Saturday, September 22, 2007

Theatre, Education, and Age

I was watching my students the other day and was reminded, once again, of how much they resembled my high school drama class. (That would be the drama class I was in, when I was in high school. I haven’t taught a high school drama class, not yet.)

That is, they’re interested, even talented, but they lack control. They lack the self-control to pay attention during rehearsal, to use their time wisely instead of goofing around with their friends, to listen and follow directions. (I’m not sure they’re deliberately misbehaving; they just haven’t been trained yet. In that, I am partially to blame, because I haven’t successfully taught them how to focus. As I predicted, my “motivational speech” helped them pull together for about two days. Then I tried getting angry, but that didn’t work – and it made me feel like my high school drama teacher, shouting impotently and with no purpose. Idiot-sound-fury-signifying-nothing.)

They also lack the physical control necessary in a good actor. They don’t know how to use their bodies to express character, beyond a general “walk slower/speak louder” kind of thing. They don’t know how to manipulate posture or breath; the first time I did an exercise designed to show them how breath can be altered and controlled, they had great difficulty and a few tried to assure me that I was asking them to do something impossible.

All of this is fine, because all of this can be taught. Technical skills have to be learned.

But this takes time; years, in fact. And these students are not all young. Two-thirds of them have already earned a BS or a BA or a BSc in something or another, and (as I found out, with surprise) the majority of my class is older than I am.

So what to do? The answer, in my case, is simple: direct as well as I can, teach what I can, and let them have this experience of putting on a play.

But I can’t help feeling responsible, because I want my students to succeed. I want the play to succeed. And while the play will be reasonably successful in an entertaining and “cute” way, it won’t be professional, or even pre-professional. It’s student theatre. It’s what one would expect from a high school cast, not a group of MA freshers.

It makes me wonder, once again, just how disadvantaged people are who don’t start training (in whatever subject – theatre, music, computers, languages) very early. Bodies mature, synapses close, and attitudes form; and then beginning “at the beginning” becomes difficult. It is much easier to train an eight-year-old to perform a controlled physical action than it is to teach a twenty-seven-year-old. (I should know – I’ve taught both.)

And yet we’ve got this group of MA theatre students who want to be successful; and I don’t know how to solve this problem.


Abi said...

Tell them that you are blogging your experience with teaching at UHyd! That should get them to take this venture seriously.

But, if they do start reading your blog, make sure that you dish out praise once in a while. Otherwise, you will have to deal with 'learned pessimism' -- as opposed to the 'habitual slacking off' that you seem to be dealing with now!

Coach Khan. said...

Positive reinforcement is important:
What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.

You may also want to do more show (rather than tell) if you encounter this in the future. Show them any movie where Eddie Murphy plays a variety of different roles, or show them Alec Guiness in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Seeing that it is possible may make them want to be able to do it far more than hearing a teacher talk about something they've never seen.

Blue said...

Abi -- thanks. Also well worth noting that despite my efforts to try new techniques, I may be falling into the trap of "learned pessimism" as well. :P

Coach Khan -- I told my class that if they finished building certain parts of the set by this Monday, I would bring them ladoos. ^__^ Even Shamu would like a ladoo, right?

I've got them in a box in my bag right now, and in two hours I'll get to see whether I can hand them out. If not, they're shrink-wrapped in plastic, and the students will get them... when the work is done.