My journey has been characterized by confronting the unknown. I was born and raised in Dallas, TX, and have always been deeply interested in the culture of the South, especially as represented by my Louisianan grandmother and her small town worldview. After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where one of my favorite classes was The Sociology of the South), I moved to New York City and lived consecutively in Hell’s Kitchen and Dominican Harlem. There I became fascinated by the difference between the politics of multiculturalism and actual life in diverse communities. I moved from there to rural Vermont, where I participated in old- American-style Town Meetings and other New England traditions. In Los Angeles, I have come to love the combination of an urban lifestyle and a tempo of living unique to the West. Seeking the kinds of adventure I read about in my favorite childhood books (Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time), I found real-life adventure by living American culture in its many forms. As a teacher, I try to engage students in this ongoing adventure of discovery.
I value the unique contributions of diverse students and help them to start from where they are by bringing their experience to the table, but I also encourage them to embrace the unfamiliar. Whether studying theater history, acting, or directing, students often must engage with material that is foreign to them. I try to focus the energy in the room in a way that drives the class from the beginning to the end while also encouraging dialogue and allowing for motivated changes in direction. Connecting the material directly to the questions and interests of the students facilitates a more active engagement. And connecting them to each other through the material facilitates an exchange of ideas, so that while they may begin with themselves they are always moving outwards, gathering, interpreting, and interrogating information. I struggle with how hard to push individual students, but I have found that as in creative collaborations where I focus the artists’ attention on the creative act, focusing students on the material in the classroom sets aside fears of personal weakness and creates a platform for bold exploration. As with creative collaborations, the results of a class are better when the process is tightly focused on the student’s engagement with the material.
But the information, practice, and philosophies of the performing arts are entirely abstract to students unless I engage them both intellectually and physically. Neurologically, we learn by practice, by doing and by imitating. That’s why, whether teaching theater history, acting, or directing, my philosophy is the same. In a typical class period, I am on my feet the whole time and I try to get students on their feet, too, or at least leaning forward. In a history class, I engage students in activities like experimenting with the sound of the words in the text and the possibilities of the actor’s voice as well as staging experiments exploring the different meanings created by different uses of space. In acting and directing classes, I ask students to investigate physically the ramifications of history and theory in performance. Whether a student has any previous knowledge of the theater or of the world contained within a play, by physically experiencing it, she can enter fully into a new understanding. Only this active engagement can connect what’s on the page to their lived experience of the world.
A student who has completed a theater course with me will leave with not only a specific set of artistic skills that can be used to approach a play in the future, but also expanded concrete knowledge and practice at in-depth analysis. Students must learn to see plays as ways to tell story, create character, investigate thought, speak and hear prose and poetry, move fluidly, and interact with architecture. And they must be able to combine those elements in ways that create meaning. In all of my classes, we practice writing, because writing teaches students to articulate ideas in a clear and persuasive manner. In addition, reading as much as possible, writing responses to that reading, and staging responses in the form of works of art increases student exposure to the larger field and it’s connection to other disciplines.
Theater is best taught by actually engaging in the act of collective creation. I relish the opportunity to direct campus productions because I see it as a great chance to engage with students in the ultimate application of classroom skills, to both demonstrate and participate. I believe I lead best when I am able to investigate the material along with the students – to ask questions of my own understanding and of the material itself – so I value the opportunity to expose students to my research, to my investigation of the possibilities of the form, through production. I view performance as a way of creating cultural identity, a way of using signs and symbols to make meaning as a group. I believe performance can write culture, interrogate culture, even expound entire theories of culture. Students who are actively discovering themselves and figuring out what they have to say easily find a place in this investigation of identity.
Last summer I received an unexpected email from a Pakistani-American student who had taken my Theater History and Culture class at Smith College. It validated much of what I do as an educator. Her final paper on A Doll’s House used research into the laws and cultural restrictions placed on women in Norwegian society to more fully understand the context of Nora’s decisions. The student had not thought much about women’s rights or women’s issues before. But her email, written shortly after her return from visiting family in Pakistan, showed that her perspective had forever changed. In her ancestral culture, she saw things she had not seen before, heard things she had not heard, and was consumed with the desire to get involved. Her experience interpreting a play about a 19th-Century- fictional feminist had directly impacted her ability to see and interpret the cultural realities of women in Pakistan. Whether in history, theory or performance classes, students understand through taking action, through making and interpreting art. This understanding can then be applied not only to making more theater, but also to interpreting the world around them. By teaching theater, I teach students to read narratives and to investigate the implications of all performed culture: stereotypes, manners, public celebrations, and political rhetoric. I love making theater, and in all of my classes, we spend as much time as possible doing so.
For more information, see “Pedagogy of the Non-Oppressed“.