Many of us can attribute our path to the theater to a dynamic teacher in school: the teacher that inspired us or showed us a new side of ourselves. This series is a snapshot of today's high school theater educators across the country sharing about what they do and how and why they do this work.
Teaching has always made me nervous. Very nervous. Especially teaching young people. Put me on a stage? Fine. No problem. Learning lines, singing, movement scores? Love it! Give me a script and an ensemble: hallelujah. But present me with planning a curriculum for a high school class, and my heart leaps into my throat.
However, I was thrilled to land my dream job teaching theater arts at a small private school in the Ojai valley in Southern California, founded on principles of deep questioning and individual growth. The place has nary a professional theater in sight and more boarding schools per capita than grocery stores. To assuage my deeply ingrained and irrational fears (of utter failure surely, for what creatures containeth more massively mercurial temperaments than a clutch of well-situated American teenagers?), I turned to inspirational texts from my own education. Leafing through a decade-old folder of handouts, I pulled a sheet of paper out that begins: “Dear Student...” and read on until I reached these phrases: “We ask you to feel safe NOT KNOWING. This is a school, the perfect place to not know. It is where, because we don’t know, we can discover that which will truly be new to us.” Thus began my training in physical theater and it established necessary links between body-awareness and self-determination in my mind. In order to be true to myself, I must know myself. My body has potential for great power and I consider the theater a place to harness and focus that power. This begins with awareness and observation. And that begins with being okay with not knowing.
In order to be true to myself, I must know myself. My body has potential for great power and I consider the theater a place to harness and focus that power. This begins with awareness and observation. And that begins with being okay with not knowing.
About four weeks into my first term I tripped into the other dimension, the one where “not-knowing” is not good. I had started the year with a healthy dose of physical awareness and meditation techniques, ensemble games, and creative writing, with no sign of a play or scene study on the horizon.
One afternoon, we concluded an exercise during which my high schoolers took turns making short introductions of themselves on a stage, addressing simple matters of physical presence that would get them more comfortable with each other. I called over one of my students for a chat right after class ended. “Katie” is a quiet girl with a very confident onstage presence, but had been half-hearted in her class participation. In this particular exercise, she became more resistant to each suggestion I gave her. When I asked for her feedback, she pressed her lips together and shrugged her shoulders.
After class ended, I was determined to find out what was going on. I asked if she was having strong emotions that were making the exercise difficult for her. The snort of condescension which followed was not the type of strong emotion I was expecting, but it opened the door just enough for me to jam my foot in. She admitted that she was frustrated by the class. She said she thought we were going to be doing standard scene work and learning monologues. AHA!
What a laugh to be confronted with the distinct displeasure of thwarted expectations, the dreaded teenage glare-stare. I told her I wanted the class to trust themselves and each other so we could break down a few obstacles before engaging text. But I was left feeling frustrated. Not with her, but with the standard theatrical protocol which insists that young people encounter theater through text first and foremost. Call me a convert, but theater is not literature, though there can be literature in theater. Acting is a physical function. It starts with the body. The body is the instrument. A theater without actors is not a theater; yet, theater without words exists the world over.
We insist on physically shackling our young people to desks at school with few approved structures that promote physical creativity, sports being the most common. And now as adults we find ourselves still sitting at desks, sitting in cars, and more recently, glued to personal devices that monopolize our consciousness, leaving the body to silently atrophy from disuse and disconnection. By asking my students to “feel how they feel” every time they come to class, to stretch and jump and shake, to bring consciousness to their breathing patterns, I am reminding them that they are bodies with potential. That their physical engagement is what moves the world around them.
By asking my students to “feel how they feel” every time they come to class, to stretch and jump and shake, to bring consciousness to their breathing patterns, I am reminding them that they are bodies with potential.
Although my students look at me askance and often ask “what does this have to do with theater?” I think that offering physical training in the context of theater is about more than just my own preference for physically dynamic theater. I believe that the principles of self-knowledge, understanding, and individual agency rooted in the actor’s work are directly needed in society and I don’t see much evidence that the structure of text-based theater models deliver these principles effectively. Particularly in regards to teaching young people, I say: how can one interpret a text, when one has nothing to compare it to and no primary relationship to it? The purpose of this type of theater teaching is to reward young people for learning their lines well. The consequence is that they are trained to accept that they need not have agency in their lives.
I don’t want to teach these kids to accept what is, but to create what is. In order for them to be able to do this, they need to practice being aware of and using their bodies for creation as well as engaging their minds. They need to dig in their own backyards before leaping over the fence, tearing it down, and finally opening up the space to invite other people in. Why should I continue to insist that in order to create they must first learn to pretend that someone else’s words are their own? That in order to act, they must first study? No. In my classroom what they must do first is be okay with not knowing what their lines are.