Why I Signed Up for an Acting Class
In the spring semester of 2005 I took an undergraduate Shakespeare acting class. I did not do what any other busy man with good sense might have done: take part of the course or just hang around the fringes. No, I took the whole banana-split version of the course with whipped cream, nuts, and all of the exercises and assignments. If I live for a hundred years I will never forget the exercise of being rolled back and forth on a gym mat by two undergraduate women while I recited my soliloquy from Hamlet using only vowels, no consonants. This exercise was the deathblow to any shred of dignity that I might have tried to fake as a wise old owl hanging out among a flock of fluttery undergraduate songbirds. Rolling back and forth made me look like a ghastly parody of childhood, and it made me sound like a New Year's Eve drunk. Even worse, one of the young women rolling me back and forth and smiling—or was she smirking?—happened to be one of my own students in another class. She turned out to be quite an honorable young woman, however, for she never once tried to blackmail me, even though she could have succeeded so-o-o easily. I had a wonderful teacher, Diane Timmerman, a professional actor and one of only one hundred Designated Linklater Voice Teachers around the world, but there was little that Professor Timmerman's talents could do to change me from the kind of agonized actor who makes even a mute spear holder look as if he is having his kidneys cut out, on stage, by an invisible surgeon. [End Page 309]
The motive that initially took me into acting class was a specific question that had been hounding me like a Mafia bedbug on a hit mission. My question was, "Why have I ceased getting better at reading Shakespeare out loud in class?" Several years ago I had hit a plateau in the effectiveness of my oral classroom reading of Shakespeare, and, frankly, this annoyed me. I thought that taking a Shakespeare acting class might explain to me why, and it did. I learned very soon that there's nothing wrong with the way I read Shakespeare, and that the next level of effectiveness is not a different or better kind of reading but something entirely different from reading. The next level is performance, and performance simply is not a kind of reading. I did not pack up my tent and leave the course, however, and the reasons I did not bring me to heart of my matter.
Even though taking this class as an actor was for me like slogging through a swamp in lead boots, I found that taking the class as a teacher had accidentally but providentially positioned me in the middle of a rich classroom context that was stimulating me every day with new thoughts and reflections about pedagogical issues. I felt like a prospector who had trundled off into the desert to find gold and who had failed to find gold but found diamonds instead. In this essay, I want to tell you what I learned about teaching—and learning—by taking a Shakespeare acting class.
Three Lessons I Learned about Teaching in Acting Class
The Value of First-Hand Incompetence: Learning to See Things from the Students' Point of View Once Again
Because we teachers are so used to walking into our classrooms as the smartest and most competent people there, and because we have all spent years working with the minutiae of our beloved disciplines, most of us, even those among us who are the most sensitive to our students' anxieties, have, I fear, an abysmally shallow understanding of what it really feels like for a student to walk into any of our classrooms knowing practically nothing about the content that we are so eager to teach them. Many teachers don't succeed in seeing things from their students' point of view nearly as clearly as they think they do.
I cannot tell you how educational it was to me...