- by Kevin M. Mitchell
Three professors weigh in on the art of allowing students to learn from themselves
When is “failing” actually failing? When does a theatre teacher choose not to “rescue” a student from a bad choice and let them learn from it? Three college professors and working professionals—two actors, one tech—sit down with Stage Directions to discuss the boundaries of allowing upper level students forge their own path.
A Cultural View of Failure
“Our program is a true conservatory and we take a small group of kids and prepare them for the national performance market,” says Lara Teeter, head of Musical Theatre at the Conservatory of Theatre at Webster University. Indeed: Webster sees about 1,000 high school graduates audition for a program that only has 25 to 30 spots available. Teeter, who’s also president of the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance International, says that every student learns differently, so the goal of the program is to allow them to discover, create and evolve. “A lot of kids at this age are trying to figure it all out.” And they encourage that. “We take a cultural view of failure,” Teeter says. “If you’re going to be curious, failure is a huge part of that. People who come here who are perfectionists and have trouble coping with ‘failure’ haven’t been given the tools to understand what the process is really about.”
Comments from teachers are expected to be adhered too as well. “If I give you a note and you are functionally not able to integrate that note into your work, then that tells me something is preventing you from allowing your talent to come through. Sometimes students are resistant to changing an aspect of their performance because they think, ‘Well it’s worked for me before.’” It’s up to the teacher to find creative ways to engage. “We’re looking for an authentic self and voice.” Preparing the student to succeed after graduating involves developing business and investigative skills, along with taking some practical advice from the teachers, who like Teeter, are still very much out in the professional world. “Part of being a good actor is learning how to audition with different casting directors,” he says. “Learn that you can’t sing ‘Shy’ from Once Upon a Mattress for one certain casting director.”
The faculty monitors overall progress carefully. He tells a story of a student he noticed was struggling, and maybe wasn’t a good fit for the conservatory. But in his second semester, the student found his wings. When Teeter asked about that he said, “My teachers kept asking about this ‘thing’ I was doing that was in the way, and I realized it wasn’t serving me.” What that “thing” was, Teeter still doesn’t know—maybe personal, maybe an inability to structure time—but allowing the student to discover it himself made it more meaningful.
“Failing” in this program is often a matter of developing discipline. He tells another story of one young woman who had only been in one high school play but was so talented, she got into the program. “I kept looking at her like a diamond in the rough, but it became obvious she had no academic discipline,” he sighs. “She was just scraping by and I didn’t know if this program was for her.” But the academic team did not relent, and she had an epiphany and turned it around, avoiding the failure of having to leave the program, going on to do very well because of, not in spite of, her initial failings.
Give Yourself Permission to Fail
“By nurturing an acting classroom to be a safe zone for students exploring the possible ways to push boundaries—to let go of expectations and confront the uncomfortable—the students begin to own their work in a surprisingly rich and personal way,” says Kevin Connell, professor of Theatre Arts at Marymount Manhattan College, where he also serves as coordinator of Junior and Senior Acting and recruiter for the Department of Theatre Arts. “It is my job to ignite this judgement-free zone, so the students feel safe to go to the deeper, darker and more dangerous places in the work.” He’s even made it a part of his syllabus, which contains the note: Remember that you can learn from work that is actively unsuccessful. To “fail”—and I use this term metaphorically—is good in that it usually equates itself with taking risks. Give yourself permission to “fail.”
Each student comes in needing different types of instructions, boundaries and goals. How they react to notes is telling. Some are just focused on the end result; others don’t think they need them at all. Both sets are particularly challenged with period pieces, and Connell has to remind them that the long-dead playwrights did not in fact write these parts with their personality in mind. “If we are doing a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, it can’t be enough to just 'be yourself’ if you are a 19-year-old playing Blanche,” he says. “I find that students forget, or struggle with, that leap to the playwright’s desires for their characters and plays.” Both sets are fired with ambition, expecting to be the next Elphaba in Wicked or player on SNL. “I spend much of my time teaching my students to slow down, to be present in moment, to trust being unfinished, and to love the process. It’s a lifetime of baby steps.”
The work of George Bernard Shaw, particularly his speeches and his up-to-40-plus pages of introductions, is another opportunity for the student to explore their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. “Shaw thought of his plays as political action, they were his way of inciting social change.” In the beginning students fail to see that these introductions stimulate and informs the actions. “The initially miss the clues, but ultimately they ‘get it’ as we start our explorations in class. It’s usually a big struggle for them.”
Connell is on the watch for resistance to succeeding due to ego or arrogance. “When the ego or arrogance is slowing down the process too much or just getting way off track, that’s when I start lecturing. It’s all about the openness of the experience and the give and take — and the giving is more important than the taking. There shouldn't be a, ‘you don’t need me in this room.’ As an example, when working on the opening scene of The Importance of Being Ernest, the actor playing Algernon may naturally be funny, but that doesn’t mean he understands the repertoire and can find the triggers in what they do next, or they don’t know how to move around the world that feels like the 19th century.”
Most of Them Get It in Hindsight
“I am definitely trying to give people a defined toolbox,” David Boevers says. “But there aren’t many ‘my way or the highway’ issues. I’m more, ‘I can guarantee you 100 percent that this will work if you do it this way.’ Often those that don’t discover decent alternatives, ultimately find their way back to the way we laid it out.” Boevers is an associate professor and the faculty technical director at Carnegie Mellon University, most lately teaching AutoCAD, Scenic Fabrication & Installation, Technical Direction and Entertainment Rigging.
“For advanced students there’s a lot more latitude,” explains Boevers. “Really they don’t have a choice in finding their own way. There are three or four primary mentors for TDs and the odds are high each will provide different answers to any situation a student brings them. We think this ambiguity is great for students.”
He adds that while they believe failure is a beneficial teaching tool an exception would be engineering and fabrication failure. Technical solutions are reviewed by faculty in the drawing stage and problems are corrected before they go to the shop. Basically, when “failure” becomes a safety issue, they step in. But “that doesn’t mean we give the students the solution, just that we go to great lengths to not let a flawed solution get to the stage.”
He says they look carefully at what the gain might be from failure. “It’s sort of a cost benefit analysis. If there’s more to be gained from fixing the mistake than there is to preventing it, we’ll generally let it go and see what people do to react.” But the trump card has to do with another’s experience—if one of his student is doing something that adversely affects another student experience, “that’s the tipping point” and he’ll step in. He does see many situations of a student “falling in love with a technical solution early” that the faculty absolutely knows isn’t going to work, and as long as it isn’t a safety issue, he lets that go. In most cases, the team figures it out for themselves—though not without some frustrations.
But effort goes into setting the student up to succeed: “We do everything we can to make sure that a student is assigned to a role they are prepared for. Students get relevant classwork and assistant positions before they get the next assignment up. Also, within the production structure at CMU there are virtually no assignments where a student doesn’t have more advanced students working with them.”
Boevers says last semester he spent two days of class explaining how not to do a dog/knife/receiver assembly in order to highlight how each of the likely shortcuts will be problematic—“Something I knew all too well having worked on shows where each of the more expeditious solutions was tried and failed. The jury is still out on whether or not that is productive for them as a second-hand experience in the classroom, but I know for certain first-hand failure on production is an effective learning tool.”