Philsophical Statement on Teaching
I am trained as a specialist. I earned a Masters of Fine Arts in acting at Rutgers University. The experience was grueling, inspiring, and mentally exhausting…but never scholastic – and purposely so. An actor must make smart choices, be deeply learned in literature, history, art, psychology, even logic and philosophy; but intellectualism is death to the artist. This seeming paradox goes to the heart of my teaching at York College.
Offering a BA in theatre, ours is not a professional training program. Instead, I have an opportunity to offer lessons charged to a liberal arts education – critical thinking, writing, argument. But at the same time, I am bound to not let our students rationalize their creative selves. My assignment then becomes the work of a generalist, one who, as Joseph Campbell explained, does not teach to a refined degree, but looks outward and finds the connections between seemingly disparate matters and ties them together. To me, these ties are the most intriguing explorations of life. They are the bindings of our common humanity. And a theatre student is in a unique position to experience their intellectual and emotional strength.
Richard Feynman said teaching is like fishing, “you have to keep trying different kinds of bait.” No one’s going to take your word for it – let alone be interested in what you have to say – even if you’re a “genius!” Like many in the liberal arts, what I most wish to convey cannot be imparted by pointing at a book. It means creating an environment where students desire to learn, to find out for themselves the depth of matters beyond what appears readily coherent – the history, the ambiguities, the value of work often diluted and trivialized by commercial industries. This means group work, problem solving, fun, student led analysis, and letting them discover for themselves both the reward of questions resolved and the challenge and motivation unearthed by unanswered perplexities. I find I’m only really satisfied leaving a classroom when the students are excited about working more.
For the major and non-major alike, theatre holds many lessons. Many are often cited as clearly practical for those seeking future leadership positions – the spirit of team building and the practice of physical and creative skills (as sometimes associated with sports,) augmented with lessons on acquiring presence, holding an audience’s attention, and ultimately, how to project one’s self in public. It is the last of these that is most enigmatic. To which self is a lesson referring? Authenticity, believability, honesty, understanding, empathy, consideration: To improve one’s communication with others, it is important to begin with one’s own psychology. Theatre is inherently a psychological place, outside our emotional comfort zones. It abounds with risk taking, expression, and personal questions that are more important than any answers. As Eric Erickson forcefully presented in Gandhi, there is within the human psyche a capacity for transformation and the power at anytime to redirect one’s step to an imaginative leap. True for a 45 year-old-lawyer, it can be especially important to a college-age professional-school bound student. Transformation is not about wanting to be an actor. It is a moving toward humanness, an un-shuttered window through which to observe the feelings of others by being a little less afraid to observe ourselves.
The mind and body are one system. In Descartes’ Error neurologist Antonio Damasio declares, “The overall function of the brain is to be well informed about what goes on in the rest of the body…without the body there would be no brain.” His somatic-marker hypothesis clearly necessitates emotion for rationality. In later writings he surmises, “We often use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them.” What is theatre then but a chance to focus the mind, to better use our heads by incorporating how our body feels. “Embodied speaking and thinking is very potent,” says vocal coach Kristin Linklater to the Global Leadership Fellows from the World Economic Forum. (NYTimes; July 10, 2010) But transformation, a feeling of freedom, or any manifestation of art, is never a virtue in itself. It comes with responsibility. After all, leaders shape followers’ perceptions. So the body/mind comes full circle; as our mind learns from the body, it is important that critical thinking and the wealth of a full liberal arts education guide artistic freedom.
My job is to introduce the world to my students, and my students to the world. Individuals don’t create culture; it is communal. Students may plug-in to a video and be by themselves, but theatre is naturally interactive — a mythic relationship between actor and audience that seeks to celebrate universal truths and break the illusion of false notions. This can be very funny or very upsetting; and like culture, it can work on many levels of our understanding at once - social, spiritual, policital, rational, instinctual. What a grand opportunity, then, to study culture through theatre – to research, interpret, analyze, empathize, appreciate, innovate, emulate, or even agitate! Moreover, York College is multi-cultural and what is created here is, in and of itself, culturally special. In May 2012 The New York Times declared: “After years of speculation, estimates and projections, the Census Bureau has made it official: White births are no longer a majority in the United States.” Saying that youth is the future is pretty trite, but saying York College is the future, is to most Americans a startling fact. It is thus especially important to find out what our students have to say. My research, it seems to me, both academic and artistic, is to find the ways that will help them say it.
Philsophical Statement on Teaching Voice & Speech
Giving voice to one’s heart and mind is both liberating and a pleasure. Learned behavior, however, brought about by environmental, cultural, and physical influences can restrict breath, mask emotion, and stifle expression. In my view, vocal training for the actor should seek to release habitual somatic tensions, reconnect emotional impulses to a responsive breath, and strengthen range and resonance, thereby allowing emotional truth greater access to free vocal release.
In addition, my goals have been to interest students in the power and possibilities of the spoken word – of the capacities of language – as a vital force in live theatre, and as a path toward personal inquiry and revelation. Vowel sounds can open up a range of sympathetic resonances within the body- resonances of image, thought, and feeling. These differentiations can manifest a symphonic variety of tonal qualities and expressions. Consonant sounds likewise produce a visceral effect, yet they propel, sift, caress, or seize the vowel sound, creating in each syllable of speech its own environment of personal expressiveness.
The interplay of well structured open vowels and rigorously physicalized consonants gives language its rhythm and dynamic force. When these energies are engaged with the thoughts and feelings of a speaker the impulse for clear speech is created deep within the natural forces of the body. Speech then is not only a form of communication, but also a revelation of the speaker’s social attitudes, and instinctual desires. To this end, advanced work in dialects becomes more than just a means of securing a job, or creating a convincing character. It is an opportunity to explore new pathways into the human soul. Dialects challenge us to experience sounds that our ears often cannot hear, rhythms we have not yet danced, and inflective music we have yet to sing.
York College CUNY - classes taught:
TA 211 Basic Acting
TA 392 Special Topic: Advanced Acting
TA 215-219 Theatre Practice
SP 160 Oral Interpretation of Prose and Poetry
SP 182 Voice & Diction
TA 110 Intro to Theatre
TA 490 Independent Study