Monday, May 29, 2017

Students as Teachers: Knowing Your Audience

My school’s Senior One Act Festival is a showcase for our theater department’s seniors to direct, cast, choreograph, and in some cases, even write their own show to perform for an audience. Not only is it a way to allow students to show off their talents in directing and onstage, but it is a venue for seniors to be role models for younger kids. As a follow up from yesterday, I will be featuring the director team from another one of the shows I was cast in. This time, my mentors came in the form of an inseparable pair of senior girls, who I had met around December of this past school year.

At first, I was going to use the One Act Festival as an excuse to hang out with my senior friends. This festival would be the last chance I could ever do a ‘Running Dog Production’ with anyone who had an impending graduation. So, when I was cast in three of the One Acts, I was thrilled. Everyday after school I would have a guaranteed amount of time to be around the seniors. There was a huge problem with my mindset though. As long as I saw the One Acts as an opportunity to relax and goof off, anything I did onstage would reflect that sentiment. Maybe that would fly in a comedy production (like the show where I was cast as a repairman who was hopelessly in love with his washing machine), but in a role that was more serious it would not. How could I accurately portray a disgruntled barista who was behind on rent payments if my attitude towards the whole experience was fully whimsical? Throw in the fact that these two girls had written all of the music, lyrics, dialogue, choreography, staging, etc. and it becomes even more clear that my outlook on this whole situation was going to need to change.

I originally auditioned for a less complex role than the one I was chosen for and to me, that was slightly worrisome. Others may be able to rest upon their laurels and effortlessly act onstage, but due to my lack of experience, it was necessary for me to push myself to put something together that would be performance-ready. Whoever was at the helm of this production was going to need to challenge me to better myself. Making it easy for me would have just permitted a lackadaisical performance, which trust me, was not what was envisioned for this show. On the flip side however, if the environment became toxic and criticism became destructive, I would have totally shut down. What I needed was a director (or directors) that would apply the right amount of pressure - an amount that would improve my acting, singing and stage presence, but would not make me hate every second of the process.

[Enter the team of directors]

From the moment we received our scripts, an expectation was set. Within the next two and a half weeks we would be required to be off-book, with all lines and lyrics memorized. Knowing myself, that deadline was hugely beneficial to me. This gave me room to budget my time in the way that best fit, while still having an end goal in sight. Had there been no completion date, I guarantee I would have put it off until the last second. Had there been an overly structured format for how I learned my lines, I would have harbored potentially mutinous feelings towards the overzealous requirements.

The road to getting off-book was not easy for me. This was all a new situation for me. Luckily enough, the directors were always available for advice or guidance on how to complete the task. I texted the director that was more focused on acting and she almost immediately had help to offer. Even if my questions were elementary to these seasoned actors, I was never made aware of that. Their demeanors always remained patient with me.

This was crucial. Imagine if instead of kindly answering my basic questions, they scoffed at my lack of fundamental acting knowledge. My trust in them would have plummeted. All of their tips and tricks would have come across differently. Rather than treating me with condescension, they brought themselves back down to my level and helped me through the somewhat complicated processes of theater. I was not left behind because I didn’t know the foundational knowledge.

Everyone else in the cast had been onstage before, so they were not forced to listen to the conversations that were helpful for me. These directors’ understanding of the importance of differentiated pacing was admirable. On day one, they did not focus on the nuances of acting or complicated singing riffs. They discussed with me the basics of being onstage. If I already understood something, they did not feel the need to keep hammering that point home. That would have been pointless.

Another great example of their adaptability comes from the day we began to block my singing scene. For the most part, I was able to sing the notes correctly and I was able to perform spoken lines the way they wanted me to, but I couldn’t put both of those ideas together. They tried exercises that they found helpful. Even though this came from the right place, it simply wasn’t helpful. No matter what we tried, every time I sang or acted I looked like two completely different people. That was all until one of them came over to me with a new idea in mind. It occurred to her at that moment that singing and acting together was too overwhelming for me. She removed the singing from the equation. Rather than singing my lyrics, she just wanted me to speak and act them to the best of my ability. Just like that, the message my character was trying to convey became clear. All I needed to do was look at the lyrics from a different perspective.

I was not the only one who was forced to look through a different lens though. Once she saw that her attempts to get through to me her way were futile, my friend had to get into my head. My strengths and weaknesses were not her own. She couldn’t treat me as if I were just an extension of her. It would be useless to persist with the same methods. Trying the same thing over and over and over again is the definition of insanity, right? The lesson she was teaching me was not getting across in its original form. Evolution of the original plan was necessary. Who knows? Working with someone else, the preliminary exercises may have been successful. No two people think the same though, therefore she needed to adapt or risk my continued failure. Teachers should utilize the same thought process. If an assignment is not connecting with students, it’s not going to warrant any results. Knowing your audience in order to connect with them is extremely important, and quite honestly success can hinge on that connection sometimes.

The differentiation that these two girls employed was remarkable, but that wasn’t even my favorite aspect of the whole experience. In any relationship, respect is a building block that cannot be pushed aside. Mutual respect and authentic bonds between mentor and mentee make teaching run so much smoother.

After my very first vocal rehearsal (which included only the writer/director and myself), there was a lot of time to kill before either one of us could go home. She and I sat in the choir room for a couple minutes in silence. I may have met her earlier in the year, but I didn’t really know her that well. That showed during the practice of my song too. While I was now comfortable enough to sing in front of people, I was only ready to do the bare minimum in front of her. She is a super talented vocalist and I was intimidated to mess up in front of her. As someone with a ton more singing skill than me, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that she would pass judgement at any slip up on my part. This brings me back to the choir room after rehearsal. Slowly, as we realized sitting in silence for thirty or so minutes was going to kill us both, conversation between us began to brew. The more we talked, the more we felt more comfortable with the other.

We started off talking about how we got into theater and our plans for the future (in theater and elsewhere). Our paths into theater (and how we originally fared socially) were very similar. This led us down different conversational paths. Soon we were discussing personal insecurities and upcoming decisions we were going to be faced with. Both of our comfort levels rose and we offered each other insight on these decisions, as well as trading embarrassing stories about self-doubt that filled the room with laughter. By the end of it, trust between us had skyrocketed.

At the beginning of the rehearsal, I was too anxious to talk unless I had to. Working on singing was painful to an extent, because outside of the actual song and any notes she had for me, there was no communication. Try sitting in a room with someone without talking to them. It doesn’t take long before that gets awkward. By the end of the rehearsal, I was no longer irrationally stressed out. An authentic bond had formed between us. At this point, she was no longer just my director, we were better friends than we had been before.

In the subsequent rehearsals, I was able to venture outside my comfort zone more often. Our dynamic had completely changed. No longer was I working for a team of directors, I was performing alongside my friends. Although they were not offputting prior to my conversations with them, I no longer worried when they gave me notes. It wasn’t personal, they just wanted to help me grow. Through that conversation, I had found out how much work had gone into developing the one act. They saw this show as their baby, and they entrusted me with a role in it. In turn, I entrusted the development of my acting game to them. If they were willing to put as much faith in me as they had, I could be comfortable enough to do the same. This mutual trust between teacher(s) and student only enhanced what we were working on. Both parties were enabled to produce higher quality work and ultimately, our jobs felt exponentially easier.

I am so thankful I got to work with these two girls. Not only have I improved tenfold since joining their show, I have received guidance and advice that I will cherish for a long time. They are perfect examples of the benefits of building a connection between teacher and student. I am proud that they entrusted me with the responsibility they did. When I saw how much they truly cared about my own personal growth, it became clear to me that I needed to put in whatever work necessary to make them proud. I wanted to do their words justice. That’s the impact a teacher can have on a student. The teachers you remember are the ones who make an effort to get to know their students on a personal level. I will remember these girls and their teaching for a long time.

Thank you so much for reading this edition of my blog! This one is also very dear to me. I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

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