Class Act


{You've probably been 'blogging for too long when you start to feel, with every post title, "I must have used THIS pun before...."}

I have a lot of semi-traumatic memories of school. I say semi-traumatic because, in spite of how very very real they were to me at the time, in light of some more adult tragedies it seems inapt to apply the same word. Still and all -- without that perspective and with the fiery, passionate, all-or-nothing stakes of youth -- some of these events were rather defining for me. I was thinking of one of the less traumatic (possibly even redemptive of...something...) ones this morning as I hurriedly recorded my lines for tomorrow's film gig in the hopes of absorbing them through audio osmosis. In a history class in what I recall as being my junior year of high school, I gave a presentation on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and afterward a guy who had given me a hard time in the past rather announced to the class, "Hey, you were acting. That was just like when you act." Somehow I had the presence of mind not to feel injured by this call-out (it was definitely an effort to draw negative attention to me) and I calmly responded, "Yeah, I was. I can do that." And sat down. And the class continued, my would-be persecutor left scratching his head a bit at why acting was allowed in class.

Yesterday I returned to Hunter College to teach an Intro. to Theatre class about the (living) history of commedia dell'arte. I've taught similar classes at Hunter before, though always a shorter class with more students, and to date always with my commedia partner-in-crime, Heather Stuart. This was, in other words, something of a new experience for me. Oh, and in addition to these circumstances, it was my first time really teaching solo for a class of desk-bound students -- generally non-actors who hadn't any expressed interest in getting out of the seats to try the work on for size. I was made a little nervous by it. (Ironically, I got three potential In Bocca al Lupo-ers out of them, but I couldn't have known that was a possibility ahead of time.) As far as I was concerned, I was there to lecture. In my own, inimitable style.

Said "inimitable style" involves quite a bit of amateurish waffling and tangential thinking.

The class went well, actually, I think. The teacher, Sascha Just, was complimentary afterward. Most of the people seemed to be engaged most of the time, and I certainly never ran out of things to talk about. There were gaffs, and the lesson plan needs more work for certain, but in balance I'd say it was a success. I was pleasantly surprised by some techniques I implemented that were half-planned, half-spun-out-on-the-spot; rather like working from a scenario. I asked the students periodically to imagine themselves in the shoes of a commedia dell'arte troupe of the 1500s; not in a "picture-this" way, but more actively, using modern equivalents and inviting them to draw images without requiring that they do so. This worked to wake them from note-taking stupors, and also helped us find a common ground when I got cyclical or tangential in whatever aspect I was covering at a given moment. "Where was I? Back to the piazza...." I also had the idea to tell them to interrupt me whenever they had a question or a reaction. They didn't take me up on this too much, but a little, and I was pleased with how it kept things lively and served to illustrate the level of interaction traditional commedia had with its unpretentious audiences.

I was acting. I was very much putting on a show. In another interesting parallel, though, it reminded me of the first time I used mask work in performance. This was not in a commedia context, per se, but it did involve a similar half-mask style. I was suddenly divorced from a powerful component of my acting -- my facial expressions. I had to relearn what read to an audience, which gestures and intonations would connect without facial cues, and I can assure you that it was a rocky start to demonstrating that particular skill. Hopefully I've improved since. Hopefully, too, I'll learn more and more about teaching a class in an actual classroom, as opposed to a theatre, or movement studio. I couldn't jump about too much there, and it affected everything from my method of description to changes in my overall energy pattern. I had quite a patter kept up; definitely could have afforded a bit more relaxation, but by the same token I believe my enthusiasm for the subject was welcome.

I left feeling very gratified. In a way, finding this new way of expressing the essentials of commedia dell'arte renewed my excitement for it, which will be very valuable indeed in the coming month. My enthusiasm while teaching in Italy will be genuine. I won't even have to act!

Er, wait . . .
 
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