Teachers: Brilliant, Terrifying and Invaluable

That last post, or should I say “rant”, actually had me thinking about much more—specifically the teachers I had back in college. There were several of them, a few of whom I look back on with mixed emotions, but all of whom I’m grateful to for the variety of things I learned from them.

I hadn’t intended to go to the university I did, not for all of college anyhow, but as it turned out it was the right program to be in. This was realized early on, despite the fact that my lack of counseling as I registered for classes freshman year failed to direct me toward a legendary master teacher and instead to – well the opposite, I suppose. Thus I spent my first semester in a sort of warm-up course with an instructor who had many faults, although passion was not one of them.

I recall clearly my first day of my first class on my first day of college classes, my acting teacher said to us kids,

“You are going in to a business that doesn’t want you, doesn’t need you, and in which you’ll never make a living. You will never do more acting in the rest of your life than you will in the next four years in this program. If anyone wants to leave, leave now.”

There were twenty freshman acting majors that year, about half of them sitting there on the floor of CW301 listening to those words. No one moved.

Three of us graduated.

To my knowledge, two of us still act.

The theatre department was different in many ways than other departments on campus. It was a bit more informal, it was close knit in an almost unhealthy way, it was very competitive. Each instructor filled a particular niche, and no two were alike. Each had their own values and skills and points of view that they brought to the classroom.

Jerry, Jean, Patrick, John, Nancy, Cal, Connie, Douglas…..

[I said it was different. In no other department on campus did I call my teachers by their first names.]

Some were more difficult to please than others, some were more supportive than their colleagues. One was useless. A few were brilliant, a few could be terrifying. (Not sure, but those might be the same few.)

I remember being so stressed over a scene my freshman year with Jean that I was physically ill. Me and my scene partner had gone up in front of class near the end of the hour, and she soon stopped us to discuss the scene. It wasn’t so much what we had or hadn’t done that prompted it but we were one of the first to go up with this piece, and it was to discuss script and character analysis. And as was typical with her class, we ran out of time. “We’ll start with you tomorrow,” she said as she dismissed the class. Someone whispered to me as we left the room, “She’s going to rip you apart tomorrow.” Somehow that’s what I felt too. I went right back to my dorm and immediately puked. It’s not easy to be a naive 18 year old and put yourself in the mindset of a Chekhovian scene where you’re ready to commit suicide by its end, all while being judged by a roomful of peers and a larger-than-life teacher. It’s not easy, but we all did it. Some more successfully than others. For the record, the scene went well. I didn’t get ripped apart.

Jean could be terrifying and tough, but she was also wise. Eventually I realized she at least saw something in me, and attempted to nurture it. I was fortunate to spend many semesters in her classroom. She was a master acting teacher, knew the craft and the emotional and psychological approaches to deciphering a character, and understood people in ways that still baffle me. Her expertise in script analysis was and is invaluable to me.

Another place where I spent many semesters was with someone who told me one day he’d seen no talent in me at all. To which I said “I think you’re wrong, and I’m not ready to quit, so I’m going to sign up for your class and I want you to teach me.” He pushed me hard in class, which I only looked at later as his way of not giving up, even though at times the sense of failure was unbearable. One day I proved him wrong, and I’ve done it countless times since then. Out of pure self-righteous attitude I’ve often wished he’d have the opportunity to witness some of it.

One who sticks out in my mind as always being positive, supportive and understanding was Connie. It was almost as if her teaching method was an improv: “Yes, and….” While other teachers had ways of breaking you down in order to build you up, she looked at students and seemed to want to find the way to make the best with where that student was at that time. I could, of course, be totally off about all that, and maybe it was just who I was at the time. (That is, a senior who had been torn down and back up again.) Still, I look back and long for a chance to have spent more semesters in her room. She was a great listener, a patient teacher. I’m not sure why but I always picture her in my head smiling.

What I’ve discovered through this artistic and educational debate (see previous post) and through my pondering about my own education, is that I’ve come to realize my teachers’ values, and that I valued them each for different things—and one of those things was their professional and practical experiences they’d had in the “real world” as theatre artists.

They could talk about things that, frankly, now I can talk about and understand: competition, survival, auditioning, finding opportunities to learn, grow and even network. They knew how the business worked – and that there was no clear path. They were supportive (each in his/her own way) and focused on helping us as individuals find our way and our own techniques. Acting isn’t really something that can be taught, per se, so much as it is coached or guided.

I look back at that time and realize how much I’ve changed. The actor I am today looks nothing like that kid I was then. Every play, every project, every director, every audition (or almost) that I’ve done have shaped me, my skills and my outlook into a completely different person and actor. But at the core, I can look back at the techniques, the skills, the support I feel I received from my college teachers and tie each of them to the theatre artist I am now.

Ironically one of the things about this evaluation has made me realize how much more I could learn today from them, knowing what I know now about myself. Some of them are sadly gone, and most of the rest of them have moved on to other places.

I hope to cross paths with them again, though. How fun would that be? To walk in to a rehearsal room on the first day of a new production and see Connie or John or Nancy sitting there? Oh, the things I’d learn! The places we could go together!

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