No Self-Consciousness Allowed on Stage

The drama classroom is often times a microcosm of life. We spend a lot of time talking about humanity, genuineness, and authenticity. These elusive words, when manifested correctly on the stage, can bring to life a performance which can penetrate deep into the audience’s consciousness. That’s the magic. From where do we reach in order to achieve these? What can stop our attempts at authentic emotion to slide into gaudy melodrama which makes the audience reach for the phone so they can stream another cat video to forget about the disaster on stage?

Self-Consciousness.

Now while it’s true that the actor must personalize their character in very real ways, that personalization cannot push them into self-awareness on stage. This, in my estimation, is one of the most difficult tasks that young actors in the drama classroom face. It doesn’t take long for one of my students to break a smile when doing an exercise. It doesn’t take much for someone to break character and turn away in self-conscious glee, knowing that they looked ridiculous in front of their peers. Well, yes. Everyone doing drama looks ridiculous. It’s a prerequisite. But to truly grow in one’s craft, you must get over yourself. You must get over what other people think, or how other people react when you are acting.

You have to get in the zone!

When I was a baseball pitcher, toeing the rubber and receiving the sign from my catcher, I felt like I was a lonely soul standing on a lonely mound. I didn’t hear the spectators, or the opposing team, or even my own players, I was in the zone, completely tuned in to the moment, to the pitch, to the mechanics, to the task at hand. In the same way, actors need to get into the zone through concentration and an acute awareness of the task they are trying to complete.

Last year I was put to the test in an experimental theatre piece I was part of. I had to sit in the middle of the stage, with the entire audience standing around me, watching me write the same line on a notepad over and over. I would pause, look up, and even though I saw them, I was not affected by them. I focused on the writing and I focused on the objective that my actor was trying to accomplish. After the show, I had many people comment on how I was “in the zone” and they couldn’t get me to break character. It was tremendously fun. How did I do it? I knew my objective and I concentrated on achieving it, at all costs. I was committed to looking foolish or strange because I knew that was the only way the show would work. It takes commitment and concentration. Do you have it?

I’ve attended many productions where the actors are already in character and on-stage as the audience was entering the theatre. It’s a purposeful mechanism of concentration that allows the actors to remain uniquely in tune to the task in front of them. It’s also a terrific way to tease the audience with what is about to come.

What about you? How do you stay in character? How do you concentrate when you are on stage?

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Are you prepared to go unexpected places?

You know how it goes: “If someone told me 10 years ago that I would be such and such, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years.”

I know the feeling. Very well. This notion of unexpected outcomes came to the forefront of my mind this week because I found myself saying that above line nearly verbatim. Mine goes like this:

“In 2002, if someone told me that in fifteen years that I would be a drama teacher in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years. I would have thought they were experiencing severe mental delusions.”

You see, in 2002, I was living in Vietnam, teaching English at the college level to Vietnamese students studying to be English teachers. I was a frustrated, wannabee, writer who never wrote. I was immersed in Vietnamese culture and language, and I had even contemplated (for a few seconds) going on for a PHD in Vietnamese history. I had never acted in my life. I had never been involved in any drama productions. The extent of my dramatic experiences involved writing a play which I read to my mother when I was twelve, and writing a couple small skits which were performed in some low-key settings. Oh, I did act as Forrest Gump in a skit, so I take that acting bit back.

But I had nothing in my background that would have indicated that I was destined to be a drama teacher.

And I had nothing in my background that indicated that I would ever end up in Saudi Arabia.

So therefore, the combination of those two–teaching drama in Saudi Arabia–would have seemed too implausible to even ponder.

However, as I sit in Jeddah on the heels of my first week of teaching theatre at the American school, I am quite taken back at the loops and rabbit-chasing trails my life has gone down in the past fifteen years in order to arrive at this point. And to think it all happened because that frustrated writer sitting in Vietnam became inspired by a group of students in Malaysia.

I’ve told this story before, but I still like it. I moved to Malaysia in 2006 to teach history. (Yes, that’s a whole different story of how I suddenly switched from English to history!) As the drama director at the school was leaving, I volunteered to start a drama-writing group where I would collaborate with a group of students and we would write and produce a play for the next school year.

That was the genesis of it all. The interesting point in my mind is this: what was the impetus for me wanting to write and produce a drama with students? I don’t actually know the answer to this. It’s something that just popped in my mind, and instead of dismissing it, which I can’t believe I didn’t, I embraced and proposed it to the school. That was the crucial moment. For some reason, I stepped in to try something that I had never tried before. If I had not jumped in at that moment, I am fairly certain I wouldn’t be teaching drama in Saudi Arabia. If I had not jumped in, someone else would have eventually filled the drama void at our school and I would have sat in the audience enjoying the shows, never fully understanding how much I loved theatre.

I know now that I wasn’t meant to observe theatre. I was meant to create it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The only advice I have as I look back on my journey is that if you get an itch or an urge that you should jump in and try something, don’t delay. You never know where it might lead you. It could make you change careers in mid-stream and send you to far off lands to do things you never would have imagined but now couldn’t ever live without.

Where might you be in 15 years? I hope the answer surprises you.

Ten Months in the Making: A New Beginning

It was in December 2016 that I accepted an offer to teach drama in Saudi Arabia.

Ten months later, in September of 2017, I am finally set to have my first class. Tomorrow.

This is a huge shift in many ways. I had a terrific position in Malaysia, a position which had few limits on creativity, and that time period fueled my love for writing, my love for drama, my love for all things theatrical.

However, it was time to move on, so when I signed on to this new adventure, I knew there would be a lot of waiting and work in the between time.

Now all of that is over, and like any good thespian, the butterflies are flitting their wings against my insides. Nervousness is a good thing. I teach my students to expect nervousness, to want it, to need it, to embrace it. It signifies change and risk-taking. Before the curtain goes up, you pace around in a death stare, pale-faced, jittery, mumbling lines and vocal exercises in a desperate attempt to keep you focused.

As the moment arises, you step out in character, playing a role, connecting a concept with people. Delving in below the surface and expressing a glimpse of the desires and struggles you went through to get to this point. And the lights crowd the stage, and the magic comes alive.

Acting or teaching acting. There’s not a lot of differences when it comes to preparation and implementation. It’s all smiles from there.

Tomorrow is the day when the curtain rises on my time in Saudi Arabia. I’m ready. Not perfectly prepared. But ready.

And when the students arrive and we start the process of developing our passion for drama, I will finally reach a 10-month goal which, at times, felt like would never come.

I’m excited. On with the show.

It’s not the words. It’s the emotion behind the words.

I was working with one of my actors on a pivotal scene in our upcoming play. She gives a short speech which spurs on some tremendous societal changes. Yes, it’s a few lines of dialogue which changes the story dramatically. It’s the crucial point in the play.

The actor had not been getting it. The speech she has been giving in rehearsal has been flat and unemotional. Today, I pulled her aside to correct it, and I started by saying: “It’s not the words. Don’t worry about what you are going to say. Work on how you prepare to say the words.”

First off, as a playwright, I was horrified at myself. Don’t worry about the words??? Am I crazy? But as a director, I needed to shift her away from the words because the words were hollow to her. I told her, if she can put herself in the right emotional state, then the words will flow appropriately and I won’t even have to tell her how to say the words. She will say them authentically.

So we put down the script, and we walked through the scene. We focused on the action, the moment, the setting, the character’s emotional connection to what had just happened. Then we designed a set of actions, a slow plodding walk, a purposeful turn, hands coming to her face. We dug deep into the feelings she had, the sadness she felt about what had happened. She forced herself to block our her surroundings and focus on the feeling in her chest.

She walked slowly into position, she raised her hands over her face, she put her head down, then lifted her eyes into the auditorium and started to speak. Her voice crackled, slight tears formed in the corners of her eyes, and she raised her voice strong and spoke the words – words which at the last rehearsal were flat and ineffective. Now they were purposeful, emotional, powerful, and perfect.

Young actors focus so much on the words, wondering how to say the lines. But a little exploration of the scene and some purposeful movement and trigger mechanisms can make the words flow naturally from the emotion and action of the actor. This is when the magic happens.

So, playwright, at times you have to take a back seat because the meaning of the words will only reach peak impact if they are said with the emotion and attitude of the actor.

Well done, young actor. And that was just one short rehearsal. I can’t wait to see the final result.

Cool Your Jets, Teachers. I know I have.

Between my writing and dramas and other pursuits, I do this regular thing called my day job where I teach for a living. I really do enjoy it. I’ve been doing it in various settings for the past twenty-two years.

I’ve noticed one thing that’s changed about my approach to teaching the last couple of years. I’ve cooled my engines. I’ve stopped coming at students with both barrels blazing. I’ve stop being the stickler for rules just because rules have to be followed.

In other words, I’ve cooled my jets! And I’m convinced, it’s for the better.

Example. In the past, when I required a paper to be turned in, I gave everyone a due date and expected it to be turned in by that time. Usually it was. If it wasn’t, I’d knock off 20% the first day, and perhaps more after that. At least, I thought, I’m not as hard as some other teachers who don’t even except late work.

Even if it was turned in on time, I would consider what they gave me to be their grade-able work, whether or not it was good enough or whether or not they followed all my instructions. If they didn’t include in-text citations, they would fail. If they messed up their works cited page, it would count against them. And so on and so forth. Punishment upon punishment for not getting it right. That’s what I was supposed to do, right? Grade their effort? Grade what they turned in against my expectations?

Maybe not.

Perhaps I’ve softened. Perhaps I’ve seen my own kids struggle through things in school, and I have a little more empathy. Or maybe I’ve just learned as a teacher that it’s okay to teach. It’s okay to have kids turn in assignments late. It’s okay to let them re-do in, and, as it turns out, they may actually learn something in the process. Isn’t that what they are supposed to do?

Recently, I had my US History class turn in their papers. I had the soft due date. Slightly harder due date. Firm due date. And drop-dead due-date. This was meant to give the kids some flexibility in their lives in case they were busy, and these kids are very busy doing all kinds of things.

So as the drop-dead due-date came and went, I started reading the papers and realized that there were some major problems in some of these papers. And if I kept reading and graded what was turned in, it would significantly lower their grade. Some might even fail.

Well, as it turns out, there is life after death!

I gave back their ungraded papers and we took some time in class to reinforce important issues such as in-text citations, formatting, and the works cited page. We talked about their importance, not just being a set of foolish rules, but how it allows every reader easy access to the important information that they are trying to  communicate.

Now, I’m getting in some revised papers which are much better. I don’t give any penalty for late work. They simply ended up doing their papers correctly, the way I wanted them to do it in the first place. They learned some lessons along the way. It was good for them. It was good for me.

My poor students who had to suffer through my previous self. I thank you for tolerating me. Sorry about your “C”. But hey, we are all learning. Some just take a little longer. I’m sure glad I haven’t been penalized for my slow learning.

Education is Wasted on the Youth

One of the great lines from the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is when a man on his front porch, after listening to a long, meandering conversation between George Banks and his girl as they stroll down the sidewalk, stands to his feet and shouts: “Why don’t you go ahead and kiss her?” Disgusted by George’s verbose-ness while staring at a beautiful young woman, the man concludes, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”

It’s a sentiment I’ve thought about a lot, especially in the context of education.

I have pondered many times how if I could go back to school now – wow – the things that I would learn!

In all honesty, I really didn’t learn much in high school. I look at what my high schoolers are learning now and the comparison isn’t remotely fair. I got “Ds” in science. My biology teacher droned on about all the rock concerts he went to and how his entire bedroom was covered wall to wall in concert t-shirts. Well, what do you know? I guess I did learn something. If I was struggling in a class, there was no help but at least I got to play baseball after school. The best class, most useful class, without a doubt the class which I have used more than any other in high school was a class called “Business.”  For six weeks, I learned to type fairly well on an electric typewriter, having no clue that within ten years I’d have a laptop which would require those very skills I attained. Those six weeks changed everything in the future for me. I can’t imagine if I didn’t learn how to type proficiently. Besides that, what did I learn? I think my high school English teacher was a drunk, or at least those were the rumors.

My kids’ education has surpassed mine in every way possible. They might struggle in classes like I did, but they have already learned and have been exposed to so much more than I ever did at that age.

The problem is, do they know it? Do they understand the opportunity they have  right now? Probably not. That’s how things work. We don’t know what we have until later.

If I could go back in time and re-do school based upon what I know now, I could be brilliant. There are so many topics that I’m interested in. Back then, there was only two: baseball and eating. But now, I love politics, and English, and history, and global issues, and culture, and language. What great questions I would have for my teachers! (Would they know the answers?) I do think that I could even be a little bit interested in science. Or at least I have enough questions about scientific topics to keep me interested.

Schooling is wasted on the youth! Adults need schooling just as much!

Of course, it actually isn’t wasted. It’s part of the cycle. Learn how to learn even if you don’t learn much the first time around, but hopefully the youth of today will take that small spark and  let it ignite into an explosion of knowledge sometime in the future. And hopefully adults won’t look back and wonder what could have been, but rather will realize that it’s never to late to learn, grow, and mature.

So education might have been wasted on your youth, but don’t let it be wasted in your adulthood.

(I still would like to improve my high school grades. Maybe someday that time machine will be a reality.)

I Moonlight as a History Teacher

I suppose there’s a fair dose of irony in that headline, since teaching is my full-time job, and I do love it. But it is hard to turn off the writer, and it’s not even possible. (at least for me) So as I was re-writing my US History syllabus for this year, it struck me how lucky I am. I was able to completely re-design my history course to best suit my students and learning environment. I’m not sure how many teachers have such freedom. What it enabled me to do was to be creative in my approach and stop lecturing, allowing the students “to do” history. It was a lot of fun when I did it last year, and I’m doing it again this year. Here’s the section from the syllabus of what I’m trying to accomplish. I think it’s pretty cool. Does it sound like a history class you would enjoy?

 

 

Why read a textbook about slavery when you can read a vivid chapter from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

Why listen to a teacher take about Andrew Carnegie when we can watch the empire he built through gripping state-of-the-art engaging videos?

Why have a student take notes about Jim Crow laws when they can research and present for themselves how they understand them?

These three questions, and many else like them have re-fueled my love for teaching US History. (Or perhaps I just got sick of hearing my own voice every year)

I’m more excited than ever to see history come alive. It’s not a group of static words sitting in the back corner of a library. History is alive. Our understanding of history is always changing. New discoveries and analyses continue to defy the conventional wisdom. We continue to learn and understand how the past has shaped us.

So my goal for this class is for students “to do” history. How will that take place? By reading original documents and readings which will change our perspectives of the time periods well beyond a contrite paragraph in a history book. We’ll be reading selections from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “Up from Slavery”, and “Black Like Me”, among others.

We will be watching engaging films like “Amistad” and high-tech documentaries like “The Robber Barons.” This is high drama stuff! No sleeping here!

And we’ll be putting the learning back into the hands of the students, guiding them on incredible journeys of history, where they will be researching, creating, and presenting what they have been learning to others.

The overall objective of the course is to create a hands-on environment where history comes alive, where we can conjecture and give opinions, where we can argue and have fun, all the while better understanding where we came from.

This is my goal. Let’s hope we can accomplish it.

s is my goal. Let’s hope we can accomplish it.