“Who am I anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” And so the lyrics from Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line reveal the inner thoughts of the actor vying to be cast, chosen, selected by the disembodied, all powerful director on the god microphone. It is this very question “who am I” (emphasis on the “I”) that forms the basis for my philosophy of theatre education – Theatre on Purpose.
I’ve spent over twenty years of my life working with young actors whose dreams of stardom cloud their vision. I treaded those boards myself having begun performing at the age of eleven with my own dreams of Broadway and beyond. It was only after I began teaching that I realized the power I had to positively guide and the potential I had to destroy the tender spirits of these aspiring, young actors. I confess, I have done both. The role of the drama teacher requires a nuanced barometer measuring the delicate balance between encouragement and hard, cold reality. There is nothing new about this dilemma. The theatrical cannon is full of stories of star-struck youth. Stage Door, 42nd Street and All About Eve are just a few of the chestnuts with some version of this plot line.
I never ascribed to the notion that my job as a drama teacher was to be a wet blanket. I’ve always erred on the side of the encourager and have seen some of my students go on to satisfying careers in the arts while others struggled with the “success demon” that plagues so many artists. What defines success? Fame? Name recognition? It has always been my intention to focus a student’s attention on the craft and love of the art rather than the idea of fame. However, I have after many years come to realize that each individual is on his or her path and must learn whatever lessons are his or hers to learn. It was my over-developed sense of responsibility and illusion of parental control, (earning me the name “Mama Barth” with my students) that kept me in the coach’s role always walking that fine line.
Just as the young student of acting has his or her entire future ahead filled with a myriad of choices and dreams, the drama teacher has an equally full past that if left unresolved can have a devastating impact on his or her students. It was C.G. Jung who said, “nothing exerts a stronger psychic effect upon the environment, and especially upon children, than the unlived life of the parents.” Throughout my career, I came to recognize the truth in this statement as it applied to the choices I made as drama teacher and director. I observed other drama teachers wrestling with this same issue. If left un-processed, unanswered, the question, "who am I anyway" may haunt the drama teacher and affect everything from his or her motives for teaching to the selection of age-appropriate material for his students. For example, to remain creatively challenged, stimulated and engaged, the drama teacher may camouflage the choice of a play that might be directorially interesting but utterly inappropriate for his students in the guise of challenging them to rise to the occasion.
While my experience has shown that there are many dedicated, highly skilled, and generous drama teachers out there, sadly there is also a population for whom teaching is the “fall back” or the temp job while still pursuing the illusive sit-com on the side. I have come to believe that teaching drama is a vocation, requiring self-knowledge and a keen awareness of the importance of role modeling.
Theatre on Purpose is an approach to teaching drama that inverts the process and uses theatre as a means for a student to discover one’s self. It involves self-reflection, counseling, mentorship, and intentional choices on the part of the teacher in all areas including scheduling with a realistic balance between home and rehearsal time and material selection. I have come to believe that it is in the spirit of generosity and humility that one grows the most. I know too many forty-something unfulfilled actors who walk around with a giant hole in them still asking the question, “who am I anyway? Am I my resume?” If fame and fortune are the goals, then anything short of those achievements leaves one feeling like a failure. I have made it my mission to help my students know who they are first so that they do not fall victim to this emptiness later in their lives.
While there is no blue print for this approach, it must begin with the teacher’s honest examination of his or her own un-realized dreams. The lure of the spotlight, applause and the unanswered question “who am I anyway” must not be worked out through the lives of his or her students. The drama teacher must also define what he or she deems “success”. An unhealthy definition might include an unrecognized drive for perfection and status within the educational theatre world. The drama teacher must maintain a clear compass when making choices that impact his or her students.
Theatre On Purpose also emphasizes using the art form as a way to shine the light on societal values and issues. For example, I recently guided a group of students through a process of creating an original dramatic collage focused on racism . Over the years, I have collaborated with students in creating pieces on homelessness, war and immigration. When, as a teacher, I join with my students in the collaborative process, not so much as a director and teacher but as a co-creator, the relationship shifts and the ensemble experience becomes a mutual bond.
There is nothing easy about this approach to theatre education. Intentionality takes effort, constant assessment, and evaluation. It is however, a fulfilling vocation for those who are called. As the bard himself wrote in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own-self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou cans’t not be false to any man.”