I taught my first university acting course in the fall of 1985. In my addled sense of time, that doesn’t seem like too long ago. I had come to the big university to be a graduate student. They needed one more teacher for Basic Acting or Acting I or whatever we called it there.
The head of the undergraduate acting program had written a kind of curriculum for the course. It seemed like the outlined curriculum was offered as a kind of suggestion with allowance for individual variation by all of us who taught different sections of the course. The instructors never got together in any formal way. There were a few hallway conversations — the bread-and-butter of a teacher’s life. And the head of the acting program observed one class session during the year.
The suggested curriculum centered on a games approach – quite literally. The young folks were asked to play “Red Light/Green Light” and “Simon Says” and several other games. Probably fun, and the students were asked to draw from these games lessons about acting in plays or on camera.
I felt very lucky to have entered the program, and I strongly desired to teach. Consequently, I happily took on the section that Monday and Wednesday mornings starting at 8 am. Now this was the northern, Midwestern United States. The entire months of January, February, and a large swatch of March saw no sunny days. We lived on the tundra with a cover of snow for those months. And I had given up owning a car so that I could afford to go to school, so I walked the mile or so from my apartment to the Theatre Building and my classroom. I imagined I was brave and grown-up with icicles forming in my beard and moustache.
I quickly abandoned most of the games curriculum. I don’t mean to disparage those of you who find benefit in playing games as part of your work. My challenge at the time was that while I could lead a group of students in these games, I had no real clue as to how this would help anyone be an actor.
And I was naÃ¯ve in thinking that a college student enrolled in an acting class for the same reason that I had – they wanted to learn the secrets of acting so they could do it as well. I quickly learned that many students took this foundational course because the rumor was that it was fun, and it was easy to get an ‘A.’ In retrospect, our job was to help a whole pile of students (by no means all) to raise their grade averages enough to get off academic probation.
None of that was of any importance to me in 1985.
I wanted to impart wisdom and teach acting.
While I’m very thankful for my undergraduate teachers, I’m uncertain how much I learned in the actual classroom.
As an undergraduate I had taken all of the courses that my school offered in Theatre at that time – both in on-stage and backstage areas.
My first acting course used Charles McGaw’s Acting Is Believing as a text, joined with Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting. But saying that won’t tell you a thing about what I learned in class.
I don’t know that we did any of the exercises from Acting Is Believing. We did use it for the text of the play The Typists by Murray Schisgal. I was the only male in my section, and in those days the teacher cast the show without the possibility of gender-blind arrangements. So I was the scene partner for all of the women in class. One memorable period centered on the teacher working to teach me something that eluded me then and now – something having to do with the entrance. I evidently didn’t enter well. And so I did the entrance several dozen times before getting to utter a single line. The distance from the door to the chair where I sat was about 4-5 steps. I opened the door, walked the 4-5 steps, sat. “DO IT AGAIN!” Ok. I opened the door, walked the 4-5 steps, sat. Wash. Repeat.
After many repetitions, I’m sure I was frustrated. It appeared that it wasn’t going well. I wanted to impress my teacher with my inherent talent, but evidently I couldn’t manage coming in a door and sitting in a chair.
As an old man, if given that assignment, I could do 36 different entrances, and it would be a lark. Then, the activity of entering was somehow its own lesson.
It was lost on me.
In that beginning course, we also did a version of Uta’s “Basic Object Exercise” as described in Respect for Acting. So I loaded up my car with piles of stuff and brought it in to create my environment and did my bit.
The only real comment I got at the tail-end of this was that my choice was undramatic. I supposed so. My goal was to create two minutes of living in front of other people. I was unaware that I also needed to make it interesting to anyone other than myself. I was no playwright then, and am no playwright now.
That basic course in acting was followed by a couple of other courses – one in “styles” and another advanced course that was another scene study class.
So, my instruction in acting led me to believe that instruction in acting was a scene study class. You and your partner got together and rehearsed a scene on your time. You’d bring it to class. Depending on the mood of the teacher, sometimes comment would come from the teacher, sometimes from the whole class.
Then when it came time for me to teach acting the first time, I gave up the games curriculum and did a scene study class.
This was probably a mistake.
This was not what the students wanted, and I wasn’t prepared to deal with student scenes. I wanted to give them freedom of selection. Fine. But was I their director? Their coach? And how did either intersect with teaching acting?
I had not considered the fundamental question.
If you teach in a discipline, your task is to help the student to know more and/or be better at something by the end of the term. So, if you teach cooking, the student should be a better cook at the end of the term. If you teach Accounting, the student should be able to do accounting better or know more about accounting than when they started.
At the end of the term of an acting course, what does the student know more about or do better? What is acting? What exactly are you teaching?
Learning lines? Learning lines is certainly a beneficial if not necessary skill that contributes to the actor’s success. But learning lines is not acting.
Essentially I was teaching students how to do scenes in class better (or more to my liking -- which may not be the same thing) than when they started. But is learning how to do a scene acting? Could any those students have applied anything from what they learned from doing their scenes to actual acting? Possibly. But not due really to anything purposeful that I was doing.
As I was teaching, I was also taking the graduate acting courses in the afternoons. I didn’t participate in the voice or movement courses, but I did take graduate Acting.
It was a strange series of events. The other students were quite good. In a way they scared me when I walked in the room. Really good actors always scare me a little. Part of it is my native self-deprecation, but it’s also the nearly tangible energy that emanates from truly good actors.
The teacher of this course was someone who’d had a fairly powerful career in American theatre and had studied at the Actor’s Studio in the day.
For reasons I can’t quite fathom other than he had other things on his mind, our teacher relied very heavily on circle exercises for the entire year. Every class session began with all of us in a circle – sending an energy pulse around the circle. Sending gibberish and movement around the circle. Telling stories around the circle. Creating sentences around the circle. Some of the guys started calling it the “circle jerk.” Some classes were comprised of nothing but circle work.
Eventually we did some monologue work and some scene work. But both kinds of work were more about doing the monologue or the scene in such a way as to please teacher’s sensibility rather than learning some applicable/transferable things about acting.
One afternoon we were working on monologues. One of my friends, a solid actor, was working on a monologue from Rashamon. The teacher started working with the student. By the end of their work-time, the student was in a fetal position crying his eyes out. There might have been some benefit to this, but I certainly couldn’t see it at the time. I thought then and now that the teacher was being manipulative at least and sadistic at worst. The teacher had no therapeutic training.
This particular session taught me a very useful lesson. “Don’t mind-fuck the student.”
Over the years I’ve watched horrified as teachers have told friends of mine to get laid, not get laid, stop seeing this person, lose weight, maybe smoke some weed, etc etc etc. All of this is very personal stuff.
I am no saint and claim no special higher moral standing for myself compared to any other teacher. In any case, I have worked very hard in my career to do my best to remember rule one – the Prime Directive, you might say, for me as a teacher. Don’t mind-fuck the student.
For a variety of reasons, at the end of the school year, I was not asked back. I was told I could continue in a lesser kind of graduate program without the teaching gig. That is, if I gave them buckets of money, I could hang out if I so chose.
But that was not my goal at the time. My goal at the time was to become the best theatre artist and best teacher that I could be. I knew the next step wasn’t there, and I left.
I have a few friends left from those days. I wish I had more.
I had to travel other places to learn more about acting and teaching acting.