Choices

Choices

Last night, my friend Miles W. called to offer me a job teaching improvisation classes at Arcadia University. The regular teacher has been busted under suspicion of running a bicycle currier service to deliver marijuana to people. After having a good laugh about where we were going to buy our pot now, we got to talking about the opportunity. It seemed obvious: take the two classes, it’s a foot in the door at another local University, one where dear friends work in a growing theatre department. But after a closer look, I passed. I would have had to drop out of the two shows I’ve already been cast in this fall. This appointment would be as an adjunct faculty member, and though I’d make a little more money, I would have no benefits. Through Actor’s Equity, the union I’m a member of, I get health insurance as long as I keep working. So taking the teaching job would have meant giving up health insurance. And the course I’d be teaching – two semester-long sections on improvisation – is not a curriculum I have a lot of experience in.

I had to turn down two other adjunct job offers this summer from the University of the Arts, another place I’d really like to teach. They offered me two positions I wasn’t qualified to teach. In that case, I’d have made less money and had to give up my health benefits. But this is how higher education stays afloat, on the backs of a small army of teachers working for peanuts and no benefits, while tenured faculty with bloated salaries coast along. Yes friends, I have a chip on my shoulder. But really, it’s an awful situation.

And it was no small issue to me that I would have had to give up acting. I would have had to drop out of productions I had made commitments to, putting a theatre company that has stood by me in a time of crisis in a tough spot. But it was the letting go of the acting that was really gnawing at me. In spite of the hardships we are working through, I am really looking forward to being a working actor again this year. At a central place in me, it is who I am: an actor. And not a teacher? No, my mission is to prove that I can do both. The mission isn’t going so well these days.

Friends, it’s not just the thrill of performing and the sweet sound of applause that draws me. Certainly that’s an attraction – I couldn’t be an actor if it wasn’t. But now at mid life, I see that acting has engraved some virtues into my being. Acting has made me who I am in some vital and important ways, and I feel as attached to acting as, say, an E.R. doctor feels to her calling, or a priest to his vocation. Not only for the good it does in the world and the delight one feels from doing it well, but out of a sense of supporting a noble tradition, a lineage that has given me so much, and deserves attention in return.

Acting has made me brave in the face of fear. Acting has made me tough in the face of disappointment. Acting has made me faithful in the face of the unknown. Acting has made me love laughter, the way one loves a home, as a source of strength and renewal. Acting has taught me compassion and tolerance through the roles I’ve played and the situations I’ve encountered on stage. Acting has taught me to play well with others. Acting has shown me that I must make choices, and that the making and enacting them is often much more important than their “rightness” or “wrongness”. Acting has made me love myself, showing me that I am best when I am true to who I am. Then, paradoxically, I can become anyone you want me to be.

I am being led to a pedagogy of actor training which is based on identifying and nurturing virtues, rather than analyzing scripts. Do you see, friends, how this is connected to my Quakerism? I don’t believe the answer is in the text. The answer – if such a thing actually exists – is in the person. And for the actor, that answer lies more in the heart than in the mind. So my query now is: how to teach acting from the heart?

The attraction of teaching from the mind, what I call “intellect-based” actor training, and the main reason it dominates higher education is that it can be written about and articulated much more easily. Intellectual activity is the province of words and ideas, which can be put down on paper and understood. This is at the center of university learning: the ability to take something off a page and acquire it as insight or understanding. Certainly, there are other forms of learning in higher education: more experiential learning modes in the natural and social sciences, for instance. But on the whole, we want approaches to teaching that fit the page. If it fits the page, it can be judged and assessed.

The kind of actor training I’m thinking about is very hard to describe, harder to assess. When one attaches words to it, it instantly sounds trite. I want my students to discover their own innate courage through the process of acting. I want them grow tolerant and compassionate of other human experience through the roles they play. I want them to place acting and theatre in a world-wide context, as an artistic discipline that has the potential to make the world a better place. How does one assemble a collection of virtues and use them to guide creative process? Then it occurred to me that one of the other places in which virtues are promoted and used as guiding principles is religion. Revival, then, is my attempt to apply some Quaker virtues to theatrical creative process, and see if the mix results in anything interesting. Revival is my first foray into teaching acting from the heart.