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.