In teaching theater, the subject, ultimately, has to be the student. It’s not enough to say that we want to create a student-centered classroom, but then continue to teach a “one-size-fits-all” technique to theater. After all, every actor, director, designer, and playwright has their own perspective and life experience. What works for one student, may not work for another. If there is one overarching theme to my philosophy of teaching, it is that students should be exposed to a wide variety of methods and techniques, in order that they may pick and choose the practices that serve them best. I believe that we must teach individuals, and allow them to explore a range of styles, methods, and techniques, and ultimately, collaborate with them to help shape their unique voices. As a teacher, I see myself first and foremost as a collaborator with each individual student in the process of exploring their own inner-artists and outer-collaborators. The theater classroom should be a place of self-discovery, and as we partner with students to explore and refine their own personal approach to the theater, there are nine principles that guide my teaching philosophy:
The most important thing we can do as educators is to respect each student as an individual, and demonstrate that respect by listening to them and striving to understand their unique perspective and point of view. There is no greater gift we can give another person than our undivided attention and the intimacy of our interest and consideration. Every student is worthy of our attentiveness, and deserves our respect. The teachers I loved the most in school were the ones who truly listened to me as a person. When I was nervous, or scared, or intellectually curious, those special teachers would listen to my point of view, and respond to what I said, not what to what they may have initially wanted to tell me. During my senior year at Emerson College, I had an excellent teacher named Andrew Borthwick-Leslie from Shakespeare & Company. He was a certified Linklater teacher, and had acted in dozens of Shakespeare plays over the course of his career. The class was Advanced Acting: Shakespeare. I was exploring a monologue by Hamlet, and was really struggling. Andrew made some adjustments to my body and encouraged me to breath from my diaphragm. I had heard all those words before, spoken by half a dozen teachers during my college career. I should have known by then. When I had Kristin Linklater as my freshman year acting teacher, she had said all the same things Andrew was saying then – four years later. When I started to cry, Andrew gently spoke to me, and asked me questions that allowed me to express my fear and explore my vulnerability. Rather than tell me what I SHOULD be doing, he asked what I WANTED to do. He spent over an hour listening – truly listening – to what I had to say. He gave me the respect I deserved, and so desperately needed in that moment. I will never forget that. I want my students to walk away from my class knowing they have my respect.
Diversity & Empathy
As we embark on a new decade, it is even more important than ever that our classrooms be diverse and representative of a plurality of opinions and experiences. A university should reflect the world around it, and there is no one way to teach a student. Since each student arrives with their own identities, it is imperative that a classroom accommodate all opinions, while still being respectful and civil—whatever disagreements may arise. One way to cultivate such an atmosphere is for a teacher to model empathy and respect. When we are able to see from another perspective, we are better prepared as artists to tell divergent stories. I have always strived to nurture empathetic classrooms and instill those values within my students. We must have diverse, inclusive, and tolerant classrooms in order to produce actors who look like the world around them.
As a teacher, I have always relied heavily on good-natured humor and levity to keep a classroom fresh, engaging, and buoyant. I like to use light-hearted and sometimes silly humor to show the students that I am approachable and always striving for humility. I encourage students to play with each other in respectful ways, and want to create a stress-free atmosphere of trust and discovery. Humor is a great equalizer and is often a healthy outlet for deep emotion and tension. As much as we need to cry and be vulnerable in our acting classes, we also need to laugh. All great plays have moments of levity – even the most deadly serious ones.
As I stated in my introduction, I believe that it is our job to expose students to various methods, tools and techniques, and allow them to find what works best for them. When a student is allowed to explore various styles, they invariably learn the skills that best suit their talent and personality, while also serving the needs of the play. A skillful artist is an educated artist. A true professional is one who is familiar with the rich legacy of theater and all its various forms.
Creating theater is both a deeply personal experience AND a collaborative one. In order to paint a vibrant picture, an artist must know the various colors of paint at their disposal. Similarly, a carpenter or craftsman must be intimately familiar with the various tools they have in their toolbox. It is no different for the actor. Once they have been exposed to a variety of styles, techniques, and methods, they can carefully choose what tools work best in any given situation. If variety is the spice of life, an artist must season their art liberally, and work from an informed perspective, not a parochial one. As an actor and director, I’ve never been cultish about a particular method, and I’ve always found it better to assemble a broad range of skills, rely on what works, and discard the rest. As a teacher, I have taught Linklater, Meisner, Stanislavsky, Hagen, and others. Although I was initially taught by Kristin Linklater herself, I never allowed myself to exclusively adopt her method at the expense of others. I have learned a great deal from the teachings of Stanislavsky, and always use his techniques in my classroom. An artist should embrace what works for them, and dismiss what doesn’t. Acting is an art, not a science. We must encourage healthy exploration.
As a student, I was always bored by static classrooms filled with passive learners and a teacher-centered pedagogy. The teachers who had the most impact on my life were the ones who constantly engaged me with questions and nurtured stimulating dialogue. As an educator, I have never been a committed talking head—even in a lecture hall filled with students. I prefer to employ the Socratic Method, and enthusiastically ask my students lots of questions, and urge them to ask me lots of questions. What’s more, I encourage dialogue between students, and encourage respectful discourse—rooted in asking open-ended questions of each other. This kind of open dialogue dovetails nicely into my philosophy of diversified curriculum, because the more perspectives, answers, and opinions shared, the greater our understanding of a topic and the wider variety of possible solutions. I find that an inquisitive actor is a thoughtful and informed one, and exactly the type of artist everyone wants to collaborate with. My favorite English teacher in high school was a man named Mr. Ames. He was very short and hairy, with a long and precarious bushy beard. He kind of looked like a character from Lord of the Rings. Mr. Ames was an intellectual, and he always encouraged thoughtfulness in his students. He used humor and curiosity as tools to explore literature, and he always asked dozens of open-ended questions of us. His classroom was a place where students could speak frankly, draw their own conclusions, and question their own rigid belief systems. And I was only 16 years-old at the time. You can understand how liberating this experience was for me. I was just maturing as a young man, and I needed a creative outlet for my inquisitive brain. By allowing me to question everything, Mr. Ames gave me a command of my own learning and the confidence that I so desperately needed. I learned a lot from him as a teacher, and have carried those lessons with me into my own classroom.
It is vitally important that as a teacher, I create an environment that is safe and supportive for my students. As theater educators, it is imperative that we set the appropriate tone from day one. We must insist that our classrooms are not stages or finish lines, but rather laboratories for experimentation and exploration. We must ensure that our students understand that we are asking them to take risks, learn trust, play with purpose, and are emphatically not looking for perfection or finished products. Students should be allowed to try and fail, and do so in a safe and supportive atmosphere. The classroom is no place for harsh critics—whether self-directed or from one’s peers. Naturally, constructive criticism and feedback are useful and beneficial. But as teachers, we must make sure everyone understands that failure is instructive, and we will never triumph without taking risks and being fearless. We can only do that in a play-lab of discovery. We must always strive to embrace process over product.
Tap Into Vulnerability
When I was a freshman at Emerson College in 1994, Kristin Linklater was my acting teacher, and her style was foreign and unfamiliar to me at first. She endeavored to create classrooms where students could breathe from their diaphragms and throughout their entire bodies, in order to tap into a vulnerability that good actors needed to possess. Kristin once said to me, “Once you get to the point where your vulnerability is your strength, then you are in charge.” That stuck with me. As teachers, we must create brave and inclusive classrooms, where students can feel safe being vulnerable and exploring their emotions. Eventually, they will need to tap into that vulnerability in order to truly embody a character. As an 18-year-old young man, I didn’t know what that meant. Up until that point, acting had been fun and a cool way to escape into other characters and worlds. It was fantasy, and had nothing to do with me personally. Or my lived experience. Up until that point, I had hardly been seated in my emotions and vulnerabilities. I must have seemed like a tightly-wound immature fool to Kristin, but if that’s what she thought, she certainly never showed it to me. Instead, she spent that semester nurturing me and encouraging me to tap into that raw and vulnerable place deep inside of me. She planted the seed, and continued to water it for months. By the time the class ended, I was crying and laughing and singing, and everything in between. She had demonstrated the patience and foresight to take a scared and closed off little boy, and turn him into a man. An actor. An actor who was unafraid to explore his own vulnerability. In my classroom, I teach Linklater Voice and the Stanislavsky Method – both of which rely heavily on tapping into past traumas and long buried emotions, in order to better create three-dimensional characters who respond to their world as we do as human beings. As a teacher, it is important to me that I impart the lessons of vulnerability to my students, so that they can access greater depths of their own experiences, and craft characters that seem as real as you and me.
In designing theater curriculum, it is imperative that teachers carefully sequence their instruction so as to construct lessons slowly and deliberately, so that we are building skill upon skill, and not creating a precarious house of cards. As a teacher, it is important that every lesson I teach has a clear lesson objective, an assessment tool, and an evaluation that allows me to judge where my students are at, and where they need to go. Ultimately, a teacher of the theater arts must be a student of the student – taking as his course of study the unique intellectual and emotional journey of each individual student. The teacher must plan their classes carefully, and scaffold lessons in order to build upon previous knowledge in order to generate new skills and aptitudes.
Teach the Whole Learner
Just as I believe it’s important to teach a wide variety of styles and techniques within a student’s discipline, I also believe it is important that we teach the whole student holistically, from the skills of their craft to how they interact with the world around them. Theater is a collaborative art form, and as important as it is for students to learn to be the kind of talent that people want to work with – they must also become the kind of person that people want to work with. Most high school students and undergraduates are at a critical age where they are still finding their voices, and figuring out the kind of person they want to be. These days, students come from such diverse backgrounds, and invariably have different strengths and deficits that we must address. It is not enough to teach the techniques of acting, for example, but we must also teach students how to be citizens of the world, good collaborators, hard workers, respectful colleagues, and ultimately, good people. Nowadays, everyone has an opinion, and social media is full of divisive rhetoric that only reinforces the already hyper-partisan world we live in. Everyone wants to TALK these days, but students need to learn how to LISTEN. In theater, listening is one of the most vital skills an actor must learn. In the Meisner technique, actors are required to truly listen to their scene partners, and respond accordingly. The ancient proverb reads, “The fool speaks, the wise man listens.” We must raise new generations of listeners Theater artists need to learn how to listen to the world, in order to improve upon it. As teachers, we must model good behavior, and instill these lessons in our students at every opportunity. That means, we must teach the intangible values of being a good artist.
The classroom is not about the teacher. It is about the student. One of the duties of teaching that I hold most dear, is the responsibility I feel towards the student, and how fiercely I value my role as mentor and advisor to that young person. Making art takes a lot of courage and temerity, and learning to be a good human being at the same time is even more challenging. Behind every great student is a teacher who believed in them, taught them well, and imparted life lessons that went far beyond the classroom. We must embrace a philosophy that gives the student options, and then allows them to find their own unique voice and the techniques that work best for them.