the other beings around you. Humility allows you to search for the answers and then change to meet the demands of the show. Trust, Humility, and Openness form a grand alliance with Bravery to overcome the Fears produced when creating your art. My goal this summer is to stay humble and open to the ideas and emotions my Shrew team brings to the rehearsal process. I have ideas in my mind, but I don’t want to stop searching and limit myself to the possibilities the people and the text might reveal along the way.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope that you will take these questions and apply them to your next project, or find some use for them in your day-to-day lives. Again, if you haven’t read Patsy Rodenburg’s “Speaking Shakespeare” it is a no-nonsense, practical training manual for the Shakespearean actor and enthusiast. Also, I would love to know your thoughts on some of the ideas posted above. 

Please! Like, Share, and Comment! Let’s start a conversation. 
 

Upcoming Blog

Want some insightful thoughts about performance? Or maybe an interesting / potentially hilarious story? How about just a stream of conscious rant about a Maggie Smith Quote? "Melchior's Journal" is a place where thoughtful discourse and engaging dialogue are welcome... also, silly puns and raunchy jokes. It is place where I can share and reveal some of the inner-workings of my mind...

The Blog's Title? Where'd it come from you ask? Well...                                                

"Melchior's Journal"  is inspired by a character I played in the Musical "Spring Awakening". Melchior Gabor is frustrated because the society in which he lives hides information from him and his peers. {Link to his wiki: http://springawakening.wikia.com/wiki/Melchior_Gabor} His deep desire for understanding is inspiring. His willingness to ask the hard questions, think through life's mysteries, and be brave enough to share his discoveries with those around him excite the same desires within myself. While trying to tackle the larger more tormenting thoughts of human existence (meaning of life, death, love, faith, nothingness, desire, expectation) this character still finds time to talk about items of little consequence, to joke  with his friends, and fall in love* with a girl (* Theatre Nerds, You can debate this with me later). "To my mind..." is the way he starts most of his journal entries. I think that is the way I would like to start my entries on this site. After playing this character, journalling has become a daily practice for me. That being said, this is my first real attempt to BLOG, which "To my Mind" is something like an online journal. (*Blog Nerds, You can debate this with me later). My goal with this blog is to talk/joke about the inconsequential and silly; as well as try to shine light and ask questions about the hard problems. Although, I should warn you... to quote Frost... "I am never more serious than when I'm joking." And by the inverse, I am never more 'jokey' than when I am serious.