Sunday, May 20, 2012

How a degree in theater made me a better person

As a teacher, I have lived through 5 years of cyclical budget cuts. I have now been teaching long enough to remember the "better times". Times when we had enough time and people to fully serve kids. I began my teaching career as a Drama teacher and have slowly morphed into a Language Arts teacher and Literacy Coach. Over the past five years, I have seen every art program at our middle school cut. Next year our high school will only offer visual art on a limited basis, band for half the day, and choir will continue to be a club that meets outside the school day. Praise God, for the brave and marvelous Blair Cromwell. She continues to turn out great theatre with no budget, and represents a refuge for all the lost boys and girls who need a dark theater to figure out how to be "real people".

Before I go further, I want to be clear that I actually agree with the cuts that occurred in my district. When my middle school drama program was cut, I understood the logic behind the decision. If the state refuses to fund education, but continues to raise expectations for graduations, than educational institutions are often forced to make the "best of the bad decisions". If a majority of our students aren't reading and writing well enough to pass OAKS and graduate, and our pot of money has become a teaspoon of money, than no matter how much we love and support Arts, Sports, or in some cases Social Studies, we can't fund them all. I don't find the district at fault for these decisions. It is a societal issue.  Our society clearly doesn't value education, and arts education is a forgotten concept from a bygone era.

This situation concerns me, because so much of my success as human and as a teacher is tied to my long hours on stage. I started acting and singing when I was very young and these two activities were the touchstone of who I was as headed into adolescence. I was lucky enough to go to a high school were Bill Horton created a theatre program that challenged us to not just to be better actors, but to be better people. Out of all my high school experiences, the ones that impacted me the most happened in the auditorium. The  PHS theatre taught me to be humble. I learned how to problem solve, and that we could do a lot on a small budget. There was the hard lesson of how you speak to people matters and what you say can come back to haunt you. Most importantly, I learned that I had to hold up my part of the bargain, because no matter what was happening that curtain was going up and all we would have onstage was one another. Willy cared about how we treated one another. He demanded kindness and respect for everyone, because every person was  important.

I didn't go to college to be a theatre major. I began as an international studies major, but auditioned for a show my first week on campus and found myself spending more time in Rice than other building. My time in WOU theatre had an overwhelming impact on my life. My best friend and I bonded over our Freshman year bit parts, I built friendships while goofing off at after strike parties and sharing audition heart breaks and fears. Most importantly, I met my husband at those first auditions. It took years for us to get together, but I can honestly say that my soon to be born son would not be soon to be without theatre.

WOU was different than PHS. At Western I learned that respect and kindness are not an inherent part of the arts. That competition can make people very ugly. I learned that just because everyone else believes that something is acceptable or ok, doesn't mean that I should to. In my time as a member of the WOU theatre department, I made choices that made me an ugly and horrible person, learned lessons that helped me stop being that person and grew up.

At Western, I learned that teachers have power. Students will literally change who they are in order to impress a teacher. I was exposed to a professor who abused that power and to Dr. Davis, a man who understood that teaching us to be artists was also about teaching us to be the best people we could be. Both of these professors impacted me.

The professor who abused his power, taught me to push hard. If someone in a position of power is going to openly attack you, but you still want to be on stage, than you have to work harder and limit their reasons to attack. I learned that not opinions are valid, and people do have ulterior motives. Most importantly, I learned that what an educator says in and out of the classroom leaves a strong impression on their students. Being a teacher means having the power to influence and shape lives for better or worse. If I had not been exposed to a teacher who so blatantly abused this power, I would be much different teacher today.

This teacher also taught me that your choices will bring consequences. In your personal and professional life, the choices you make will come back to haunt you. Think about how you treat others and what you want your life to be like. This man taught me to make a conscience choice to be positive and kind.

Dr. Davis taught me to that the arts are about human connection. As a professor, he was concerned about who we were as people. He invested in us. This doesn't mean he was always sunshine and roses. There were times that he pointed out your dumb choices, but he also let us learn our own lessons. He inherently understood that failure is a part of learning, and there is no bigger feeling of failure than having the curtain go up and things not work.  He taught us to be risk takers. His artistic choices weren't always popular or understood, but he made them because they were important to him. More importantly he didn't compromise or explain why he did what he did. He fostered the same risk taking in us. A student would write a play and he would throw us all in the black box and see what came out.

There is a breathtaking euphoria in someone believing in you enough to give you this type of chance. He didn't promise to make us superstars, he didn't regale us with stories of his time with such and such a company, or try and convince us of the artist he was, he just showed up and pushed us to try harder and not be afraid to fail. At the same time, his door was open and he was willing to share who he was while truly caring about who you were. Dr. D cared about you as a person, and he wanted you to know that.

I am who I am because of my experiences in theatre. I didn't stop at college. I spent the next five years trying my own company, and working for professional company . Volunteering to work with high school kiddos led me to teaching and my time in theater has made me the teacher I am.

Mr. Horton's lesson's about respect and kindness shape how I set up my classroom. I demand the same of my student's, and this means I must expect the same from myself.  The negative professor, reminds me to think before I speak and to not abuse this precious power that I have given. Dr. D reminds me to be human and that I have to let kids fail in order to help them succeed.

Theater as an art form has left me with a skill set that I use everyday. I am to  be flexible and change plans in a moment. Feedback is important to me and I crave it. I am willing to take a risk and try a new lesson or teach a new class. I can improvise and make things happen.  My training as a director makes me a better instructional coach. I can work with a team and get things done. I can stand in front of a group of people and engage them. I inherently know when it is ok to let go and let the kids take the lead and when we need to stick the script. All of these are skills I learned on stage.

More importantly,  theatre shapes how I view the world.  My long and true friendships are with the people I was on stage with. We had to trust one another to get through performances, now we trust one another to get through life. When someone has seen you bomb in front of audience, it is easier to tell them how scary impending motherhood can be. My marriage is strong because even when our relationship was on a downturn, we still had to show up work with one another. In fact, we came back to one another through directing first. When we couldn't talk about how much we hurt one another, we could give one another feedback on our performances.

I have no plans to return to directing or acting, but I will ensure that my son is exposed to the same lessons. I want him to know the pressure of a bad final dress, and feel the tension that follows a dropped line. He needs to know what it is like to be dependent on the people around you, and to put your heart and soul into something that has inevitable end.  My son will have these opportunities because of who his parents are, but what about all the children who will miss chance to learn lessons the arts teach us?

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