Teaching as Performance [Reflective Teaching]
By Owen Cantrell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Several years ago, I accompanied John Frazier—an acting professor from the downtown GSU campus—to Phillips State Prison. John was working with the men in the Common Good Atlanta program on their Shakespearean monologues. I was escorting him into the prison classroom I’d been going to regularly since 2010. As the men recited their monologues, John asked them to layer emotions on top of their performance: first, anger; then, sadness; now, jealousy. I watched as the students worked to embody their characters and give life to 400-year-old words behind the confines of prison walls.
For years, I’d considered taking an acting class. Despite my family’s concern, I had no plans to abandon the classroom for the stage. Instead, I hoped that acting would help me to understand classroom presence (and teaching more generally) as performance. This is by no means a new idea, but one that I had only considered at a surface level. My hope was that, by taking an acting class, I could think about “teaching as performance” actually meant to me.
This past summer, I took a Beginning Acting class at the downtown GSU campus with Dr. Keith Tims. While there’s plenty I could say about how this course will impact my teaching, I want to discuss three main takeaways from the course and how I see this changing my classroom presence.
1. “Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances”
“Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances” was acting instructor Sanford Meisner’s dictum when it came to acting. This was one of our first lessons in Beginning Acting. Knowing that the circumstances we entered as actors were not “real,” how was an actor supposed to act “truthful” in those circumstances? In part, an actor must focus in order to be fully present as the character they are playing. Furthermore, instead of acting “types” or “emotions,” we were instructed to understand a character’s objectives (“what they do”) rather than a character’s personality (“who they are”).
I found this to be quite shocking when translating this into classroom presence. Often, as an instructor, I was concerned about being a certain type of teacher (“the cool teacher” or “the stern taskmaster” or “the caring instructor”) rather than considering what objectives I wanted to accomplish. In my mind, the “truth” of my classroom presence was the effect it would have on my students (and, of course, the effect it would have on their work). Instead, I began to think of “living truthfully” in the rather bizarre circumstances of the classroom as something linked to truly being “truthful” in a very different way, which leads me to my next takeaway from the course: objectives, tactics, and risk.
In doing a script analysis, an actor must determine their character’s objective (what they want from someone else in the scene), tactic (what action they are performing to get what they want) and risk (what’s at stake if they don’t get it). For each beat in a script, an actor has to determine these three aspects in order to determine their performance in that moment.
In the classroom, each class period (and often each section of a class period) has a certain objective. Often, these objectives are learning goals that scaffold upon one another and culminate in a larger project (an essay, a presentation, a podcast). In order to accomplish these learning goals, instructors use a variety of tactics (activities, discussion, writing prompts) that are of varying levels of importance (risk) towards the larger objectives the course is working towards.
It’s also true that instructors have their own objectives, tactics, and risks in the classroom. When I’m at my best as an instructor, I will surprise myself with how I will connect ideas or draw students out to discuss that day’s topic. Often, I’m surprised what I’m willing to share with my students to help illuminate what I’m talking about. And, in part, this is what setting up objectives frees the actor to do: surprise themselves. When you are no longer concerned about being “authentic,” this frees you up to actually be authentic. Instead of creating a “performance,” you are able to authentically act within what the objectives, tactics, and risks require of you. For an actor, this means the script and the audience; for an instructor, this means your course’s focus and those students sitting in that classroom on that day.
In acting, status is the power differential between various characters. Often, it may change over the course of a scene. Status can be embodied through movement, speech, posture, or even breathing. Low status characters are often uncertain, awkward, or nervous, whereas high status characters can be confident, calm, and collected.
In teaching, there’s an immediate status differential: the professor and the students. However, status in acting has little to do who one is, but instead how one moves through the world. Often, movement in teaching is a way of communicating status. To be frank, I’m notoriously bad at moving through a classroom. I feel awkward pacing through the room while students are working (as though I’m surveilling them) and try to keep myself from invading their space in the classroom. While I have been known to pace around the front of the room, I don’t generally interact within the classroom itself. Honestly, I usually feel my classroom presence to be uncertain and awkward.
Interestingly, I rarely get this feedback from students, who seem to feel that I am a professor who knows the material and can confidently answer any question that comes up. I do feel this is true, but rarely believe this is communicated in my classroom presence. In reflecting on this disjunction, I think I am unaware of my status in the classroom. Though I may feel low status often (and feel that my physical embodiment reflects that), I may actually communicate more high-status presence to my students. It’s a reflection I want to spend more time with, but something I’m interested in figuring out.
I found taking Beginning Acting to be an often difficult (and oddly emotional) course to take. I learned a great deal about acting, but also about teaching. For a long time, I considered “teaching as performance” to be a type of sophistry, in which I was persuading my students to believe in whatever rhetorical flourishes I was performing that day. Instead, I realized that teaching is based in authenticity. And truthfulness. And presence. In many ways, I had been doing this for years, but rarely reflected on it. Taking an acting class helped me to be aware that truth is not based on manipulation of appearance, but instead the ability to “live truthfully” within the classroom. I hope my students are better off for this realization and will benefit as much from the course as I surely did.