“What is your relationship to Theater?” It is the first question I ask my students every semester, no matter the class. The question is broad yet specifically designed to target and capture a student’s fundamental humanity as they begin to explore the subject at hand. The inquiry allows me to get to know the class, and make an initial assessment about the group’s experience and dynamic. It also begins the conversation in a way that I believe is essential to learning. That is to say, if you engage the student from the vantage point of their own particular humanity, they will learn deeply and effortlessly.
To have a meaningful and lasting affect as a teacher I believe the following pattern to be of the utmost of importance: 1) Establish trust, 2) Teach the sums of the equation, distinctly and clearly. 3) Create an environment where a student takes ownership of a lesson, and lastly 4) Specific to the craft of acting, the notion of relaxing to expand.
Teaching, at its most elemental, is a social contract. Hence, the first thing I consider when teaching is the effectiveness of the interaction I am endeavoring to have. Can the student hear me? Can I hear the student? Can we access each other’s mind and intentions with respect and curiosity? I believe this to be a puzzle of sorts, as each student speaks his or her own language. What one student may respond to, another may not. I enjoy this aspect of the job immensely. I also believe speaking to each student individually, is the savviest way to earn a classroom’s collective respect. Once the mechanics of communication is established, and trust earned, I know I can continue on to the more complicated building blocks of imparting a lesson.
One of the most important steps in education is the dissection of a lesson into clear and accomplishable segments. For instance, if I were teaching students how to do monologues, I would spend two lessons, at least, on the actor earning the first word of the monologue. Before an actor speaks the first word, it is imperative they understand what the character wants and the given circumstances. Furthermore, they must have a visceral relationship with their imaginary scene partner. Each one of these lofty goals takes rigorous attention to detail, and patience to accomplish. Earning the first word is the foundation on which the rest of the monologue rests. It is also good example of teaching the sums of a craft, distinctly and clearly. However, this tenant of identifying, dissecting and illuminating each tiny part of a whole is not part and parcel to theater, it is a universal and effective method no matter the lesson at hand.
Once the student is able to occupy and digest each part of the lesson, I find it useful to have them step into the role of observer, teacher and judge. By critiquing a peer’s work, the student has the chance to monitor their own command of the lesson. If I was teaching a segment on playwriting, I would have the students write one page of dialogue containing the hallmarks of the genre we are investigating. The set of standards would be clear and accomplishable, tailored for the lesson. I would then have the students read each other’s work aloud and adjudicate the writing according to the guidelines. Another good example of using this philosophy in a lesson is when I teach audition techniques. Having students verbalize, publicly, how well they or another accomplished the individual aspects that make up a good audition, puts the student on the spot and lets them view their specific blind spots in a non-threatening environment. I deeply believe that all performers have difficulty seeing themselves from an outside perspective, and the best way to address this troublesome lack of awareness is to practice in a group of respected peers, whereupon one’s self can be gently reflected back from a tried and true forum.
Lastly, At the helm of my philosophy about teaching the craft of acting, is the notion that an actor must relax to expand. It is a simple lesson but also quite difficult to teach. The very nature of acting is so intertwined with how a human being functions in the world, that many times I am teaching the student about the tapestry of what it is to be mortal: The nature fear, letting go, and giving into the moment. The importance of these esoteric ideas cannot be overstated, or under-practiced: They are the very breath of the art, and without them, possibility and creative thinking suffocate. Hence the actor must relax his or her instrument in order to access the imagination, and furthermore do the sublime job of storytelling.
After we go around the room, each student divulging the reason they are in the room and why they have a heartbeat for the subject, I bring it back to myself and say: "What is My relationship to Theater?...…It is my favorite way to learn about the world”- JLB