I recently had a really good work session with a student - an unexpectedly good session with a student who I think has potential, but has been resistant to almost everything we’d done in class so far this year.
5 years ago my university teaching career was blown to smithereens by a student who falsely accused me of assaulting her in an acting class - she was a student who I thought had potential, but who had been resistant to almost everything we’d done in class.*
Despite her resistance, I kept trying to find a way to help her access the inner life of the scene. We went through a whole litany of exercises and techniques but never reached that moment when she connected and the scene worked. By the end of class she was frustrated and, I believe, embarrassed, and turned that into an assault allegation.
I have had people tell me that I should have just stopped - if she didn’t want to do the work, I should have let her. In fact, last month another Acting professor told me that because of what I’d gone through, he and others in the field had decided that challenging students to push through acting blocks was too risky - they weren't going to put their careers on the line for a student who didn’t want to work. I thought this student had potential though, she had moments in class that were really quite good. Perhaps it was hubris on my part, but I thought I could help her.
The accusation and the following events - an on campus hearing and a criminal trial, (exonerated by both, but still terminated from my position), had such a profound effect on me that I didn’t know, were I to ever get another teaching position, if I’d be able to do it.
I’m not an authority on teaching Math, English or the sciences, but it seems self-evident that teaching Acting is not like being an instructor in a traditional academic discipline. For example, in beginning acting classes it’s not uncommon to spend a fair amount of time dismantling student’s preconceived notions of what they think they’re supposed to be doing, before you can even begin to build an effective, reproducible acting process. It would be great if there were one definite, definable process that would work for every student - but there isn’t. You work with vague outlines in varying modalities, trying to help your students find a way to access their emotions, creativity, and humanity.
As Dr. Ross Prior states in his landmark book Teaching Actors, Knowledge Transfer in Actor Training:
In his research Prior found: “A common sub-theme emerging from the data is that acting cannot be taught; rather the ability to act can be improved or refined through experience, both in training and in professional practice. (156) and “One of the interviewees, Terry, “believed that ‘you can’t teach acting, I think you can only coach it. You know, inspire it.” (156)
I think it’s really useful to hold on to this idea, that the relationship between the student and acting instructor is more similar to that of the student athlete and their sports coach, than it is to the relationship between the professor and student in a traditional classroom setting. Little wonder that administrators from those disciplines would be flummoxed by what normally happens in an Acting classroom.
Despite hundreds of books being written on the subject, the definitive Acting text has not been written. There is no “one size fits all technique.” So, like most acting instructors, in my work I draw from all possible sources: Greek and Roman mask work; improvisation and commedia techniques from the middle ages; the rhetorical, literary traditions of the Renaissance; the head centered, psychological techniques of the Modern Era; and the highly physical techniques developed by post-Stanislavski practitioners such as the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, and the Russians Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and Michael Chekhov. I come to class with a lot of tools from the pedagogical toolbox, which vary in usefulness depending upon the given situation.
Robert Welker in his book The Teacher as Expert, (1992 SUNY Press) writes “Many acting coaches do instinctively what they cannot readily discuss, which suggests that tacit knowledge carries with it high levels of expertise.
So I have these teaching resources, and years of experience guiding how I apply them, but with what has occurred, I'm continually second-guessing myself. I’ve been in my present teaching position going on two years, more often than I’d care to admit, I have crushing anxiety attacks where I doubt my ability to do the job, and am frightened to my core that I’m going to say something too challenging, or do something that lands just a little wrong - and I’m going to go through it all again.
I’m still here, I’m still trying, day by day to get it right, and I’m grateful for the times that it does.
*If you’d like to read more, do a Google search, or go to www.shotinthefoot.weebly.com