I teach the arts, but I use the scientific method. Whether I am asking students to interpret or to create, I ask them to pose an inquiry, investigate it, gather and analyze data, and reevaluate their hypotheses. In an acting class or a production, this means asking students to come up with their own ideas, try those ideas, and then decide whether to keep going in that direction or try something else. Though it can be frightening for students who are used to a kind of high school teaching that is often just test preparation, learning to think critically requires enabling students to face their fear of failure and try their own ideas.

The biggest challenge I face with this philosophy is the rise in student concerns about “safety.” Leading students through the natural and necessary discomfort of making theater has become increasingly difficult, as millennials seems to believe that having any kind of negative experience is unacceptable. Proposing ideas, trying them, possibly failing in front of other people, then getting up and trying again often provokes negative feelings, which some students mistake for being unsafe.

To address this, I have developed five principles for class-rehearsal rooms that I share with students at the beginning of any process.

  1. You will be uncomfortable. You will be off balance. You will occasionally fail in front of other people. This will not be nearly as painful as you might fear because everyone in the room is in the same position.
  2. However, you might not like everyone in the room. You definitely won’t agree with all of them. Disagreement is totally normal and really healthy, and it actually leads to better art. It is not a sign of a problem; it is a sign that everyone is really, fully engaged.
  3. You cannot improvise violence or sex. That does not mean that having the impulse to add violence or sex to a moment is a bad thing. It means you have to stop yourself when you have one of those impulses and instead say, “I have an idea, but we need to work out how to do it safely.” So please, honor your impulses, even the unattractive ones. Trust them. I want to know what they are and I want to support them. I promise I will not shame you. But in this class-rehearsal room, you can’t act on violent and/or sexual impulses until you have consent.
  4. Don’t tell other actors what to do. It’s not your job. If you have that many ideas about what they could be doing, think about studying directing. Here and now, in this class-rehearsal room, your job is to figure out what you can do, not what others can. Have ideas about your part and share them. Then shape your ideas in relationship to other people’s ideas about their part. Do not try to make your ideas other people’s ideas.
  5. I am here to enable you to have so many ideas you don’t even know where to start. My vision is intended as a springboard for you to use to get to other ideas that I could never think of myself, and I trust you to come up with those ideas. If you feel like you’re not getting enough direction, or like you have ideas but you don’t trust that you could try them and fail and not be judged for it, or like your ideas are too different from my vision to work, or like you don’t have any ideas, or best of all like you have so many ideas you don’t know where to start, please tell me. I can help with that. The only thing I can’t do is know what you’re thinking and feeling if you don’t express it to me. I will not judge you for being uncomfortable, afraid, excited, sad, passionate, happy, disconnected, turned on, angry, judgmental, amused, incessantly logical, ridiculously illogical, or any other thing you could possibly be feeling while making theater. In fact all those feelings and more are common and expected. We all have them and we have to have them in order to our job well. What I can do, if you tell me what you’re feeling, is help.

A student who has completed a theater course or done a show with me will leave with not only a specific set of artistic skills that can be used to approach a production in the future, but also expanded concrete knowledge and practice at in-depth analysis. Though some students of the performing arts believe that reading and writing are only necessary in their other classes, in all of my classes, we practice writing because it teaches students to articulate their 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, fulfilling the promise of a liberal arts education.

For more information, see “Pedagogy of the Non-Oppressed“.