As a teacher, I am both participant and witness. I hold the experience of my students and let them know that their progress is being noticed and appreciated. I ask them questions, offer them tools, and give them space and time within which to make connections. It is not my job to rank student theater artists as “good” or “bad,” whether they are majors or non-majors; I believe that the study of theater is a lifelong endeavor, and that anyone can make immense progress over time. It is true of any course of study that students will inevitably become better through hard work. Thus, I acknowledge strong work ethics and offer specific, non-judgmental feedback.
Within a liberal arts education, a theater class can offer students the opportunity to bring their bodies to the forefront and to reconnect them to their brains and emotions. A theater class offers a level of kinesthetic learning that cannot help but enhance a student’s ability to stay present in lectures and labs.
Through the study of acting and directing, students grow into themselves. They learn to take up space, harness time, speak without apology, and offer up their vulnerabilities in safe and channelled ways. These qualities and benefits exist across methodologies, and I draw on and connect many of them in my teaching. My work is rooted in Stanislavski’s “System,” but it encompasses a variety of techniques, including the “Viewpoints” of both Anne Bogart and Mary Overlie, the vocal work of Kristin Linklater and Patsy Rodenburg, and the physical exercises of Michael Chekhov and Tadashi Suzuki.
Acting requires regular voice and movement work, self-reflection and self-understanding, careful study of the text, a grasp of the needs and desires of the character, deep listening, relaxed breath, attentiveness to detail, and trust in oneself and others. I begin the semester with a series of exercises which encourage listening, openness, honesty, and physical and emotional connection. By the end of this portion of the semester, my class feels like an ensemble of actors who know one another’s fears, strengths, and passions. I then choose challenging, complex texts, even for beginning acting students. My students have worked on scenes from plays by Sheila Callaghan, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Federico Garcia Lorca, Eugene O’Neill, Sarah Ruhl, and August Wilson, amongst others. I believe that students rise to the challenge of a well-written text. I encourage students to let a text lead them into unexpected places, and to avoid making “character” decisions too early on. I describe “character” as the explosive coming together of an actor, a set of given circumstances, and a piece of text.
In courses on directing or devised work, I focus on the arts of observation, communication, and collaboration. Students explore these through many different types of projects, including the staging of memories, neutral scenes, short stories, scenes, and one act plays. Students are encouraged to enter the rehearsal room having done extensive preparatory work, and to then be keenly present with what is. My students do research on the piece or source material, learn thoughtful habits of collaboration with both performers and designers, explore beat demarcation and character objectives, and develop a core concept (“matrix”) that can be integrally applied to all aspects of production. They explore ensemble-building through different theatrical traditions and learn a wide variety of techniques with which to create a community of engaged theater artists who feel joy, trust, and agency in the process. Finally, they learn various approaches to scene work and how to sculpt dynamic, effective blocking.
When I teach theater in a liberal arts environment, I encourage students to draw connections between the different disciplines they are studying. Directing students may draw on information learned in history and art courses as inspiration for their projects. Actors use psychology and sociology courses to further understand their characters and relationships. In physical theater classes, I bring students to the art museum and have them draw inspiration from paintings. I bring history and theory into all of my courses, giving students a firm grounding in both Aristotelian and avant-garde approaches to theater-making. I teach theater history and dramatic literature in the context of the cultures that have created the specific theater styles and ideas. Once the students understand theatrical structure and its historical context, we explore the roles each collaborator plays in the creation of a performance.
In my teaching of any subject, whether acting or directing or dramatic literature, I always recognize, celebrate, and include in the core of the class the collaborative nature of theater, where writers, actors, directors, designers, dramaturges, and historians come together to create unique pieces of theater for diverse audiences. I approach students as wise and sensitive beings who have as much to offer the material as it has to offer them. I listen deeply to them, I am fully present with them, and I allow them to constantly delight and surprise me. My classes abound with creative interchange and dynamic discovery.