Adolescence is often described as a minefield, and understandably so. Those of us who act as sympathetic guides through these treacherous passes need to stay sharp, because the most valuable lessons often sneak in unheralded.
...By not mistaking flexibility for weakness or obstinacy as proof of correctness, I’ve been able to continue my aim to never stop growing and improving as a teacher and as an artist.
Flexibility. Adaptability. Willingness to challenge my beliefs. I’ve spent fifteen years working in independent schools as a teacher and a theatre director along with the attendant jobs of advisor, sports fan, chaperone, committee member, ace photocopier paper-jam fixer... There’s a joke among actors that if a casting director asks you if you can do something, you should say “yes” and then go learn how to do it. Do a Scottish accent? Play guitar? Dance a tango? Yes. Yes. Yes. A similar adaptable spirit exists in teachers. That spirit of saying "yes" and learning new skills is what led me to a brief but memorable season as a varsity cheerleading coach and a glorious reign as "faculty Pi Day Memorization champion."
Being flexible and willing to adapt to the situation is different from just floating with the tide. There are certain things I believe in my bones as an artist: I believe in collaboration. I believe that performers--even in secondary school--have a responsibility to their audiences. I believe that pitting product against process is a false dichotomy. I believe that theatre competitions can teach all the wrong things. I believe in casting students with no previous theatre experience.
On an ordinary day, I’d debate and defend any of these ideas without hesitation. But the measure of a teacher always comes on the non-ordinary days, in the moments we never saw coming.
Being flexible and willing to examine my beliefs has made me a stronger artist and educator.
For most of the 00’s, I taught in an independent school with no history or tradition of theatre. It was strongly suggested to me that as soon as I got the program started that I should enter my students in the regional drama competition. I thought seriously about voicing my objections and explaining from my perspective why Competitive Theatre is not a good idea, but my intuition prodded me to just say yes to it. I may think that competition is anathema to art, but I also knew that none of us would die as a result of the experience, and I hoped that at the very least it would provoke some interesting conversations. I kept my doubts to myself and dived in, determined to find the good in the experience. Sure enough, after several competitions, the kids learned to recognize the hallmarks of directorial style, discovered how different sized venues changed the scale of a performance, awakened to new playwrights (both good and bad), and delighted in the exciting, rare moments where true theatrical communication was happening. What I had tepidly imagined as potential “interesting conversations” turned into white-hot debates about the American character, racism, sexism, homophobia, aesthetics, politics, playwrighting and the nature and purpose of live theatre in the digital age.
If I had drawn a line in the sand and refused to participate we would’ve missed a hundred opportunities for growth that I am still thankful for.
But saying yes isn’t always the answer. When I was working as a teaching artist in a residency for a professional theatre company, I once cast several students who had never been in a play before, as I almost always do. My decision inflamed the ire of an influential family who believed that their daughter (a veteran of several productions) had been slighted unfairly, and that one particular newcomer did not deserve the opportunity she was given. I never intended a slight. In truth, I had sought out a role for the theatre veteran that offered fewer lines but much more stage time and challenging physicality. I was thinking in terms of her total high school theatre experience; of her growth as a person as well as an actor. I was looking for a means for her to capitalize on the confidence she’d gained in my summer program. But for all my consideration, I forgot the simple math that for a teenager, more lines = better. There were a lot of tense conversations that involved the parents venting their rage and frustration while I attempted to explain my thought process. I heard them out, but I could not agree with them that only kids who had been in plays before deserved major roles. Over time in rehearsals, the stage veteran discovered more freedom in her physicality and even began to play a leadership role among her peers—something she had never done before. The newcomer worked with the same high level of generosity, enthusiasm and intensity she had shown during auditions. When it was all over, both girls thanked me for casting them as I had.
Adolescence is often described as a minefield, and understandably so. Those of us who act as sympathetic guides through these treacherous passes need to stay sharp. The most valuable lessons can sneak in unheralded. I manage the moments when they arrive because I regularly examine my assumptions and seek out others in my field to learn what works for them. By not mistaking flexibility for weakness or obstinacy as proof of correctness, I’ve been able to continue my aim to never stop growing and improving as a teacher and as an artist.