I've been teaching for five years since I graduated with my MFA. Acting when I can but not in the mode of student in acting classes. After all I'm the teacher, the one with all the answers (that is meant to be funny). I rehearsed my Saint Joan monologue on a daily basis, worked with my friend Carnessa Ottelin, recent grad of UNCG directing's program, to make sure I remembered how to do a monologue. I was prepared. Prior to my arrival I spent thirty-six hours at a silent retreat. I was determined to be centered and ready for this experience. It was like the first day of school and I was forty minutes early.
Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., we worked with Robert Cohen. The ease with which he worked and his knowledge of theatre and its elements was awe-inspiring. He was thoroughly passionate about his work with actors and every decision he made to side coach or guide an actor was supported with research he had done and knowledge of human behavior. I watched him jump around and cheer for actors when they understood a moment. He spoke often of our job as teachers to take actors beyond just being good to being brilliant. Our main task was to open up their creativity and assist them in their journey to greatness. I learned much by observing him in action. How many times did Robert speak of talking to actors in positives vs. negatives and replacing their uninteresting choices with stronger choices, without judgment? Suddenly when he worked with me, I felt like I could do anything. I want to work like that-to give my students that kind of affirmation and empowerment.
Afternoons were filled with various guests, the remarkable Katherine Fitzmaurice, the energetic Frank Deal, and the gentle and knowledgeable Joanna Merlin. In two-hour blocks we were introduced to their philosophies and ideas about their work. Katherine specifically used me as an example for her various positions for tremoring. This was a most humbling experience to be laying in a variety of positions to be analyzed for the rest of the class. I suddenly gained empathy for my students. How many times have I done that to them? And did I do that with the same gentleness of Ms. Fitzmuarice? I doubt it.
Frank Deal was our improvisational wizard. He spoke of the creative genius in all of us. Some days my creative genius felt like a pile of mush but, wow, he was inspirational. Through a series of improvisational exercises he reminded us again of our job as teachers to open up creativity within our students and fill them with confidence, to lead them from good acting to great acting.
Joanna Merlin talked about auditioning referencing her newly published book (which is quite good, I might add) and I appreciated her angle on auditioning and the idea of rejection. She spoke of the importance of actors understanding their power within the auditioning process vs. giving that power away. Her respect and affection for actors was moving to me and reminded me of the courage it takes for actors to put themselves out there.
In other afternoon sessions we met with J. Michael Miller as a group or in individual appointments. He possesses a vision for theatre in this country that would inspire the toughest cynic. He tells it like it is. That's what they say about him. I expected to be shaking in my boots. I'm a chicken when it comes to going to the principal's office. What would he say to me? I found a theatre artist who wants theatre in this country to be outstanding, who himself holds a vision for actors and teachers supporting each other and networking as the ultimate goal. I appreciated his willingness to sit down with each one of us and his interest in each of our positions.
Evenings were spent with Russian director and teacher Slava Dolgatchev and his translator Irina from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Let me add we were never let out early. For the first three days we were not allowed to speak or ask questions only led through one exercise after another. I didn't know I was so capable of giggling. Filled with self-consciousness at not being able to use my voice, I felt like an eighteen-year-old Acting One student. I was not the only one. But on the third day we all stopped giggling. Suddenly the exercises were profoundly effective and we trusted each other. Twelve strangers from around the country had found a way to work together. Slava then taught us how to analyze a script. What was I doing before? He was relentless in his analysis of Uncle Vanya. His ability to find the intricacy of every character's actions and psychology was exhausting. Do we have time to find such details? In his mind there is no choice. We make the time. In between his teachings, we were inspired by stories of his life in Russia, particularly a time in his life when theatre was taken from him. I was in awe of his descriptions of theatre, it is his food, his life, he says, all he is meant to do.
I took sixty-five pages of notes in twelve days.
I am known to be sentimental, but this experience was more than that. People were so damn wonderful. We were a mix of people with a variety of experiences behind us but we came together hungry to learn and eager to discover new ways to communicate the process of theatre. What we longed for, I believe we were given. Most of all I left feeling inspired by Robert Cohen, J. Michael Miller, Slava Dolgatchev and others. Master teachers from around the world were so kind and generous. Wow. This was an amazing experience. My brain was and is exploding with information and ideas and new exercises to use in my work. I want not only to be a good teacher, but a great teacher. I want to be not only a good theatre artist but a great theatre artist. I was around people who held the bar for greatness so high I barely can touch it. But I'm reaching. I'm reaching.